Community Chest and Chance Rolled Into One

The Applicants

Lisa Fehrman
Lisa Fehrman

photograph by Bret Brookshire

A handful of artists applying for funding are being monitored as they make their way around the city funding game board. Regarding this second phase, applicants were asked about how they prepared for the review sessions and what criteria they believe they are being judged on.

Lisa Fehrman
Artistic Director, Stillpoint Dance
Discipline: Dance
Years funded: 4

Fehrman has played the city funding game from both sides of the board: serving three years on the Mixed Arts panel and applying for money for her company Stillpoint Dance for four years. She takes a levelheaded approach to the process since she understands that although an artist inevitably takes the scoring and allocation personally, most panelists do not see the process as personal. Rather, panelists generally feel that they are advocates for the artists. As a panelist, when she did not support a project, "It was my job to help [applicants] get better [for next year's application]." Little wonder, then, that panelists feel hurt when their judgment, let alone their motives, are called into question.

The most frustrating obstacle an applicant must face, according to Fehrman, is the differing degrees of familiarity that panelists have with the groups they assess. "You only have so much time to convey who you are, and [the panelists] don't really know who you are, and they may be making decisions on you based on their best judgment, but their best judgment isn't really very good. For instance, on the dance panel there are [six] members," two of whom spoke with Fehrman, "and none of them saw our work this year."

Continued growth and outreach are no guarantee that panelists will see a reason to increase or even maintain Stillpoint's most recent level of funding, but Fehrman keeps her positive outlook: "We've proven ourselves," she concludes, "but it's not personal. It's the same process when you're not funded that you hate, and the same process when you get a lot of money that you love. You're still the same person."



Jason Neulander
Jason Neulander

photograph by Bret Brookshire

Jason Neulander
Artistic Director, Salvage Vanguard Theater
Discipline: Theatre
Years funded: 4

In last year's funding cycle, Salvage Vanguard Theater received 100% of its request and a huge increase in city support: $4,500 to $20,000. In the eyes of the panelists, this adventurous company suddenly was fulfilling its mission and meeting the city's goals head-on.

Neulander attributes the increase to a greater clarification from the Arts Commission on how panelists are to judge applicants. Instead of being judged by their art or services rendered, Neulander says an arts organization is judged by its mission statement, how well it is fulfilling its mission, and how the mission matches with the city's goals. "A couple of years ago," Neulander says, "I was finding that the panelists weren't enjoying our work, even though our audiences were loving it. Then, the theatre panel was more conservative and felt that because Salvage Vanguard produced plays in a bar we couldn't possibly be legitimate theatre; hence, we couldn'tget legitimate funding. But when you're judging a mission, it doesn't matter. They can think whatever they want about what and where we're producing, but when it comes down to fulfilling the city's goals and fulfilling our mission, they have to be as objective as possible. And our work meets the city's goals."

Neulander may believe that it's the panelists' job to "assess who best fits the city's goals for the arts," but he unequivocally states that "it's up to the applicants to prove to the panel that they're meeting the city's goals. And they have to use every tool at their disposal." Neulander has certainly used every tool at his disposal in his bid to get $32,500 from Cultural Contracts this year.

To Neulander, the single most important tool is lobbying. Prior to the review session, he met with each theatre panelist one-on-one to give some personality to the impersonal application and "explain, in crystal-clear terms, where the money is going." He adds: "I believe strongly in the power of lobby. If you're trying to grow your funding, you have to go beyond the minimal requirements of the application process; you have to meet with the panelists. The presentation is the public part of the phase, but the important work is behind the scenes. It takes all the pressure off the presentation, like talking to a bunch of friends."



Chinwe Odeluga
Chinwe Odeluga

photograph by Bret Brookshire

Chinwe Odeluga
Individual artist integrating video and poetry
Discipline: Mixed Arts
Years funded: 0 (first-year applicant)

The last couple of weeks have been extremely long for Odeluga as she has had to sit on both sides of the process -- as a literature panelist and as an applicant applying to the Mixed Arts panel for her project -- Poetic Healings, a video that combines useful health information with poems written by lesbians of color.

"Because I'm new in town," begins Odeluga, "I felt I had to introduce myself to all the panelists." For the last month, she has been able to meet with eight of the 10 Mixed Arts panelists and has concentrated her efforts on keeping in touch with the panelist who was assigned to her (each applicant is assigned a "lead" panelist to ensure that some personal contact has been made before the review session). According to Odeluga, the lead panelist "can really fill in the gaps in the application when the panel is deliberating."

