Bending the Rules

Playing the City's Cultural Contracts Game, Part Four

Nothing is more grueling than the final stage of a Monopoly game. Long hours have been logged watching fortunes rise and fall on the roll of the dice, and, finally, a clear front-runner has emerged. The players sit amidst the detritus of junk food wrappers, mechanically rolling the dice hoping just to get it over with as quickly as possible. But even this close to the end of the game, there are breaks in the inexorable winding down, moments when fortunes waver and maybe, just maybe, a reversal could take place. It's unpredictable moments like these that keep hope alive and keep players from flipping over the game board in utter frustration. As the City of Austin arts funding system -- formally known as the Cultural Contracts Program -- enters its ninth and final month for this year, its resemblance to a long-running game of Monopoly is most apparent. All the players in the Cultural Contracts game, from the applicant artists to the volunteer Advisory Panelists and Arts Commission members to the council members and their aides to the city staffs, are worn out and more than ready for the game to be over. And it almost is. Mario Garza, manager of the Cultural Contracts staff, says that all that's left "is for the City Council [to meet] and approve the budget for the Cultural Contracts Program, which will include all the allocations [to the applicants]." Of this year's 220 original applicants from six artistic disciplines -- music, visual arts, mixed arts, theatre, dance, and literature -- 186 expect funding from the city for fiscal year 1999-2000. But like one of those excruciatingly extended Monopoly games, this year's funding process had its late-stage moment when fortunes wavered and some players were unsure of its outcome.

The wrinkle in this year's game was a perceived shortfall of almost $250,000 in available arts funds from 1998 ($3,035,759). Since the source of city funding for the arts is 1% of the "bed tax" (the percentage of tax revenues collected from tourists' overnight stays in area hotels), it is subject to fluctuation. Early revenue forecasts suggested a quarter-million-dollar dip this year, so many applicants were steeling themselves for funding cuts as they made their way around the game board. But others believed that more money was available, hidden in the vast municipal accounting system that links the office of Cultural Contracts to the Parks and Recreation Department to the city manager's office to the office of Financial and Administrative Services. With new hotels springing up all over Austin as fast as they do on a Monopoly board, surely bed tax revenues would be higher and thus the city would have more funds to allocate for the arts. Or would it?

Until mid-August, no one seemed able to determine the actual amount of money available to distribute to Austin's hungry artists. With no certainty that they would have as much money to allocate as they'd had the year prior, the Advisory Panels had to resort to the dreaded funding cuts. Panel chairs such as G'Ann Boyd (Theatre) and Jim Bob McMillan (Mixed Arts) fretted to the Arts Commission about the situation: How could they reward established artists and encourage promising new ones when a lower revenue forecast forced them to lower their allocations? In some disciplines, the cuts made by the panels were harsh: Longstanding companies saw their city funding drop by as much as 40%; Creative Opportunity Orchestra, which had received $34,200 in 1998, was allocated just $26,000 this year, and Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks, which received $52,960 in 1998, was dropped to $30,233. (Later in the process, both groups had their funding levels restored almost completely.)

The Arts Commission sought to redress some of the cuts and restore funding levels to at least what they were in 1998. But in doing so, the body submitted to what has become an annual act of contortion that tries to combine generosity with the desire to maintain the status quo. The Arts Commission annually withholds 10% of the total appropriation for arts funding as contingency money to make up for shortfalls and right "grievous wrongs." With the uncertainty of the final funding pot for 1999, two plans emerged from the commission: "Plan A" worked with the conservative estimate of $2.8 million; "Plan B" allowed for a higher estimate of $3.048 million. According to Garza, 186 applicants would be funded under Plan A, 189 under Plan B.

Leslie Pool, Vice Chair of the nine-member, all-volunteer Arts Commission, says that Plan B ultimately won out. In the commission's August meeting, Pool reported that "as we suspected, there was more money than the staff had advised." Betty Dunkerley, director of the City's Financial and Administrative Services, confirmed this in a memorandum sent to council members that recommended "the amount for cultural contracts be raised from $2,811,674 to $3,048,586." Of the supposed shortfall, Pool remarks, "I think the original estimate didn't include the rollover from the previous year and that some estimates were targeted lower than they actually were. We're really seeing tremendous benefits off the bed tax." It's not all roses yet, though. Pool concludes, "Of course, the final amount rests with council to decide."

