At a recent special work session, Austin city council members raised questions about the changes proposed by staff to the city’s cultural arts funding process.
Earlier this year, the Cultural Arts Division (CAD) staff, citing the need to meet the city’s new racial equity goals, unveiled new funding programs that “lead with a lens of racial equity.” With the city’s arts budget decimated by the pandemic, the new funding rubric would leave many longtime arts organizations with no city support.
Council members pressed the CAD staff on several points, questioning the timing of revamping funding protocols given that every arts and performance group is hobbled by the pandemic. They also demanded more data from a consultant’s report that supposedly supports a complete overhaul of the Austin arts funding system.
Council member Vanessa Fuentes, who requested the work session, said the question wasn’t if there’s a need for a more racially and culturally equitable arts funding process, but whether the timing was right for the staff’s specifically proposed plan.
“Why do we need to this (funding) model at this point, given the pandemic?” Fuentes asked.
“We need to insure we’re not leaving behind (arts groups) that have a history in Austin, including legacy organizations that are lead by communities of color, and that are a part of the fabric of what makes Austin Austin.”
CAD staff answered the questions offering little in the way of specifics.
“We felt it is time to shift to this model as soon as we have the opportunity and we think that time is now,” said Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division.
Fuentes also pointed out that an interim report produced by Dallas-based MJR Consultants, who received $45,000 to evaluate the cultural funding process, has also failed to provide sufficient data and information. CAD staff has said that it has based its remake of the arts funding on MJR’s study.
Fuentes said nothing received from staff has so far shown “the actual data from the (consultant’s) process.”
“The concerns coming from the community are that we are about to implement new (arts funding) guidelines from data that hasn’t been made) transparent,” Fuentes said.
She asked that a complete copy of community feedback collected during the process conducted by MJR Consultant.
Council member Ann Kitchen also noted the impact the funding changes would have on legacy arts institutions.
“We really need to understand the impact of this transition and I’m not seeing the data,” Kitchen said. “I need to understand the impact on our legacy organizations. Many of them are led by women and are part of the historic fabric of our community. I don’t think (this process) is complete if we don’t have a transition plan.”
“Who are we impacting and by how much and what is your plan for addressing that during the transition?” she asked CAD staff.
Council member Leslie Pool said she would not endorse the staff’s proposed plan.
“I am not prepared to accept these recommendations or to move forward with any of the actions the staff has teed up,” she said. “We need to be very cognizant of any changes to our arts community. We know they are struggling now.”
She questioned the new guidelines prioritized the racial and cultural make-up of art organization boards and leadership over the artists supported by an organization or the communities and audiences who are served.
“What I’m hearing is that the staff recommended (guidelines) are more focused on (an organization’s) board make-up,” she said. “Did you also look at the audiences and reach in the community? In the long history of cultural contracts in (Austin) the (standard criteria) has been on the communities reached and audiences served. I would like to urge that that be taken into larger account.”
Pool also questioned the staff’s 2018 funding decisions when 98.5% of all applicants were awarded cultural contracts, as an example of how staff has mishandled funding decisions in the past. She said that while supporting emerging organizations with city money is a great concept, she wanted staff to produce data-driven evaluations of the impact of that funding.
“Which of those arts groups are succeeding?” Pool asked. “At some point there needs to be some assessment. I thought that’s what the (arts commission and staff) did.”
Mayor Steve Adler said that new arts funding guidelines will need to come back to city council for approval.
The council members also urged CAD staff to move swiftly to distribute the $6 million in one-time relief funding from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) apportionment ear-marked for the arts.
“We made a commitment as a council with the resolution that we passed earlier this summer that called for the allocation of our ARPA funds as quickly as possible, acknowledging the need we have in the arts community,” said Fuentes.
“I’d like that to be the priority for staff.”