But Odeluga believes that "the burden of proof" is the applicant's job. "If the application is not clear, the big moment is the review session. The presentation helps give the panelists a clearer vision and helps them see how you plan to shape this project. It's in the presentation that the applicant needs to help the panelists envision the proposal."

As to whether she'll receive the funding she requested, Odeluga says: "I probably won't get the full $10,000 I applied for, but I think that because my proposal is very clear I'll get at least half that. I've taken advantage of the suggestions in the workshops the city offered and I even went to the Arts Commission meeting and lobbied the commission. I'm trying to give it as many chances as possible."

And will it be worth it if she gets only half her request? "The reason I've chosen to do this is because lesbians of colors are the most invisible and marginalized group. Our voices are not heard, so that's why I'm putting myself through all this." Of course, it'll be worth it.



THE PANELISTS

These individuals may play the most thankless of all roles in the game, but it is a role that wields tremendous influence. The panels make the initial allocation recommendations based on the applicant proposals. Invariably, an advisory panelist's work results in dissatisfaction from some contender and, almost as invariably, some recommendation made being ignored or contradicted by the arts commission. Perpetually caught between the artist applicants and the arts commissioners, an advisory panelist must be both thick-skinned and well-informed about the groups that he or she judges. That they volunteer their time to sit on these panels speaks to the commitment and sense of responsibility these individuals possess.

Lois Jebo
Dance Panelist, Panel Chair
Years on Panel: 5

"I see my job as being as informed as possible about the applicants," says Lois Jebo in her office at the Nonprofit Center. As executive director of that organization, Jebo is an expert on nonprofit structures and can speak eloquently about public funding. Jebo also began her career as a dancer (appearing with several New York companies before moving to Austin), so she brings to the role of Dance Panel chair both sensitivity for the art form and a rigorous understanding of the rules of the game.

Jebo takes the job of judging very seriously: "It's hard to judge from words on a page, especially in dance, so I make the effort to see as much as possible before the review session. And when I do see it, I need to be as open-minded as possible and look at all forms of dance and/or movement and understand what the artist is trying to say and to put that in the context of the greater dance community and see where it fits in."

Jebo acknowledges that subjectivity will always play some role in the Cultural Contracts scoring process: "We can't disconnect one part of
our brain from the other, so we
bring our background with us.
But as a panelist you have to give it your best effort to open your mind."

Jebo acknowledges that subjectivity will always play some role in the scoring process: "We can't disconnect one part of our brain from the other, so we bring our background with us. But as a panelist you have to give it your best effort to open your mind and look at the array of applicants and judge them against the stated mission. Beyond that, you need to score each individual artist in their own right, against their own mission. You're not going to score them against each other."

In scoring applicants, Jebo advises her panelists to read the city guidelines and devise a method that they feel comfortable with and understand clearly. She ardently refuses to devise a hard and fast formula for scoring "because if we have a formula, it's not going to be as rich an arts community. It will become a score-by-numbers system and will kill the thing we're trying to foster."

As for the review session, Jebo advises artists not to "come in and recap an application. I can read the application. I want them to tell me the most important thing they've achieved, what they think their greatest strength is, and what they bring to the community." Sound advice from one who knows.



Letty Chavarria
Music Panelist
Years on Panel: 1

Letty Chavarria plays piano and guitar and sings. She received a BA in music studies from UT San Antonio and in 1996 moved to Austin, where she became heavily involved in the music industry. But working full time, Chavarria missed out on many music events and felt left out of the arts scene. When she was approached about being a panelist, she thought it would be an ideal way to get back into it what was happening locally.

Music groups send panelists "invitations and updates on what they are doing, and that really interested me," says Chavarria. "I felt that this would gave me an avenue to become involved in music and also give something back to the community. If there is something I can do where I'm utilizing my expertise and at the same time benefiting other people, then I want to do it.

"I also thought this would be a good way to utilize the music school skills I have," Chavarria adds. "Because part of what we do when we go to concerts is fill out a form and I'm able to apply some of that knowledge, especially to technical aspects of the performance, like interpretation, intonation, stylistic quality."

