Many in the Austin arts community are pushing for a pause on changes to how the city funds its cultural groups.
At a Jan. 21 specially called meeting of the Austin arts commission, artists and arts leaders asked for more transparency about the process that the city’s Cultural Arts Division (CAD) took in developing the proposed funding program.
Two years ago, citing the need to meet the city’s new racial equity goals as well as to respond to complaints of a complex application and funding process, CAD hired MJR Consultants to review and evaluate the cultural funding process.
In mid-December, CAD unveiled a new funding program that prioritizes “individuals and organizations from the Black/African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA+ and Disability communities.” Also, in its current language, the new funding program calls for lowering the cap for all funding programs, prioritizes funding events over operational support and allows for-profit businesses to apply for city arts funding.
At the meeting, which extended three hours, more than 15 arts community representatives addressed the commission.
“I was shocked when the new funding program was released during the holiday season without any discussion of the consultant’s findings,” said Melissa Vogt, associate director of Vortex Theatre.
“This is not equitable,” said Mexic-Arte Museum Director Sylvia Orozco, who also served on arts commission-appointed committee on equity when the revision process began.
“We asked for the scope of work (of the consultant) and were met with hesitation from staff who said it did not have to be public since the budget (for the consultant) was less than $50,000,” Orozco said.
“Where’s the final report? Where’s the public meeting to explain the report? We recognize that equity must be at the front and center of (an arts funding program). But this proposal is not equitable. It will harm our communities and organizations of color.”
CAD staff addressed the criticism.
“We extended this review process a year beyond what we initially planned,” said division manager Meghan Wells, adding that her department would soon launch a website that will have answers to questions about the new funding program.
“Equity does not mean equality. But it does mean a reckoning (with) systems that have privileged some and not others. Just as we are re-imagining other systems in our city — public safety, housing, homelessness — we are through this process reimagining our cultural system.”
Like many cities, money for Austin’s municipal arts funding comes from the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) of which the arts receive 15% of the city’s allocation. With the travel industry’s pandemic-induced collapse, however, HOT fund coffers have plummeted, and are expected to remain low for the next several years.
Some on the arts commission also had questions about the process and the timing.
“We need to move forward on equity,” said arts commissioner Lulu Flores. “But we’re in the middle of this turbulence (from the pandemic) and yet we’re tying to understand how (this new system) work. Bringing change on top of trauma (to the arts community) worries me.”
“I want to make sure that the due diligence is done before I’m able to judge if these changes are what’s in best interest of fixing things. I’m all for equity, I know we need change, but I want to make sure we’re getting things right.”
Not everyone was opposed to proposed changes.
Shea Little, executive director of Big Medium, which produces the Austin Studio Tour, said that he endorsed the changes to the funding program.
“It’s time for the arts community to move on from our dependency on HOT funding. The voices speaking out tonight in opposition to the (new) plan are important members of the community and should be heard,” said Little. “But this restructuring is important for us to do.”
The next arts commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22. See austintexas.gov/content/arts-commission
Disclosure: Sightlines is a recipient of the city’s cultural arts funding program.