Though its budget is decimated by the pandemic, the city of Austin’s cultural funding program is suggesting a radical revamp of how and to whom it hands out money. And the proposed changes, which have recently been presented publicly, have many in the arts community up in arms.
Cultural Arts Division staff, citing the need to meet the city’s new racial equity goals, have unveiled new funding programs that prioritize “individuals and organizations from the Black/African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA+ and Disability communities,” the city documents read.
One of the new art programs, called Nexus, would give small grants of $5000 to individual artists and groups, and also prioritize those who have never before received arts funding. Another program, named Thrive, would make awards of $30,000 and $80,000 per year to 25 to 45 organizations for a two-year guided program that includes professional development. It too would support the city’s stated priorities in equity of “leading with a lens of racial equity.”
The new programs could be rolled out as soon as October.
Cultural Arts Division staff have based the new funding programs on data and reports from MJR Consultants, which it hired to review and evaluate the cultural funding process. However that data has never fully released to the public.
A third funding program that would conceivably support many longstanding arts organizations both large and small will likely not be implemented until 2024, cultural arts division staff have said, because of a lack of money.
Next year’s cultural arts funding budget — which comes from hotel taxes — is projected to be a little more than $3 million, or 75% less than $12 million the arts budget was before the pandemic, thanks to a decimated tourism industry.
The proposed funding scenario effectively leaves hundreds of longterm arts groups — from major players like The Contemporary Austin to highly respected medium-size stalwarts like the Rude Mechs and the Fusebox Festival — with no chance for city funding any time soon.
The city does have about $6 million in one-time relief funding from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that’s earmarked for the arts, though the cultural arts staff has not yet decided how it will be distributed.
Ahead of a four-hour arts commission meeting this week, several longtime arts leaders criticized the new programs, the timing of their release and the.
Sylvia Orozco, founder and executive director of Mexic-Arte Museum, which in the years before the pandemic received as much as $200,000 annually of operational support from the city, said the new programs were ill-conceived.
“It has been a hit or miss approach, with no data to support it, all with the intention to help BIPOC organizations, but it will harm us all more than help,” Orozco said.
Sally Jacques, artistic director of aerial dance company Blue Lapis Light, said that with the arts financially devastated due to the pandemic, it’s not the time for a total overhaul of the system.
“No more changes to the funding cycle should be considered for the next two years until the funding returns to pre-pandemic levels,” Jacques said. “Opening (city funding) to an entirely new group of artists when you cannot fund existing artists makes no sense.”
She also questioned the reasoning behind new funding priorities.
“I am a person of color who has been producing work in this community for over 30 years,” Jacques said. “Legacy, longevity and sustainability are not being considered in the proposed funding matrix which only considers race. And women are still not being considered as a funding priority.”
Jacques said that depending on city funding cuts, she’d have to reduce the contract dancers the company hires by up to 50%. Ditto the teaching artists which would also be reduced by half. Other jobs she would have to reduce or eliminate include technical riggers, costume designers, and marketing and administrative contractors.
Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division, said that staff was continuing with a series of guided discussions, virtual office hours and taking comments via an online comment box at https://bit.ly/CFComment
She said that the staff is beginning to assemble information they’ve gathered during the cultural funding review process to share with the public.
“We want to hear from the arts community,” Wells said. “But at the end of the day we have to be guided by our interpretation of how equity works within the city and how privilege works, and how we have to balance all the needs in the arts ecosystem with a paltry amount of money.”
“Decision making is tough and we want to be as responsive to the community concerns as we can be knowing that we have a lot to make up for in the next few years about how we fund the arts community to the fullest extent that we possibly can.”