Pool's hesitation is more than a courteous deference to her superiors up the municipal funding chain. While the rules of a Monopoly game don't allow for multiple endings -- once the game is done, it's done -- the Cultural Contracts funding game has for several years allowed for a last gasp, pull-out-the-stops effort for those who feel they have yet to receive the proper level of funding: lobbying the City Council. In the past, various groups have used this tactic to their advantage, and now they strategically include in their game plan this direct approach to the hands that hold the pursestrings.

In effect, lobbying the City Council is a tacitly blessed end-run around the rules of the game, whereby an artist or group, feeling it deserves a higher level of funding, attempts to get it from the next level of authority. If the tacit blessing has not come from a particular player's admirers or supporters on the Arts Commission, a panel, or even the Cultural Contracts staff, then why not try their luck with the elected officials? After all, it's common knowledge that the council has contingency funds to spread around among various players (this year's total: $177,432). Sometimes it's sheer chutzpah on the part of an artist, sure that the council will redress a perceived wrong; sometimes there really is a need to address the reason for a group's cut in funding. Whatever the motivation for lobbying council, the Cultural Contracts Program is first and foremost a democratic process, and no one can fault a plucky artist for appealing to their elected officials. Or can they?

What began long ago as a small number of politically savvy groups and artists allying themselves with sympathetic council members has exploded into more than 30 groups intent on sniffing out extra loot and making their cases for additional funding this year. As the number of arts funding applicants seeking to lobby council members directly has become a crush, the council members have responded by having their aides meet as a panel to intercept these artists and groups, review their complaints, and make recommendations to the council members. But in just the last three years, the number of groups approaching the aides has tripled -- this year, more than one in six applicants tried to get a hearing at the aides' panel review session -- and the aides have taken a stand. This year, they threw the 30-odd potential lobbying groups back to the Arts Commission for a re-review. The message is clear: Council may vote to approve the budget, but when it comes to the arts, the buck stops with the Arts Commission.

So now, artists, panelists, staffers, arts commissioners, and council aides all wait for that final approval. In this final article in our four-part series on the Cultural Contracts Program, the Chronicle allows the players that we've tracked in the first three parts of the series (Vol. 18, Nos. 30, 39, & 42) to weigh in with their assessments of the game now concluding, and the series authors weigh in with their own assessment.

TALKING THE GAME

To give all the players an opportunity to speak directly about the process and to begin a conversation that we hope will carry out beyond these pages, four questions were put to participants. At this stage, many were worn down by the nine-month process and happy to air their frustrations, while others remained optimistic and hopeful that the process would continue to get better and better.

The Applicants

Sam Coronado

Independent Visual Artist

Discipline: Visual Art

Years Funded: 6

Amount requested: $31,000

Amount allocated*: $31,000

(*at press time)

Sam Coronado's Serie Project provides artists with valuable opportunities to create original prints, and, with the project's success, more artists want to participate. Now in its sixth year, the project still depends to a large degree on funding from Cultural Contracts, so when its funding was cut this year, Coronado appealed to the Arts Commission and eventually won back most of what he requested. Coronado's contract amount matches what he received last year, but he finds that those dollars don't go as far as they used to in the increasingly competitive market for fine art. Consequently, he has to struggle to make ends meet.

Thirty-one thousand dollars, says Cornado, "sounds like a lot of money. But what was fairly lucrative 10 years ago, now when we are trying to do 10, maybe 15 artists, and the time that goes into it, administrating it, producing it -- it eats away at that sum of money. There are so many parts that eat away at that chunk of money that we really need twice as much to do a good job."