Chavarria has seen a lot of musical performances lately, and she's also been busy conducting site visits/interviews with each applicant, sitting down with applicants one-on-one to clarify any questions she may have. "A big part of [this job] is looking at the grant amount and trying to make that jive with what the applicant asked for. Is it realistic? Is it overinflated? Is it not enough? Are they first-timers or have they done this before? What past successes have they had? And looking closely at the people running the grant, at résumés and what qualifications they have -- just really looking at every aspect of what they've applied for, that's what it boils down to."

This is Chavarrias' first year as a panelist, but she has yet to be daunted by the amount of work involved. "There are a lot of applications here, and of course you want everybody to end with a slice of the pie. Our job is to sit there and to divvy it up fairly among the applicants. I know it's going to be a lot of work, but I'm excited about it."



G'Ann Boyd
Theatre Panelist, Panel Chair

G'Ann Boyd has been in theatre all her life. She was born in California in the heyday of the Hollywood musicals and acted in theatre there. She taught theatre in college and eventually became the department head for theatre. When she retired, Boyd's son -- who lives in Austin and who at one time served on the Advisory Panel for theatre -- encouraged her to move to town and become involved in the local theatre scene. She did. Boyd has most recently directed The Steadfast Tin Soldier for Second Youth Repertory Theatre and will direct Teatro Humanidad's summer youth theatre group.

As chair of the Theatre Panel, Boyd has a vision of what she wants to accomplish: "I've done an awful lot of theatre and seen an awful lot of theatre, and I'm very excited about Austin theatre. It has such wonderful potential -- lots of different kinds of groups. I've seen Houston theatre focus on just a few groups, so I thought perhaps I could help in keeping the theatre here broad, making lots of different kinds of theatre available to Austin people."

The panelists see as much theatre in town as possible, especially theatre by those people who are applying for cultural contracts. Each panelist must interview four or five applicant groups, and Boyd and her panelists have certain criteria they use when reviewing the applicants. "We look for whether they do the best theatre that they set out to do," says Boyd. "If it's a community group, whether it's a quality performance for the community or if it's educational or bilingual. You look for what you think that group potentially could do [and] how close they are coming to it. The members of the panel all have different tastes and different backgrounds and criteria for what they think Austin would benefit from -- where it is wise to give Austin's money to this kind of group or that kind of group. Then we talk about it amongst us, and if there are six different opinions that come up, we kinda come to a middle conclusion."


Melissa Santos
Mixed Arts Panelist, Vice-Chair

Melissa Santos is an artist who works to instill the arts in area children. She works for Believe in Me!, an organization which takes hundreds of mainly at-risk kids and gives them a chance to perform some community-inspiring dance on the stage at Bass Concert Hall. Santos is also a dancer with Stillpoint Dance and has followed in the footsteps of Stillpoint Artistic Director Lisa Fehrman by serving on the Mixed Arts Panel .

Santos, now vice-chair of her panel, describes the panelists with a professional air: "We're supposed to be experts in our field, representatives of the artists. We find out details of their program and how their application measures up to the city's needs: Are they providing artistic value for the city?"

Because she is stretched between her day job and Stillpoint, Santos has found it hard to see many of the groups whose work she will judge. Still, she believes that applicants must share some of the blame here. "I didn't hear from some applicants until after they dropped off their applications." Suddenly, artists know the game is for real, "and I have 70 people calling me to come see their shows in one weekend," she jokes. But she understands how important it is to visit an artist in action. "If you don't see their final product, they don't get a fair shake."


THE CITY STAFF

The Cultural Contracts staff is on overload this year. With the large increase in the number of applicants, the staff has had to file more forms, make more copies, answer more phone calls, and deal with more headaches than ever before. Someone send them some aspirin.

Cecilia Cortez
Grants Administrator

Cecilia Cortez is enjoying this phase of the grants process; it's the calm before the storm. While the Contracts office was really busy earlier this year accepting applications and making sure they were meeting guidelines and in the right genre, this is one of their slow periods -- no locos in their office right now. "We're just getting the review sessions together, scheduling each artist for their 15 minutes, so we're really quiet right now," says Cortez. "We're kinda sitting back and everyone else is working hard. We're just figuring out little things, but it's not the craziness like when we get the proposals."

But once the review sessions are over, it's back to the grind. "We'll work really hard afterward," notes Cortez. "After the review sessions, we get really busy again. Everybody wants the scores and we have to tally them."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle