The Forest for the Trees

Local Arts Groups Are in Jeopardy Because the Austin Arts Commission Can't See the Big Picture

The Forest for the Trees
Photo By Bret Brookshire

It's never a good sign when a meeting begins with an argument about a clock. When people can't even get a good jump on the agenda without quibbling over something totally unrelated to the matter at hand, particularly something as trivial as the accuracy of the timepiece in the meeting room, there might as well be a flashing red light warning spectators to be prepared for undercurrents of tension, personal agendas, lengthy digressions, intense scrutiny of language and the implications of any action, repeated references to Robert's Rules of Order, windy defenses, and flaring tempers. In short, it will be long. And trying.

So it was when the Austin Arts Commission convened on Tuesday, May 30. The purpose of the meeting was simple: Deciding what to do about a new guideline in the city arts funding application that had inadvertently led Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks to be declared ineligible for a cultural contract. Here was a distinguished arts group that had received city support for 18 years suddenly being cut off from a potential source of tens of thousands of dollars, the loss of which could force the company to fold. The commissioners who drafted the guideline said they had not intended for the restriction on "vocational or academic sponsored projects" to affect Sharir + Bustamante. The matter seemed relatively straightforward. But before it could ever be addressed, Commission Chair Andrea Bryant and longtime Arts Commissioner Bruce Willenzik began sparring over the clock in the Parks and Recreation Department Building board room. He had asked to speak first and she wanted him to start. He wanted to give some of the affected parties more time to get into the room. She responded that the meeting was called for 6:30pm and she had started it on time, by the board room clock. But that clock is fast, he countered. And so it went.

The entire exchange may have lasted only a minute, but it was indeed a portent of the frayed nerves, drawn-out tangents, defensiveness, posturing, inflexibility, and protracted discussions of minor details that were to come. It took the eight members of the Arts Commission more than two contentious hours to come to some resolution on the issue, and a bizarre resolution it was: voting to amend the guideline they admitted was flawed but not to reopen the application process so that Sharir + Bustamante, the company most visibly affected by their error, could be considered for funding.

It was as if the commissioners -- or a majority of them, anyway -- were so focused on procedure and minutiae and the concerns of that moment that they couldn't see the larger issues surrounding them: the precedent they were setting; the impact of their decision on the survival of an arts company; the reputation of that company, not just locally but nationally and internationally; the history involved, both of Sharir + Bustamante and the commission itself; the interests of City Council, who might be forced to deal with the issue; potential conflicts with city policy and with the Cultural Contracts Program's own mission and goals. These broader concerns were either ignored by the commissioners or raised and dismissed. It was like watching a big cliché in action -- or a series of clichés: Their noses were so close to the canvas, they couldn't see the Big Picture. They were splitting hairs. They were being penny wise and pound foolish. They were cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. This year's arts funding process has been rife with controversies -- procedural inconsistencies in accepting applications, irregularities in the conduct of advisory panel members who rank the applicants and recommend funding levels to the commission, discrepancies in the panel rankings and funding recommendations -- and in every case, no matter how plain the problem and apparent the course of action (well, that common sense would dictate, anyway), the commission has responded in much the same way, fixating on the narrow and less significant aspects of the issue to the exclusion of larger considerations, spiraling off into extraneous topics, disregarding established policy and history, putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds, digging in its heels, barking up the wrong tree, ... um, you get the idea.

Now, the Arts Commission has never been a model of bureaucratic efficiency, and it has rarely discharged its duties without some outraged artist calling for the commissioners' heads on a pike. As far back as the early Eighties, commission meetings were ground zero for battles between the "majors" and the "minors," i.e., the city's established mainstream cultural institutions and its emerging companies and artists, with each side howling over the way the commission doled out public monies. By decade's end, this division had taken on racial overtones, as African-American and Latino groups fought for equitable funding with entrenched Anglo companies. The commission's inability to moderate these "art wars," as they're commonly known, did little for its credibility, although ultimately a peace was forged. So the city's arts funding process has traditionally been fraught with conflict, and the body that oversees that process has just as traditionally had a tough time mediating them.

But even in this historically contentious process, dogged by the kind of ingrained internecine warfare one might associate with the Balkans and overseen by a governing body that has seemed perpetually ill-suited to ameliorating it, this year is standing apart. By and large, the problems that have arisen have come not from the Cultural Contracts applicants trying to beat the system (or browbeat it into awarding them more money). They've sprung from within the system, from either the Arts Commission itself or the bodies it supervises. And though they've been clear-cut enough to make their resolution much simpler than the typical funding conundrums the commission deals with, the commissioners have allowed the problems to grow, to fester, to foster ill will throughout the cultural community, and to compromise the very process they are charged to manage. They have allowed their personal feelings about the arts scene and specific individuals, both in the arts community and in the arts funding process, to dictate public policy that is as short-sighted as any in this body's history. The Arts Commissioners have compounded the problems in a profoundly flawed public arts funding system and demonstrated just how poorly the Cultural Contracts process serves not only the artists of Austin but all the citizens of Austin.