What Coronado (along with the majority of artists) would like to change about Cultural Contracts is when the monies are released. Technically, funds are supposed to be available October 1, when the funding year begins, but after applying for the release of those funds and wading through the resultant red tape necessary to release those funds, some groups don't receive funds until as late as February for a project that started four months prior.

Then there is the issue of in-kind donations. "The in-kind hours we put in as part of the project, a lot of it we don't get back," complains the artist. "We're not allowed to claim that extra time that we have put in. Artists also put their time into it. They still have to take a week off from their work and put time into this project to make it happen. [The city doesn't] allow us [to count] that, either. The way they structure in-kind should reflect the actual time that the people involved in the project put into it."

Even though Coronado is constantly documenting how the contract money is used and spends time on an ongoing basis on Cultural Contract maintenance, he says he will definitely apply again. It's worth the frustrations and helps so many artists.

Lisa Fehrman

Artistic Director, Stillpoint Dance

Discipline: Dance

Years funded: 4

Amount requested: $34,128

Amount allocated*: $9,083

(*at press time)

Throughout the game, Fehrman has remained steadfastly supportive of the funding process, despite her repeated criticism of the program's emphasis on an applicant's artistic merit when it is so difficult to get funding evaluators to see even one performance by the applicant. This year's funding allocation for Stillpoint was lower than last year's by more than $3,000, even though the company had collapsed two of its programs -- one its season of dance performances, the other an arts advocacy program for all dance groups -- into this year's request for funding. When asked whether it has been worth her time and effort, she laughs with a hint of exasperation and says, "I'm, like, enough already." She is clearly ready for work to begin on the dance marley and not continue to amble down the corridors of finance.

When asked for the one thing she would like to change about the process, the choreographer and former Advisory Panelist sighs. "I don't know how to do it, but I wish the process had a little more respect -- that the artists were treated with more respect. Panelists should be advocates for the artists. Most people just don't feel good when they go through the process. It's not a positive experience. When I was on the [Mixed Arts] panel, I felt it was my job to be an advocate for the artists. I wish artists didn't feel pitted against one another in the process."

Will she participate again next year? "Yes, of course." When it comes to getting anything at all, Fehrman enthuses, "Ten thousand dollars -- hey, or whatever it is -- we're happy!"

Jason Neulander

Artistic Director, Salvage Vanguard Theater

Discipline: Theatre

Years funded: 4

Amount requested: $32,500

Amount allocated*: $24,000

(*as of press time)Austin Chronicle: Has it been worth your time and effort?

Jason Neulander: I don't know. It was exhausting, and we didn't get as much as we asked for.

AC: What has been the most successful aspect of the funding cycle?

JN: The nice thing about doing this is that I enjoy meeting new people, and when I meet them new things tend to happen. For example, one of the panelists I met works for the South Austin Rec Center, so we were able to get some kids from the Rec Center involved in our ArtReach Program, enabling us to introduce at-risk kids to our work.

AC: If you were able to change one thing about the process, what would it be?

JN: I wish the process were more demanding and more rigorous. A really good grant program fosters a healthy competition in which everybody needs to continue to meet certain criteria. In the City of Austin process, longevity plays a major role in the allocations regardless of the quality of work being done. The way the application functions is that it encourages mediocrity, because the groups that are getting the most funding don't have to try to get anything. The message that's being sent out is that it doesn't matter what you do, you're going to be funded at least what you were last year. That simply frustrates the new applicants and encourages the longstanding applicants to rest on their past. I would change the criteria of evaluation to ensure that the quality of the work being currently produced has more weight than how long a group has been applying for funding.

AC: Will you participate again next year?

JN: Yes.

Chinwe Odeluga

Individual artist integrating video and poetry

Discipline: Mixed Arts

Years funded: First-year applicant

Amount requested: $10,000

Amount allocated*: $3,900

(*as of press time)

Austin Chronicle: Has it been worth your time and effort?

Chinwe Odeluga: Oh, yes, it's been worth it. I consider it a learning experience, and I feel better equipped for next year. So, if nothing else, it's been worth it for that. And going through this process gave me a better starting point when completing other applications from other sources of funding.

