How $50,000 Is Shaking Up Austin's Black Artists Buried Treasure

The $50,000 in unused funds lies in wait. Already ear-marked for the African-American arts community, it feels like an elusive miracle cure for any number of worthy Austin groups who are feeling the lack-of-funding crunch that reverberates throughout arts circles nationwide. One prominent local artist is making a concerted effort not only to receive those funds, but to stimulate conversation and coalition-building among African-American artists and arts organizations in the city. While rumors and innuendoes fly, the city remains vague. Meanwhile, resources more valuable than money are being discovered, created, and re-established.

The Background Boyd Vance, an actor, director, and producer with nearly 20 years of involvement in Austin arts, returned to town last year after a brief hiatus in San Francisco, and began resurrecting the Progressive Arts Collective, his vision of a comprehensive arts organization for Austin's African-Americans, something he claims has yet to exist.

In a city council meeting last year, Councilmember Eric Mitchell raised hackles by pointing out that only 2.8% of the city's cultural contracts were being awarded to African-American artists. Though some arts activists felt that this fact was simply the shallow end of a very deep problem, Mitchell's bid to boost funding was approved. The Black Arts Alliance (BAA), an organization set up 14 years ago to present touring acts and sponsor African-American artists for city cultural contracts, was awarded an additional $30,000 from the city's Bed Tax coffers, raising their contract from $20,000 to $50,000.

In December, 1995, however, the Black Arts Alliance had its contract funding placed on hold by the city manager after questions were raised about its failure to fulfill its mission statements.

The Official Position Jack Anderson, director of Cultural Affairs for the City Parks and Recreation Department, says there is no guarantee the $50,000 will even be offered this year, and if it is, the BAA is not necessarily out of the picture. A proposal to city council by the organization that "sufficiently reassured members of an emphasis on programming and a concrete restructuring" could bring them back into favor. Anderson states a personal preference for sticking to the full review process, which starts with artist application deadlines on March 15 for events to be held in the 1996-97 city funding year, which runs from fall to fall. "Though the disruption of services [if the $50,000 is not allocated now] is a concern," says Anderson, "the normal procedure is better reviewed and proposals are generally more thought-out when it is followed. The quality of services is also a major concern."

The Scene All this is building up to what Boyd Vance calls "a big ol' nigger fight -- if you know what I mean." If the city does decide to reallocate the Black Arts Alliance's funding, several different groups and individuals are ready to speak up for it. Vance, though, is speaking now, and with action. He has developed a multidisciplinary arts plan, designed to promote artistic development in the east and metropolitan Austin areas and has been shopping it around to city officials to persuade them to reallocate the BAA funding in his direction. Vance has tried repeatedly to contact Councilmember Mitchell, hoping to elicit his support. After submitting a copy of the plan to the councilmember's office and receiving no reply, Vance has stepped up the pressure in other areas. On February 12, Vance presented the plan to the Austin Arts Commission.

The Progressive Arts Collective's Comprehensive Arts Plan for 1996 includes six play productions, including one children's play; a dance festival; a jazz festival; a community picnic; three visual arts exhibitions; a video project; classes and seminars; a formal awards ceremony; and a continuation of the symposia focusing on education, networking, and conversation among artists that Pro Arts has already started. Pro Arts would co-produce some projects with other established organizations, such as Dance Umbrella, Live Oak Theatre, the American Federation of Musicians, and the Black Theatre Company. In its first funded year, Pro Arts would present an extended version of Black History Month programming in area elementary and middle schools and host anti-drug and violence events organized around rap and dance contests in high schools. Also, Pro Arts would attempt to reach beyond the black community to Latino and deaf artists through collaborations with local dance phenomenon Jimmy Turner and Teatro Libertad.

The plan itself is impressive, and Vance seems to have the contacts, energy, and respect within the arts and African-American communities to realize it. However, Vance faces a task much larger than planning a year's worth of events. The collapse of the Black Arts Alliance places African-American artists at a juncture where possibilities for all kinds of change exist. Some call this a power vacuum and see the rising voices of differing philosophies as an all-out battle. Some see it as a place for much-needed discussion among African-American artists who have been divided too often by the idea that there is only a certain amount of funding for them. Boyd Vance is currently straddling this line, hoping to find the true pot of gold under one foot or the other. On the one hand, Vance is a one-man show; on the other, he is responsible for a survey of African-American artists, for setting up symposia to bring African-American artists together for education and discussion, and for arranging regular meetings of African-American artists to discuss how they might work together not only on the $50,000 dilemma, but to alter the city's approach to funding arts programs for people of color.

What is strikingly obvious in the first few moments of investigation into Pro Arts is that it is at this point a collective in name alone. "Progressive Arts Collective is Boyd Vance," says Dewy Brooks, the organization's managing director. Vance himself has no qualms in admitting that "`collective' is just a word. It is my own personal vision with other people buying into it." Indeed, several Pro Arts projects are simply ones that Vance has arranged personally. His work with Teatro Libertad comes from his connection with that group's artistic director, Tomas Salas, and their collaboration involves Vance directing that company's production of a new script, Blade to the Heat. Pro Arts' plans for children's programming during Black History Month are not just plans; Vance is booked all day, every day during February, making presentations he has made in area schools for several years.