Baby With the Bathwater

Once Bruce Willenzik finally got going at the May 30 Arts Commission meeting, he didn't stop for more than 20 minutes. He was clearly worked up over the treatment of Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks in the application guideline bungle and was intent on giving his colleagues on the commission and the Cultural Contracts staff an earful. His stump speech -- as forcefully delivered as it was strongly worded -- prompted Maxine Barkan, the only commissioner to match Willenzik's 12 years of service, to ask him to "lower the fire" on his rhetoric. But what Willenzik may have lacked in cool calmness, he made up for in substance. To his credit, the commissioner articulated both the blunders that had inflamed the situation since Sharir + Bustamante was notified of its ineligibility in mid-April and the larger issues still facing the commission.

The trigger for rejecting the company's application had been its status as "in residence" at UT-Austin, which Cultural Contracts staff interpreted as a violation of a new application guideline adopted by the Arts Commission the previous fall: "Cultural Contracts does not fund vocational or academic sponsored projects, including projects affiliated with academic classes and resident groups of schools, colleges, and universities." Although a real distinction exists between a "resident group" and a group "in residence" -- the former involving a more formal affiliation with or sponsorship by a host entity than the latter, which might involve the group doing nothing more than regularly using space on the host entity's property -- and in spite of Sharir + Bustamante's 18-year history of being funded by the city, Cultural Contracts staff rejected the application and informed the company by letter that "Cultural Contracts does not fund resident groups of universities."

But Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks shouldn't been have been affected by the guideline change, Willenzik argued. Wasn't the impetus for the guideline simply to stanch the flow of Cultural Contracts funding into the pockets of what had become an uncomfortable number of UT students seeking to bankroll their classroom film projects? "Can anyone produce notes that show that this subject came up, was discussed, was debated, and a recommendation was voted on to be passed to us? I haven't heard it. I think the discussion was, very simply, we did not want to continue to fund classroom [projects], particularly film projects. When that was brought forward, that was the understanding that I believe each and every commissioner had. Each and every one."

Representatives of Sharir + Bustamante sought out Arts Commissioners and Cultural Contracts staff to learn how their company -- and their company alone -- had been singled out for exclusion by this new policy, but they never quite got the full story. And the story they did get was inaccurate at times. "There was apparently a meeting," Willenzik continued, "and though I was not present, I was told -- of the Guidelines Committee at which time Cindy [Goldberger, Sharir + Bustamante executive director] was told that this had been in the guidelines for quite a while. But when she went home and looked at the last two years' guidelines, she did not find them. Then, suddenly there was a prohibition, a reason to come down on anyone who got state resources and city funding. Folks, how many applicants last year received state resources funds through the City of Austin Cultural Contracts office? Was it more than 50? Was it more than 100? Is that no problem, yet getting it through UT is?"

Apparently so, as the city staff and commissioners who met with Danceworks founder Yacov Sharir and Cindy Goldberger continued to fall back on the idea that the company's support from the state university constituted an irrevocable breach of funding eligibility. That caused problems for Council Member Jackie Goodman, who was brought into the fray in mid-May and wrote a diplomatic but piercing letter to the Commission on the matter -- a letter that Willenzik read aloud at the May 30 meeting. In it, she noted, "I believe we have several situations where currently funded artists and groups are considered to be resident through support of other entities in the City, and would have thought that was positive and helpful in sustaining the arts in Austin ... In other areas of City funding programs, we encourage applicants to find other resources through partnerships and collaborations beyond the City, and in some cases are virtually requiring it. This would seem to be the exact opposite philosophy in the amended eligibility criteria ... If the goal was as it now seems to be, it is at odds with the general policy direction that the City Council and Management have supported for several years now."

Willenzik charged on, making point after point by asking question after question of his fellow commissioners: Did staff do everything it could have to notify the affected parties that a guideline change that had been implemented? Did the Commission make a well-informed decision to put the resolution against resident groups in the guidelines in the first place? "Don't we as a commission, doesn't the Cultural Contracts Office have a program for state funding for the same pool of applicants that get city funding? Does anyone notice an irony in that besides just me?"

Near the end of his speech, he turned from queries to declarations, and pretty blunt ones, too. "Some people have said we shouldn't act on this," he said. "This should go to Council. Let Council act on this. Folks, they didn't make this rule. We did. We are appointed by Council to serve Council, not to hand them our dirty laundry ... We need to clean up our own mess."