AC: What has been the most successful aspect of the funding cycle?

CO: There's nothing that's shouting out to me, but I succeeded in not getting overwhelmed and staying with it. I felt my presentation to the panel was successful and gave life to what I was trying to do. Even though I can't point to a huge monetary indicator of success, I felt like I stayed in the game. And I got some personal satisfaction out of it.

AC: If you were able to change one thing about the process, what would it be?

CO: The main thing would be to divide all applicants by experience levels and years funded. So you could group together newcomers, those that had been applying from one to three years; mid-range applicants from three to six years; and long-term applicants who have been applying for six or more years. Then I think it wouldn't get so muddled. Since you have experienced people mixed in with new people, the process appears to be more about maintaining the established groups than encouraging new applicants. So, to even out the playing field and give people a clearer idea where they stand, I think new applicants should be separated from established people so the new applicants wouldn't get lost in the shuffle.

AC: Will you participate again next year?

CO: Oh yeah, I'll be there. I'm considering applying to another category, because it's rumored that next year a seventh panel will be added: a radio/television/film panel.

The Evaluators

Letty Chavarria

Music Panel

Years on Panel: 1 Even though the details of working out the budget sometimes got meticulous, music panelist Letty Chavarria felt it was worth going through to get funding to as many artists as possible. And she's ready to do it again next year but with one major change. "What I would like to see happen would be for there to be more funds available. That way, we could give money to all the groups. I would like to give more money to the arts in Austin because it's a very thriving art scene. Every year there are more people trying to get funded and there is not enough money."

Chavarria didn't have any serious issues with the funding process except for the lack of money. "I definitely think the process is fair -- it's just hard when you have x amount of applicants and y amount of money."

Lois Jebo

Dance Panel, Chair

Years on Panel: 5

Austin Chronicle: Has it been worth your time and effort?

Lois Jebo: I don't know that I've ever calculated how much time I put into it, and I'm not sure I want to know. [Laughs] I do believe that Austin is fortunate that the city has decided to put this much of a fiscal effort into getting money to artists, and it's worth my time to help serve this unique process.

AC: What has been the most successful aspect of the funding cycle?

LJ: It really does balance the little guys against the larger organizations. With this many people involved, there are going to be champions of the little groups and then there are going to be champions of the larger organizations. And it is through this layered process that we get the wonderful mix of art and the fair allocation process that we have. And I know some people will dispute that.

AC: If you were able to change one thing about the process, what would it be?

LJ: Because I'm coming at it from the perspective of a panelist, the thing I would change is the way we recruit and assign panelists. I'm hoping that we can actually set some criteria that are not so tough that we limit panel service, but do ensure that there is a good understanding about benchmarks for organizations and for quality of performance.

AC: Will you participate again next year?

LJ: Yes, I would be willing to serve again, should they call.

Chelby King

Arts Commission, Chair Arts Commissioner Chelby King saw her first year as Arts Commission Chair as a personal success more than anything else; the difficulties and frustrations she encountered were outweighed by the rewards of providing an important service to many local artists. Very limited in what she is able to do, King felt her duties were to make sure the whole process ran as smoothly as possible and provide advice wherever she saw it needed.

Still, being in the chair's position provided her with a different perspective of the whole process and brought some things glaringly to her attention. One of those glaring things was how applicants are scored. "Fifty percent of the applicant's score is based on artistic merit," explains King. "And that merit is supposed to be based on observation -- either their exhibit, their work, or their performance. However our applicant pool is increasing and our panelists are less able to visit the artists one-on-one or see the performance or exhibit. They are not able to judge that artistic merit, so there is an incongrousness within our applicant system."

Many times an application will have an entire panel indicate on a score sheet 'Not Applicable' because none of the panelists in that particular discipline were able to see the artist or the artist's work, which ends up hurting his standing in relation to the other artists. "You have other applicants that the panelists were able to see their work or the panelists saw their work in the past," says King. "So it hurts new applicants or applicants who are more in the margins and not in the mainstream. Most of the complaints that I had about that specific problem were from applicants who fit in the category of special populations.

