City Arts Funding to Go On Hold for a Year

While new guidelines and requirements are developed, the city's cultural arts funding will be in a holding pattern for a year

John Christopher in the Rude Mechs' "Fixing Troilus & Cressida," a contemporary re-write, by Kirk Lynn, of one of Shakespeare's problem plays. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

An overly complicated and bureaucratic arts funding process, a sky-high a ratio of applicants to funded projects, and confusion over what the source of Austin’s cultural funding can or cannot be used for were just a few of the issues presented by a consultant in a special joint meeting of the Austin Arts Commission and the Art in Public Places Panel on Jan. 13.

Margie J. Reese of MJR Consultants presented the results from dozens of meetings, interviews, and listening sessions conducted in the last months with arts community members and cultural funding recipients.

The city hired Reese last year to review and evaluate its cultural funding program. The arts community erupted in 2018 when the Cultural Arts Division (CAD) staff proposed making major cuts to many longtime arts organizations and while also making significant increases to others.

Based on Reese’s report,  “Leading with a Racial Equity Lens in the Cultural Arts,” CAD will keep the cultural arts funding process in a holding pattern for a year while new guidelines and requirements are developed.

City of Austin cultural contracts are awarded in two-year cycles. New applications are accepted every other year and scored by a peer panel. In the interim year, funded projects must re-apply, but their scores are retained from the first year.

Applications due in May 2020 for FY21 would have gone through a new scoring process. But scores from the troubled funding process of 2018 will continue to determine FY 21 awards, and no new applicants may apply. Additionally, the TEMPO program of temporary public arts projects will be put on hiatus for FY20.

An arts commission sub-committee and CAD staff will start working next month to review interim year guidelines and requirements.

During tthe 2018 dustup, CAD staff maintained that the reductions reflected a combination of a drop in available monies and an increase in the number of new applications. In 2018, CAD received 427 applications and funded 421, or 98.5 percent of them.

Related read: Austin Arts Groups Angered As City Announces Cuts to Funding

After a widespread community outcry, the Arts Commission tapped a contingency fund and made cuts to other cultural arts programs in order to add about $1 million to the available money. In the end, funding cuts were limited to 11 percent over their previous year’s funding.

Related read: Arts Commission Approves New Cultural Funding Plan

With the arts fundraising review process defined in terms of the city’s racial equity goals, Reese said that there “needs to be a mind shift about arts funding in the city.”

“These are not grants from the city of Austin,” said Reese. “The city is not a private foundation. These are contracts, and contracts are competitively bid. The (cultural funding) application is a bid to provide services to city of Austin.”

“We also need to explore the issue of entitlement,” Reese said. She noted a funding expectation among some long-standing arts groups that believed “‘because we’ve always been funded we deserve to continue to be funded at the same level.’ But that expectation has to change.”

Reese also reported that there was much confusion in the arts community over the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT), the sole source of Austin’s city cultural funding. The specifics of whether HOT money can be used to support arts education needed to be clarified and communicated.

“We need to ask: What’s more important to the city’s cultural funding program, public participation or tourism?” said Reese.

CAD has scheduled a series of cultural funding review workshops:

  • Community Conversation & Workshop #1 | Normalizing Equity, Shaping a Vision Saturday | January 25 | 10am -12:30pm
  • Community Conversation & Workshop #2 | Organizing Equity, Shaping the Mission Saturday | February 29 | 10am -12:30pm
  • Community Conversation & Workshop #3 | Operationalizing Equity, Sharing strategies Saturday | March 28 | 10am -12:30pm

For a list of scheduled Arts Commission meetings in 2020, see

For the report “Leading with a Racial Equity Lens in the Cultural Arts,” see

Disclosure: Sightlines is a recipient of the city’s Cultural Arts core funding program.