The Letter of the Law

It's pretty hard to clean up a mess, however, when not everyone agrees there is a mess. For her part, Commissioner Barkan was willing to own up to a problem in the guideline controversy, telling her colleagues, "I think we can say whether or not we made a mistake, which I think we did. We thought we were doing one thing, and it had unintended consequences." But almost as if in counterpoint, the chair of the Guidelines Committee, Bobbie Enriquez, insisted, "There are no mistakes. There are just experiences from which we have to grow." Enriquez was less interested in resolving the issue than in defending her committee's work and intent and lashing back at the arts community for "attacking" the commission over this issue. Claiming that she "had to take a lot of trash," Enriquez said, "I thought coming over here, 'What is the best solution?' There is no best solution. We don't have any choices because it has become a political situation. What I'm going to struggle with now is working very hard at maintaining objectivity when it comes time for me to look at the allocations. Because it's going to be very difficult for a lot of us to put aside personal feelings when we are attacked the way we were attacked."

Commissioners Loretta Lewis and Eduardo Benavides took similar positions, laying blame for the controversy at the feet of the artists. Lewis framed her position in terms of "the rules," which one must live by to play the game. "Those who choose to ignore them," she said, making a veiled reference to the claim that Cindy Goldberger failed to read the new guideline before signing Sharir + Bustamante's application, must live with the results. And Benavides echoed her point of view with, "They did what they did, and that's the end of it." (Goldberger claims she did read the guidelines, "and it never occurred to me that there was a new restriction that would take S+BD out of the process.") Benavides concluded his initial comments with the advisory, "We must not start flailing about when we don't get our way."

That last remark takes on a certain ironic tint in light of the behavior of city staff and commission during the guidelines controversy. After all, there was that erroneous claim by Cultural Contracts staff that the restriction against vocational and academic sponsored projects was in place prior to the 2001-2002 funding cycle. And city staffers are on record in the April 16 meeting informing the Commission that Sharir + Bustamante is "supported by UT" and that it receives money and office space, which isn't true. (Yacov Sharir heads the dance program in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, and the company receives in-kind support from the university in the form of rehearsal and performance space, but it gets no financial support. And the company has officed off-campus at 3724 Jefferson, Ste. 201, for six years.) And at the May 30 meeting, when Commissioner Chelby King referred to Sharir + Bustamante's letterhead, which plainly says "in residence," to resolve the dispute about it being a resident company/company in residence, she is told insistently that the company calls itself the "resident company" of UT on everything else with its name on it, "and that's in black and white." This, in front of a disbelieving Cindy Goldberger, who tried unsuccessfully to protest that it wasn't true. (The company has used the term "in residence" on all its promotional material for years.) Vociferously passing out that kind of misinformation in defense of one's position has kind of a flailing quality to it.

Then there's the time spent by the commission and staff at the May 30 meeting trying to decide how to reopen the application process to all the "resident groups" in town if it decided to lift the restriction against said groups. Many minutes were lost speculating about how much time would be necessary to notify all the affected groups, as if legions of phantom companies had been excluded and would seek to reapply. No one -- not a Cultural Contracts staffer, not a member of the Arts Commission -- seemed to understand that this would involve a half-dozen academic institutions at most and a couple of companies. The impression that was left was that none of the people in charge of this situation had a real sense of the community, enough familiarity with it to know what kind of impact their decisions would make. It was the blind leading the blind, casting about wildly for some kind of action when they really couldn't see what they were doing. One could characterize that as flailing, too.

And the ship flailed on, for a couple of hours. Most of Willenzik's questions went unanswered. Most of the time was spent covering the same ground repeatedly or spinning off into side issues that ultimately proved irrelevant (as the discussion of reopening the applications process did) or making personal exhortations that sounded suspiciously like classroom lectures. (Even Barkan couldn't resist, solemnly instructing the 30 or so artists and arts activists in the audience to "read the guidelines.") By the time the final votes were taken and Sharir + Bustamante's fate sealed, it was probably not a surprise to most of the spectators. But it was no less a shame.

Did Cindy Goldberger make a mistake? Perhaps. But was she the only one? Not at all. Did the Arts Commission make a mistake? At least one, in passing a guideline that it didn't grasp the full ramifications of, but arguably more when it tried to defend its action. Did Cultural Contracts staff make mistakes? Yes. And the mistakes of one compounded the mistakes of the others. The simplest thing to do would have been for everyone to admit their mistakes, to reopen the process to allow Sharir + Bustamante to reapply, and to move on. But the Commission chose to hold Goldberger accountable for her error without holding itself or city staff accountable for theirs. And in doing so, it put the life of one of the city's finest dance troupes on the line. Will it stay there? Probably not. Enough council members are involved now that the company stands a good chance of being rescued by Council. At least some Arts Commissioners seem to be counting on that. But the fact remains that five of them were willing to sacrifice a company with 18 years of giving the city its money's worth in Cultural Contracts, all to preserve "the rules."

"It took six years from the time I got on this commission to build credibility with the citizens, with the arts groups, with the artists, and with the city council," Bruce Willenzik noted. "The last six years we've been fighting to maintain it. Today's vote is whether or not we get to keep it or we throw it away." There went the bathwater, and there went the baby. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 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  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

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