"I put that to the guidelines committee and we have a problem with 50% of the score based on merit and the panelists not being able to go see the work. I don't have the solution, but we can't require this if the panelists aren't going out to observe. That's not right."

The City Staff

Cecilia Cortez

Grants Administrator

Grants administrator Cecilia Cortez enjoys her job and likes helping all the artists she comes into contact with. Things are never dull at the Cultural Contracts office -- there's always another artist to listen to or application that needs to be worked on. She plans on staying at her job for a while.

There was one thing though that Cortez would like to see the office improve on. "I would have liked the office to be able to do more outreach," says Cortez. "We tried and we had the workshops, but there were people that we were targeting to attend those workshops." Even though their workshops were well-attended, the office was hoping to attract more minority artists. Still, this year the office had the largest number of artists ever to apply: 220.

Suzie Harriman

Executive Assistant to

Council Member Beverly Griffith

Years involved: 3

In three short years, Suzie Harriman has become a veteran of the aides' roundtable review panel that intercepts lobbying artists and groups intent on asking the City Council for more money. She has seen the need to impanel the aides affect the process by doubling up the efforts of the original discipline-based review panels and the Arts Commission. Now there is this additional panel, the council aides, which makes recommendations of its own to the council members -- all this at a time when the billion-dollar city budget needs attention paid to other items.

This year, hungry artists sniffed out word that more money was available than first suspected, and the phones began to ring at City Hall. When the aides met last Thursday, it wasn't long before Harriman found herself agreeing with Jackie Goodman's aide, Richard Arellano -- himself in his second year on the unofficial panel -- who voiced the discontent felt by all the aides that the Arts Commission should deal with these lobbyists.

Harriman had done some research of her own. Sitting in on the appeals hearing the night before, she was amazed that "there was only one arts group [the Austin Visual Arts Association] that was making an appeal through proper channels [before attempting a last-ditch plea with the council aides]." Of many of the groups seeking additional funding, Harriman asked herself, "How does the city benefit" from an increase in their funding? The answer was not always forthcoming.

That was enough to change Harriman's mind about the "extra requesters" this year. "We're not doing this any more -- we've no intention of doing this again next year," sighs Harriman. In deciding to send the dissatisfied artists back to the Arts Commission, the council aides have perhaps begun to restore order to the chaos of last-minute lobbying -- by giving the Arts Commission the final say on arts funding.

REFLECTING ON THE GAME

For the last nine months, artists, advisory panelists, arts commissioners, and city employees from the office of Cultural Contracts to the council members themselves have played the city arts funding game. Artists applied for funding through the office of Cultural Contracts. Applications were reviewed by one of the six discipline-based panels, which made funding recommendations to the Arts Commission. The Arts Commission reviewed these allocations, made adjustments, and forwarded its revised recommendations to City Council for approval. Appeals were heard (receiving less money than you requested is not grounds for an appeal) and a Guidelines Committee was formed to review this year's process and make suggestions for improvements for next year. The game now appears to be winding to its inevitable end: the final, council-approved city budget. Some players are anticipating monetary gains, others are assessing possible damage to egos or their fiscal surety. All will gear up for next year's game during the upcoming off-season, which, it appears, will be shorter than usual. One of the most significant changes the Guidelines Committee will likely recommend for next year is that the annual process begin three months earlier: Applications will likely be due on January 15, 2000.

As the game for next year already begins to loom on the horizon, and while the Guidelines Committee, along with the Arts Commission and Cultural Contracts staff, explores ways to fine tune the process (such as changing the deadline), now is an opportune time for all participants to address some of the more difficult, wide-ranging issues that imperil the continued success of this arts funding program. Conflicts of interest among artists and city staffers alike; redundancy from stage to stage as each successive review body appears to override decisions of its predecessor; the mystery of just how much money is available before the process starts; adjusting artists' expectations for funding in what is, after all, a contract bidding process and not a greenback giveaway; the mission of the Cultural Contracts Program, which demands an often unwieldy equation that attempts to balance social merit against artistic merit -- all these areas could be addressed, before any of those shortfall alarm bells ring.

