The Austin arts community is raising questions about the complete overhaul to the city’s cultural funding system proposed by city staff.
Staff with the city’s Cultural Arts Division (CAD) unveiled an entirely new funding system in mid-December that, among other changes, lowers the cap for all grant programs, drops organizational support in favor of supporting festivals and events, and allows for-profit businesses to apply for city arts monies.
The new system also places top priority on “proposals that directly enhance cultural experiences for tourists and convention delegates, including projects that highlight underrepresented histories and narratives.”
Ahead of a specially called Jan. 21 meeting of the Austin Arts Commission, the Austin Creative Alliance, an arts service organization, collected a list of 70 questions from the cultural community. (The Arts Commission meeting will be broadcast live at 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at austintexas.gov/page/watch-atxn-live)
Separately, a group of more than 30 arts organizations including Mexic-Arte Museum, Teatro Vivo, Esquina Tango and Austin Dance India have signed a statement asking that CAD put any changes to the funding system on pause.
“This is a huge change in the midst of a pandemic when any earned revenue (in the arts) has cratered, and everyone is financially stressed,” said John Riedie, Austin Creative Alliance executive director. “We’re really concerned that any proposed changes will affect jobs in the arts sector.”
“We need to take the time and look at the data to understand how any changes to the funding system will impact everybody,” said Riedie. He noted that a lack of transparency on how data collected during the consultant-led review of the funding process that was applied to the proposed changes.
In 2019, CAD hired Wichita Falls-based Margie J. Reese of MJR Consultants to review and evaluate the cultural funding process, citing the need to meet city’s new racial equity goals as well as to respond to complaints of an overly burdensome bureaucratic process. Dozens of meetings, interviews, and listening sessions were conducted with arts community stakeholders.
Others echoed the call for transparency. “We all sat through hours of meetings and discussions, and I see no trace of any that in this new plan,” said Chris Cowden, executive director of Women & Their Work. “There’s a complete lack of transparency. We’ve never seen a report from the consultant on what all those meetings found.”
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. But with the travel industry’s pandemic-induced collapse, HOT fund coffers have plummeted and are expected to remain low for the near future.
“We all knew that HOT tax funds would be slashed because so few people have been traveling to Austin,” said Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of Austin Shakespeare, who is among those calling for a pause to changes. “But this new arts funding proposal is ill-conceived and ill-timed.”
“I was also deeply concerned that even in the last round of applications, artistic merit dropped to less than half of the evaluation’s total score,” said Ciccolella. “That tells artists that the (city of Austin’s) process doesn’t really care about art.”
Meanwhile, dozens if not hundreds of Austin arts groups have yet to receive their city funding for the current fiscal year — a delay critical to cultural non-profits already stressed by the pandemic.
Cowden said that half of the projects sponsored by Women & Their Work are still awaiting final funding payments from last fiscal year.
Disclosure: Sightlines is a recipient of the city’s cultural arts funding program.