Arts Commission Approves New Cultural Funding Plan

The Arts Commission’s revised funding parameters limit cuts to individual groups to 11 percent over their last year’s funding

City of Austin Cultural Arts Funding 2008-2019.
City of Austin Cultural Arts Funding 2008-2019. Source: Cultural Arts Division, City of Austin

Note: This story has been updated to include the funding allocations list released Sept. 28.

At a protracted and at times tense meeting of the Austin Arts Commission last night, the commission voted to approve a revised funding matrix for the next round of city cultural arts grants.

The new allocation guidelines are meant to even out funding allocations after an initial list of recommendations released Sept. 14 left some longtime organizations losing up to 40 percent of their city funding, while other groups were recommended for increases as much as 1100 percent.

Now, after tapping into a contingency fund, and making cuts to other cultural arts programs, the Arts Commission added about $1 million to the available monies. Previously, there was a little over $11.4 million, now there is $12.4 million available for allocation.

The commission’s newly revised funding parameters also limit cuts to individual groups to 11 percent over their last year’s funding.

Programs reduced in funding this year at the Arts Commission’s recommendation include the Community Initiatives Program, which is aimed at smaller arts groups new to city funding, and the TEMPO of temporary public art.

Read: Arts Commission to Consider Using Reserve Fund to Make Up Shortfalls

When the first funding recommendations were released, the Cultural Arts Division (CAD) staff had explained that the reductions were the combination of a drop in the available monies this year plus an increase in the number of new applications.

Read: “Austin Arts Groups Angered As City Announces Cuts to Funding”

The city uses Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to fund its Cultural Arts Funding Program which this year is down, the city reports. The city received 427 applications this year, including 125 first-time applicants.

This year 421 applications to the city cultural funding program, or 98.5 percent of those received, were recommended for funding.

Like at last week’s arts commission meeting, artists and representatives of arts groups expressed their frustration with the city’s cultural arts funding program.

“I’m bewildered at how a tax revenue stream that has been escalating for years is suddenly in decline when there are new hotels constantly opening in downtown Austin,” said Don Dixon, a board member of Tapestry Dance Company.

Artist and former arts commissioner Jennifer Chenoweth called for increased transparency in the cultural arts funding program. “Who is accountable for the decisions being made?” she said. “Once you lose trust in a system you never get it back.”

Both commissioners and arts leaders have complained that CAD staff gave little notice of this year’s drop in funding until well into the process. The HOT funding shortage and the increase in applications were not revealed to the public by CAD staff until Sept. 17, a week before the funding recommendations were to go before city council for approval and just two weeks before the Oct. 1 start of the city’s fiscal year.

The arts commission’s presentation of its new funding matrix last night did not come until after a previously scheduled two-hour joint meeting of the Music Commission and Arts Commission.

No specific funding amounts were released at last night’s meeting, however. On Oct. 4, the city council is set to approve funding allocations for those organizations awarded $58,000 or more. Funding awards of less than $58,000 do not need city approval.

On Sept. 28, the Cultural Arts Division the list of funding recommendations.

Commissioner Felipe Garza picked up again on his criticism of established arts groups as he did at last week’s meeting.

“Every one of you here is getting $50,000 or more and none of the small groups are here tonight,” Garza said as commission chair Jaime Castillo was on the verge of calling the meeting to a close. “You guys have all the power and influence and you fund nothing but yourselves. You don’t represent your city.”

Several in the audience booed and walked out.

Disclosure: Sightlines is a first-time applicant to the city’s Cultural Arts core funding program.