The Tail Wags the Dog

Paul Beutel addresses the Arts Commission at the June 18 public hearing.. Commissioners (l-r): Chelby King, Maxine Barkan, Commission chair Andrea Bryant, Deana Hendrix, Loretta Lewis, Bobbi Enriquez, and Bruce Willenzik<br>
photo courtesy of Full Circle Productions
Paul Beutel addresses the Arts Commission at the June 18 public hearing.. Commissioners (l-r): Chelby King, Maxine Barkan, Commission chair Andrea Bryant, Deana Hendrix, Loretta Lewis, Bobbi Enriquez, and Bruce Willenzik
photo courtesy of Full Circle Productions

One measure of how well the Cultural Contracts Program has been managed in a given year is the length of the public hearing that follows the initial recommendations for funding to the Arts Commission. If applicants tend to feel they've been treated fairly by the advisory panels that review and score their applications, rank them with the other applicants in their discipline, and evaluate their requests for funding, they feel less of a need to plead their case to the commission and the hearing is shorter. If, however, applicants feel that a panel has played fast and loose with the process, that it has short-shrifted, shafted, or otherwise disrespected them, they turn out in force to vent, and the hearing stretches deep into the night. Two years ago, when Robi Polgar covered the public hearing for the 1999-2000 funding cycle as part of a Chronicle series on the Cultural Contracts process ("A Night at the Opera: Artists Sing Out at the Arts Commission," May 18, 1999), he reported the meeting as being short and cordial: It ran no more than two and a half hours, ending "around 9:00." By contrast, the hearing for the 2001-02 cycle, held on June 18, clocked in at just under five hours -- and it would have been even longer had all the 95 people who signed up to speak stuck around to address the commission.

What caused the commotion this year? Well, some of it was prompted by the same old fundamental problems with the process that go unaddressed from year to year and so get worse and worse, such as having established institutions with annual budgets in the millions and fledgling companies requesting a thousand bucks for a single project apply side by side in the same disciplines. The demands and needs of groups on such different scales, not to mention the kind of art each produces, make it very tough to evaluate the two by common standards; you might as well be comparing apples and orangutans.

Complicating the matter is the tendency of the system to favor the smaller applicants, even though the larger ones may "serve" a much greater number of Austinites. So cultural organizations such as the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA), Austin Symphony, Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and the Austin Theatre Alliance, all of which have grown substantially in the past five years and are doing more challenging work, winning more acclaim, and reaching more people, have typically seen little growth in their funding from the city, despite a hefty increase in the Cultural Contracts Fund over the same period (from $2.28 million in 1996-97 to $3.5 million in 2000-01).

In effect, these larger groups are being punished for their success. The chopped logic of the process seems to be, as Austin Theatre Alliance CEO Dan Fallon suggested at the hearing, that when you're big enough, you ought to be able to find the money elsewhere. That might be nice in theory, but it rarely works in practice, especially when you're talking operating funds in the six-figure range for an arts organization. They may cough up a few million to build a building with their name on it, but they're loath to deliver 30 grand to pay staff salaries or the electric bill. This year, the panels added injury to the usual insult by hitting most of the larger institutions with double-digit cuts upward of 20%. In most cases, that was $20,000-$30,000, and that brought out the administrators, most of whom didn't come to beg for an increase so much as decry the system.

Fallon's colleague Paul Beutel was direct: "We have a deeply flawed process here. A lot of very bright people have been spending an incredible amount of time working with a structure that, in my 16 years of observing this show, has not gotten any better and in some cases has gotten worse. Major institutions like the Austin Theatre Alliance, Austin Musical Theatre, and Zachary Scott should not be measured against smaller theatre companies. We should be measured against the symphony, the opera, the ballet, AMOA -- organizations whose size, budget, and complexity are similar to our own. You simply cannot measure a $6 million organization that does almost 700 performances a year against organizations with one-twentieth that budget that produce three to four events per year, no matter how excellent those events may be, and a lot of them are outstanding. Austin is in the process of becoming a big city, but like it or not, one measure of a big city is how well it supports major cultural institutions. We need to return to the system whereby major institutions are judged against each other and valued for what they have brought and continue to bring to the community and not positioned as the big guys who really don't need this support and siphon off funds from emerging groups. Without healthy institutions, you do not have a healthy arts community."

But the complaints registered by Beutel and his compatriots were hardly the most outraged at this year's hearing. Those came from the applicants in the mixed arts category and their allies, who saw the process subverted by a panel that was undermanned and overtaken by one opinionated panelist. Cultural Contracts guidelines indicate that advisory panels should consist of four to 10 members each, so that a more balanced result is achieved when the varying scores that panelists assign to each applicant are averaged. This year, however, the Mixed Arts Panel was allowed to review applications, rank applicants, and submit funding allocations with only three panelists, and the results showed the dangers inherent in proceeding with such a small number. One panelist apparently had very strong negative views about certain established applicants and rated them very low, which threw off the curve, so to speak, on their averaged scores. No matter how high the scores of the other two panelists may have been, the final average of the three came out low. Just add 90, 90, and 50, then divide by 3, and see what you get. When the panel's rankings were announced, several honored and worthy applicants found themselves far down the panel ladder: Out of 33 applicants, Texas Folklife Resources was ranked 15th, Harold McMillan and Diverse Arts were ranked 18th, Women & Their Work was ranked 19th, site-specific dance artist Sally Jacques was ranked 24th, and the Austin Children's Museum was ranked 30th. When one member of a panel is allowed to skew the process this way, well, then the tail is wagging the dog.

As the various applicants took the floor at the hearing, disturbing details of the process came to light. Only one of the three panelists had even seen Sally Jacques' work. Artists deserve respect, said Jacques, and panelists "have an obligation to inform themselves about who we are." Pat Jasper of Texas Folklife Resources had to file an appeal based on a panelist's "adversarial exchange" with her. Women & Their Work received "no substantive negative feedback," yet they ended up halfway down the rankings. McMillan says he received "very positive feedback" and was asked no questions by the panelists after he made his presentation to them, yet he was ranked as if there was some problem. "The scores indicate there was a problem but there were no comments on the score sheet," he told the commission. Apparently, none of the applicants received comments from the panel that would explain their rankings. Jasper put it simply: "There was a process. It wasn't followed. There was a protocol. It wasn't followed." Gwen Crider of the Children's Museum pleaded for reform: "There is something radically wrong with the process when an organization that serves 200,000 people per year is third from the bottom ... Please review the process. I don't think it serves the city well. The process has to be fixed."

Though the mixed arts applicants and their allies made a strong case for irregularities in the process that might have led to the panel's rankings being thrown out, the Arts Commissioners chose to accept the panel's work and modify it in their work sessions following the public hearing. So the tail lives to wag another day.

  • More of the Story

  • The Forest for the Trees

    The Austin Arts Commission has never been a model of bureaucratic efficiency, but this year it seems to have become a big cliché in action, a body so focused on procedure and minutiae and the concerns of the moment that it can't see the forest for the trees. It's compounding the problems in Austin's profoundly flawed public arts funding system and demonstrating just how poorly that process serves not only the city's artists but all its citizens.
  • Related Reading

    The Big Picture

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  

More by Robert Faires
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been

Sept. 24, 2021

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams" Tells the Story of an Artist
The first-ever museum exhibition of Daniel Johnston's work digs deep into the man, the myths

Sept. 17, 2021

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