Austin Arts Groups Angered As City Announces Cuts to Funding

A list released of the Cultural Arts Division's funding recommendations makes major cuts to many longtime arts organizations — and significant increases to others

Big Medium's gallery in East Austin. Big Medium is among the Austin arts groups whose city funding has been significantly reduced.

Arts groups in Austin are furious with the city’s Cultural Arts Division latest funding recommendations which propose major cuts to many longtime arts organizations — and significant increases to others.

With the city’s cultural funding awards going before city council Sept. 20 for approval, the cultural arts division yesterday sent a letter to applicants that included a funding recommendations list of 54 organizations that receive core funding above a city-defined benchmark of $58,000 — a list that includes Austin’s largest art organizations as well as many of its mid-size groups.

Among those seeing the biggest cut to its city funding is Big Medium, the organization behind the East Austin Studio Tour and the West Austin Studio Tour. Big Medium will see a 42 percent drop in its city funding and is this year recommended to receive $63,000 compared to the $109,900 it received last year.

“This is crippling,” said Shea Little executive director of Big Medium, who added that the organization would likely have to use its recently received Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to make up the difference. “The opportunity of the potential growth that the Bloomberg award would have provided us is now totally erased.”

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Austin Film Society, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Austin, the Contemporary Austin, the Long Center and Zach Theatre — each of which last year received more than $200,000 in city funding — stand to lose between 15 and 38 percent to their individual awards.

Austin Shakespeare’s funding was slashed by 42 percent and Tapestry Dance by 26 percent. Mexic-Arte Museum will see a 23 percent cut to its city funding, while theater collective Rude Mechanicals were reduced to $75,000, down 28 percent from last year’s $104,700.

However, several arts organizations have been recommended for substantial increases to their city funding. The Fusebox Festival will see its funding increase by more than 30 percent and this year is set to receive $147,000. The Museum of Human Achievement in East Austin will get more than double it did last year, or $39,300.

Arts education consultancy organization Mindpop will get a boost of 1,100 percent in its city funding. Last year Mindpop received $7,900; this year it will get $95,000.

Waller Creek Conservancy — which was not funded last year by the city’s Cultural Arts program — is recommended to receive $67,000. Earlier this year, the Austin city council voted to extend the Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, for Waller Creek. The new TIF extension will direct $110 million in projected tax revenues to the Waller Creek Conservancy.

A letter of action being circulated among major arts organization leaders calls the cuts “dramatic, unprecedented, and may result in the loss of jobs and arts engagements for many of Austin’s nonprofit arts organizations.”

The Arts Commission approved the funding recommendations at its July 11 meeting. The city has $11.4 million available for cultural arts funding this year, about $1 million less than last year.

Cultural Arts Division staff declined to take specific questions from media on the funding recommendations. In the letter sent by Cultural Arts Division manager Meghan Wells, she said that Hotel Occupancy Tax — from which the city funds its cultural arts program — had not increased and that there was an increase in the number of applicants this year.

City spokesperson Melissa Alvarado said that “cultural arts contracts will be discussed, negotiated and executed during the Austin City Council meeting on Sept. 20” and that details will only be discussed after that.”

The Cultural Arts Division uses a variety of “funding matrix variables” to determine how much each applicant receives. Applications are reviewed by a peer panel according to four criteria with economic and social equity impact weighted 40 percent; artistic excellence, 30 percent; administrative capability, 20 percent; and marketing/tourism promotion, 10 percent.

Late today, after news of the cuts circulated, Wells sent a second letter to all cultural contract applicants saying that the “since 2017, our applicant pool has grown 33%, bringing our total of cultural contracts close to 600, from 400 just two years ago.”

“While this has been a positive…  it also presents challenges to how ‘responsive’ the matrix can be in determining how funds are distributed. Balancing awards to a growing number of groups of all sizes, missions, years of experience, audiences, disciplines, budgets, and application scores with respect to consistency, equity, and inclusion — with HOT funding that has not grown in proportion to our applicant pool — is the trick.”

Wells said that “staff is working on bringing options to the Arts Commission and to City Council to consider in addressing these concerns for FY19” but that the Cultural Arts Dision was still dealing with fewer available funds in the coming year “due to higher administrative costs and no excess funds” rolled over as in previous years.

The agenda for an already-scheduled Arts Commission meeting on Sept. 17 was amended to take up discussion of the funding recommendations. That meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, 1165 Angelina St.

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

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