A Night at The Opera: Artists Sing Out at Arts Commision

Like most everyone else at the Dougherty Arts Center (DAC) on Monday, June 7, I am ready to croon to the Austin Arts Commission that, despite the dedicated work of the Advisory Panel in my discipline, my arts organization wasn't appreciatedquite enough and therefore deserves more money. "Please increase my funding" is the chorus this evening as artists sing for their suppers, their marketing budgets, their administrative personnel budgets, their materials budgets. After the harrowing presentations to the Advisory Panels a few weeks ago, followed by the deliberations of the panels' allocations meeting, and a frustrating few minutes at the largely inaudible allocation meeting of the theatre panel -- ostensibly a public hearing, yet barely that -- I now await my turn as the artistic director of The Public Domain Theatre Company to plead our case to the Arts Commission in the hopes that this austere body will restore the company's funding to last year's level; perhaps the commissioners will understand our need for an increase in funding, even though the theatre panel seemed to overlook this salient part of our pitch for a lucrative Cultural Contract.

Of course, given the mystery of just how much cash the Cultural Contracts Funding program actually has to distribute to the myriad number of applicant arts groups this year, the alternative lyrics to tonight's chorus could be "Show me the money!" This rumored shortfall concerns me and most everyone else in the room who hopes for some increases over the amounts doled out by the various panels. The Public Domain, for example, requested $30,000 this year but was allocated only $13,000. Last year, we wound up with just over $20,000 after asking for $41,000, so the need to pick up at least some of the shortfall necessitates my appearance. City money is the financial foundation for so many arts groups; it represents (perhaps to the arts scene's detriment) the only guaranteed source of underwriting -- a well-worn fiscal security blanket.

With so much at stake, this annual meeting can bring out the worst of the local arts community and the best. It's such a simple part of the funding game, but no less nerve-wracking to players on all sides who have on occasion weathered a barrage of insults and insinuations. The official purpose of the meeting is to provide the arts community an extended opportunity to speak directly to the nine commissioners during "Citizen's Communications." Anyone who wishes to speak on any subject fills out a numbered form, sits in the room where the commission is meeting -- in this case, the DAC Theatre -- and when that person's number is called, he or she may address the commission for three minutes (no more). Most speakers are artists representing themselves or an arts group that feels shortchanged by the current state of the game. I fill out my sheet -- # 25 -- and enter the theatre to wait my turn. One by one the supplicants approach the commissioners who are seated (impassively?) across the apron of the stage and plead their cases.

Reel Women are up first. Mixed Arts applicants, they received just over $6,000 but want more. Their representative seems to lose her way as she speaks, never actually saying "please increase our funding" during the course of her rather rambling oratory. No easy thing, to stand in front of the commissioners and speak, with a full house of similarly disposed artists ready to take their turn.

Sam Coronado is next. The accomplished artist and Cultural Contracts veteran is rather deferential, almost subdued: He knows he has received a relatively hefty sum (over $27,000); still, it falls short of what he feels is needed to fully implement his program this year. One after another, a stream of polite, rather quiet artists speak up.

Nearly 50 speakers have signed up to state their cases, most of them playing the shortchanged angle. The evening is full of repetitious phrases: "We need the commission to restore our funding;" "Our organization provides an invaluable service to the community." Over and over again, artists worry aloud about having their level of funding cut (some quite drastically) and ask the commission to use its discretionary funds to bring them back to last year's level. Such complaints don't take into account occasional falls from grace -- not every group should expect to get the same level of funding year in and year out (although we all do).

But the commission has historically been disinclined to allow for large cuts in an organization's funding, especially if an organization has proven itself worthy in previous years. For example, a group like Sharir+Busamante Danceworks received a monstrously large cut, 55% of its allocation last year; Ballet East dropped 60% (Dance provided the most complainants, proportionately; Theatre the fewest). Some well-funded applicants feel they deserved more: There are those who seem to thrive at these sessions; righteous, defiant, personally affronted, their understanding of city funding straddles the thin line dividing inexact science from entitlement.

