A Day at The Races.... One Hour at the Mixed Arts Panel Review Session

Jim Bob McMillan, chair of the Mixed Arts panel, carries folding chairs into the meeting room in the Dove Springs Multipurpose Center, located a few miles east of I-35 off Stassney. Each year, the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the Cultural Contracts Program, picks a different venue for the review sessions; to the players, it must feel that each year sees them heading further and further afield.

McMillan is a veteran of city funding. Besides volunteering for the Mixed Arts Panel for four years and chairing it for three, he has been empaneled for the Texas Commission on the Arts and has sat on arts panels in other cities. He is also the executive director of the Austin Writers' League, longtime players in the funding game, so he knows the action from both sides of the board. In fact, not 10 minutes into the first Mixed Arts applicant's presentation, he will leave the room to find the Literature Panel in order to make the Writers' League presentation. That will leave only two panelists for the Mixed Arts review: Juan A. Ochoa and Judy Cortez. But McMillan will return in time for the day's third applicant.

The Mixed Arts Panel is undergoing a bit of a rebirth, following last year's near disastrous outing. A six-person panel yielded only three panelists who could make it to the presentations in 1998, and with different panelists being called away for matters elsewhere, there were times when only one panelist heard the presentations bythe many groups that were requesting funds. This year, however, the Mixed Arts Panel boasts 10 members, although only three are present when the review session starts. Fortunately, in a matter of minutes, latecomers Dana McBride and Melissa Santos join the group, and word comes that two more panelists may arrive after lunch.

Does this make an applicant uncomfortable as to the degree of interest and attention he or she receives from the panel? Sure it does. How can a panel accurately assess the application in full if each panelist has a different amount of information and experience with a group? Alas, this is always to be the case: Panelists are late, some applicants communicate more efficiently than others with their panelists, panelists cannot attend events by all applicants, and so on. At least this year's Mixed Arts panel fields up to six panelists -- a marked improvement on last year. Santos jokes that next year they should try to recruit 20 panelists, for an even better showing.

Also present in the room is Mario Garza, director of the Cultural Contracts Program. He and his staff sit in on the various review sessions, fielding questions that arise concerning protocol, rules, and other aspects of scoring the applicants. For instance, a new form has been developed to score service organizations. It is up to Garza to ensure it gets used when required. Garza also times the various parts of the presentation to keep the panel on, or close to, schedule.

After loading in the chairs and waiting for late-arriving panelists, McMillan notes that he's going to try to stick to the schedule as closely as possible, "and we're already behind." He decides to start with just Ochoa, Cortez, and himself. The first applicant is Access Austin Arts, an arts service organization that provides advocacy for arts patrons with disabilities and interpretation of arts events for the hearing- and visually impaired. Celia Hughes is acting as executive director of the organization. She is no stranger to the funding process, having spent several years on the Theatre Panel, as well as working for other groups that have applied to Cultural Contracts. Many of the players in the game know each other -- the opportunities for a conflict of interest are rife, although Cultural Contracts staff generally succeeds in preventing potential conflicts from occurring and panelists are expected to excuse themselves if they sense they have a conflict.

To give an idea of the tangled web of conflicts among applicants, panelists, and staff: I am here as the artistic director of The Public Domain, a theatre company which is sponsoring TIPS on Art, the second applicant to be heard. Access Austin Arts, the first group, was a sponsored project of The Public Domain last year (with TIPS on ART and Stillpoint Dance). I hang around for Artists' Legal and Accounting Assistance of Austin (ALAA), a service organization whose executive director is my wife Michelle, who is not present today because she has just given birth to our second daughter, Kaitlin. Within this first hour, I'm introduced by Garza as a Chronicle writer, father of Kaitlin, and PD Artistic Director. Melissa Santos, a company member of Stillpoint Dance, sits on the panel; I know her because she has performed at The Public Domain with Stillpoint. The connections between this writer and the various players are many and complex -- and I'm not even applying for funding from this panel! The situation will be even more complicated when The Public Domain has its funding review at the Theatre Panel Saturday. And I'm not unique. My connections and potential conflicts among the Mixed Arts players are repeated by any number of players across the board because Austin's artistic family is not all that big; we're bound to work together as well as compete with each other for funding. All of which makes the apparently simple process of application, review, and allocation a convoluted, conflicted game.

After ALAA has made its presentation Garza reminds everyone that they need to use the new "service organization" scoring form. Oops, but the panel should have used that form for Access Austin Arts, too. Ah, well, this is an evolving process, and recent innovations such as new forms will always throw panels off stride for a little while before they right the error and move on to the next applicant.

Once underway, things take on a particular bureaucratic rhythm -- not quite 1984, but there is an eerie similarity in the panelists' praises and concerns. After only four groups, the panelists' remarks in support of a project sound as familiar as artists' reasons for requesting funding: "I think it's very valuable," is one comment that could come from either side of the table. "It's a great project, much needed," and "It's a very good project" are supportive sounds from panelists to hopeful applicants. Whether this translates into substantial funding remains to be seen. "It will improve Austin's recognition and encourage independent filmmaking," offers one hopeful, young filmmaker in defense of his application. The panel responds with enthusiastic words, so expect more independent filmmakers at next year's Mixed Arts panel.

The artists mirror the smiling and optimistic panelists, though a bit more nervously. Cheerful on the outside, inwardly they are praying for that Community Chest card that saves the season. The Mixed Arts panelists aren't tossing softballs, but none of their questions are especially probing. The most difficult is dealt with during their private discussion time: Does an applicant on the outskirts of the city count as operating within the city? "They are within five miles of the ETJ [Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction line]," judges Garza, so they're in. Ah, but page seven of their application has unaccountably gone missing! No matter, the copy machine in the room is turned on, and Garza makes all well once more.

Even with the strict timing (Garza is a deft hand on the electric stopwatch), the missing panelists, the incomplete applications, and McMillan's mantra, "We're falling behind," the panel gets the job done. By the time the sun sets, there is not much that the panel won't have heard at least a dozen times, leaving them to sort it out in the upcoming weeks to render their monetary judgments. -- R.P.

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