Seeking funding for established works and solid partnerships is hardly a crime; it is often the most successful way to deal with funding agencies (or city councils) which require proof that you can do what you say you want to do. It is the depth of Vance's involvement in each of the proposed projects that is the cause for concern: If he's stretched thin on time and energy, effective management of the overall group could suffer. Moreover, the current plan barely goes beyond Vance presenting projects run by Vance, and conflict of interest could easily hinder an objective presentation of other artists' works. Vance is aware of such concerns and says, "I'm trying to create a new pool of directors, 'cause I can't keep doing this all by myself." Yet he is not very complimentary about any artist in the African-American community with whom he is not working now, and some of his opinions are bluntly challenging. "Affirmative-action-type programs and such can do a disservice to people of color," he argues, "because non-profits create insular, small bureaucracies and there's not always any accountability." His solution to this seems to lean heavily toward a benevolent dictatorship. When asked to describe the structure of Pro Arts, he veers away from concrete discussion. Given his association with Dance Umbrella, which focuses on dance community development and presentation rather than curating or directing artists who use their services, he is asked if he intends to use that organization as a model. Vance declines: "I don't think that is what we want. I'll be honest with you: I have control issues myself. That's not what we're looking for."

Thus, Vance seems to be setting up Pro Arts with short-term rules that could effectively strangle his long-term dream. Dr. Joni Jones, a UT Speech professor and the keynote speaker at Pro Arts' first symposium for African-American theatre artists last November, believes there is little need for concern about Vance and Pro Arts' success: "I know there are other organizations out there," she says, "maybe some who have been around, who are hoping to get some of that money, but Boyd has a high enough profile with politicians and artists to be in a good position." Lisa Byrd, his colleague and co-director of Dance Umbrella, says, "I have the utmost respect for Boyd as a human being. He is not an administrator, and he doesn't pretend to be an administrator. He gets things done. If he were to get funded, we would have to build an organization around him."

Despite the aggressiveness of his efforts to fund his plan and his sometimes critical remarks of his peers, Vance is committing energy toward bringing artists together. After the last Arts Commission meeting, Vance began calling people to assemble for regular Thursday meetings. The structure is minimal, but a feeling of goodwill is building among participants. Harold McMillan, publisher of Austin Arts Downtown, says, "I have attended one meeting and had good conversation. I believe the greater value of all of this is in folks coming together and talking. $50,000 is not gonna save the world one way or the other." As managing director, Brooks treads a diplomatic line: "We're not trying to be trailblazers, not trying to upset any apple carts. We are not a threat to any other organization. We're just trying to provide an outlet for people of color."

These efforts have not been ignored by the powers-that-be. Maxine Barkan, Chair of the Arts Commission, wants to be "as encouraging as possible of any endeavor of that nature. We have a great need for an arts organization east of I-35." Anderson found Pro Arts' presentation at the Arts Commission meeting "very impressive in the extent of its programs," and she hopes that their plan will "encourage collaboration and cohesiveness that would be representative of the community." Perhaps the fight is not so big after all.

But even if it is, Vance isn't sure that should be cause for concern. "Maybe this is my own stuff," he says, "but I think it's kind of a white-bread mentality that is afraid to see black people fight. White people in the arts community are doing it all the time. Why does this make everybody so uncomfortable?"

The Upshot All this conversation is bringing to light some important ideas that should be considered by the entire Austin arts community. Rather than seeing this discussion as a titilating fight fit for TV or something distasteful from which to look away, Austin and the city council should see it as an opportunity to listen and learn. The rising voices urge us not to bury the leadership that is emerging under sensationalism. Lisa Byrd raises the point that Austin is still working with an outdated arts funding paradigm: "They're looking for a single showplace arts complex that people can get dressed up to go to. That doesn't work in this time." Harold McMillian draws attention to the problem of funding one big organization that is said to represent an entire population: "What happens is people end up feeling like they don't have to worry about Mexican-American programming or African-American programming, because we have a Mexic-Arte or a Black Arts Alliance." While these attitudes might lead one away from a comprehensive arts organization for the African-American community, Brooks explains the current situation as one that needs a group through which African-Americans can access the theatre. "It's a two-way street, with actors feeling that they won't get cast if they go downtown and of theaters only doing one black play a year. If you miss that chance, you have to wait a whole year to get it again. Pro-Arts wants to bring those two groups together." Questions and ideas of how arts funding should be organized are necessary. The nation is at a point where the past structures are disappearing, and none of us seem to know exactly what the shape of the future arts scene will look like. The African-American arts community is looking for its future, individually and collectively, and $50,000 is just the beginning. n

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