As my turn approaches, I consider what to say and how to say it. The Public Domain is in the middle of a sea change -- we have to relocate our theatre -- and I wish to assure the commission, whose support for PD has grown over the years, that we will be even more successful in locating, renovating, and opening a new theatre. I know many of the commissioners from years at the game, and I have only the one point to make, so I dispense with notes. A breezy, light reminder should do the trick (followed by a week's worth oftelephone reminders to individual commissioners!).

As luck would have it, Commission Chair Chelby King is calling speakers up in groups of three, smartly keeping the evening flowing. I get ready. Alex Alford is up first in my trio, pleading for the Austin Circle of Theatres. ACOT ranked second among Theatre applicants and was allocated $41,500. But this is $12,000 less than it got last year. An old hand at the game, Alford makes the commission laugh. This is bad for me, since I was hoping to do the same -- to snap the weary-looking nine's attention to me and my plight. After Alford sits, Tina Marsh steps up to plead for the Creative Opportunity Orchestra. Another seemingly well-funded group, this one from Music, CO2 received $27,000, but it too had its funding cut. Marsh is quick, a little brash, and -- argh! -- funny, too; another veteran at the process. Then, the worst thing possible as I wait my turn: In a wonderfully deep, jazzy voice, to the tune of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, Marsh sings! A ditty about the suspected lack of money: "Funding time, and the money is sliding/Down, down, down ..." She has everyone in the room up and applauding. Bravo!

King beckons me forward with the words that have killed innummerable vaudeville careers: "Well, Robi, you've got a hard act to follow." No kidding. No longer sure that I have anything useful to add, I say, "Hello, my name is Robi Polgar, and I am still the artistic director of The Public Domain Theatre Company, despite all efforts to the contrary." A little laugh from the commissioners and those in the house who know PD's current state. The rest is a blur. I sit down and note that I am not shaking as much as usual. (Those who have asked me why I don't act should watch me at one of these sessions.)

Leslie Pool says later how "it's too bad more artists don't use their art for their appeal." If I were a performance artist, I might have sprayed everyone with a hose. Pool is right, of course, when she says that, unfortunately, we all take the process too seriously. Artists, commissioners, panelists, staff -- everyone gets caught up in the desperate rush of money's quick fix. This program is never going to sustain artists, although it does go a long way toward keeping projects from going under. One wonders what will happen as more and more artists seek city funding at the same time that established companies are trying to grow as cultural institutions.

What does a group give up when it doesn't receive the hoped-for windfall? For years, on the initial Cultural Contract application appeared the question "If you do not receive the money you request, what changes will you have to make in your programming?" For the Public Domain, presently over $7,000 short of last year's amount, the answer is not immediately forthcoming. If we fall this far short of last year's funding level, it probably means not paying someone, most likely administrative staff. All applicants face the same question; some will cut back on the number or scale of projects, others will make cuts in personnel. The city funding program has been set up to assist as many groups as possible, but that means more mouths to feed with what little money there is. The alternative is to fund fewer groups but give those lucky few more money. But would you want to pick which artist or arts organization has to die in order for another to live because of a lack of city support?

In spite of the tinderbox rumor -- the possible lack of money -- tonight ranks as one of the most easygoing sessions in recent memory. Even the most disgruntled applicant says thank you at least once. Panel chairs make polite suggestions for process improvements (more on that in the final article in this series) and receive praise from the commissioners for their efforts. And imagine everyone's pleasant surprise when the meeting is as short as it is cordial: We're out around 9:00.

The big question hovering over the proceedings -- How much money is really available this year? -- may be one reason tonight's meeting was so subdued: Are we all afraid that just maybe there won't even be enough cash to bring everyone up to last year's levels, let alone reward the groups that have scored exceptionally well this year? Has this made us all just a little tentative?

Upstage, just behind the commissioners, sits a jolly little puppet theatre with the words "Hand to Mouth" written on its facade. Perhaps it is a reminder that, no matter the dissatisfaction of those speaking tonight, the Cultural Contracts program is attempting to avert this bleak situation for Austin's artists. Or perhaps it is a prophecy. -- Robi Polgar

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