If there is a lesson to take from this year's game, perhaps it should come from the decision by council aides to send dissatisfied applicants back to the Arts Commission: Bending the rules eventually takes it toll on the arts funding process. Had the aides not acted as they did, the last-ditch lobbying of increases at the City Council level might have led to more disastrous results. As commissioner Pool notes, "It does put the commission into a tight spot when the council adds to our recommendations. Because [the Cultural Contracts program] is a systematic procedure, there are expectations of continuity of funding from year to year. So every year, there are higher expectations to meet." Recalling the Texas economic bust in the late 1980s, she cautions: "I don't know how elastic our system is and how long those expectations can be met. At some point, the council, the commission, and the arts community need to agree on how to decrease funding."

Decrease funding -- this should set the alarm bells ringing. The steady increases in funding over the boom years of the 1990s mirror the upward trajectory of the national stock market. At some point, things are going to level off, and where will expectant artists be when there really is a shortfall -- one that is much more severe than the $250,000 near-emergency of this year?

Stories of privilege and abuse are the stuff of post-game analysis, and while panelists often receive the bulk of complaints from artists during the off-season, all players note those golden few who get the City Council to up their allocation despite the accepted rules of the game. The Public Domain Theatre Company, which is helmed by Robi Polgar, one of the contributors to this article, was a lobbying success story from fiscal year 1999. After a $13,357 allocation from the theatre panel, the PD saw its allocation raised $2,500 by the Arts Commission, then by another $5,000 from the council for a total allocation of $20,857. When the company received an allocation of only $13,000 from the theatre panel for the upcoming fiscal year, it was clear that PD would have to use lobbying tactics first with the Arts Commission, then with council, if it was to be restored to the current year's funding level. When it looked like the Arts Commission's Plan A would hold sway, PD met with council aides to start the lobbying process. Fortunately, when Plan B carried the day, PD saw its allocation restored by the Arts Commission to the current year's funding level. The theatre company has since asked not to be considered for any extra funding by either council or commission. Still, this serves as an apt example of how lobbying council may work to a player's advantage but also ensnares players in one of the many conflicts of interest that both the process and our arts community continually struggle with.

The most notorious tale in this regard may still be that of the Black Arts Alliance. Although then-council member Eric Mitchell was not the first or the only council member to fund favored groups, he was one of the few who got seriously burned when he did so. With Mitchell's backing, the BAA had its allocation raised to $50,000, which prompted an audit (at the time, any group receiving $50,000 was automatically audited). The audit uncovered a history of misuse of city funds, which in turn shut down the group.

Lobbying presents groups with a chance for restoration or even increases in funding, but with such hefty, council-approved increases ought to come a higher fiscal responsibility. The game's rulemakers might consider a "go to jail" card for groups that cannot prove or sustain fiscal responsibility, even when they receive those council-backed dollars. Once a group can prove it is fiscally sound, it may return to the game.

Whether the Arts Commission chooses to establish that kind of responsibility for those who would lobby the council and have had that avenue blocked remains to be seen. Should the commission opt to increase funding to any or all of those groups might have negative repercussions for future funding cycles. But it is surely a sign of progress that certain rule-bending practices of past funding seasons may be a thing of the past.

Despite whatever shortcomings may exist in the funding game, however, Austin has proven its dedication to supporting the arts at every stage. From Cultural Contracts staff to City Council, artists to Arts Commission, all the players strive to make Austin a haven for the arts. The Cultural Contracts Program excels at promoting the city's cultural diversity by allowing all artists to compete for funding on equal terms. While sometimes frustrating, it is a democratic process for distributing city money that seeks to support as much art as possible. And even though the total amount of money is relatively small compared to the total city budget, the disproportionate amount of time and energy spent on the distribution of this money confirms that Austin understands how the arts provide that unquantifiable, vital connection, embracing all its citizens. end story

NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)