A Bad Year Gets Worse

An Update on the Austin Arts Commission's 'Annus Horribilus'

A Bad Year Gets Worse
Illustration By Robert Faires

While you're never likely to hear anyone on the Austin Arts Commission warbling "It Was a Very Good Year" -- the inevitable drama and trauma of public-arts funding, along with the commission's checkered history in that field, ensure that every span of its calendar is colored by disputation, if not outright rancor -- 2001 has been so not a very good year for the Arts Commission that its members might be more inclined to memorialize the year in song with that old Hee Haw chestnut: "Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me."

As was noted in these pages earlier this summer ("The Forest for the Trees," July 6, 2001), the nine-member body that oversees cultural affairs for the city, including the annual process by which local artists and arts groups obtain city funding for their work, has found itself stewing in a bubbling gumbo of controversies this year. First came the Danceworks Debacle, in which the Commission disallowed the funding application of Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks over a new Cultural Contracts funding guideline, then stood by its decision even when it was made clear that the guideline was not intended to apply to the company and that without the support from the city -- potentially $60,000, based on Danceworks' previous funding through Cultural Contracts -- this distinguished company might have to close its doors.

Then came the Mixed Arts Mess, in which one of the advisory panels that rank Cultural Contract applicants and recommend funding levels to the commission rated several respected applicants in the bottom half of that discipline -- rankings so seriously at odds with these organizations' standing in the community and rankings in previous years that it called into question the credibility of the process and sent a message that history of service to the community and quality of artistry, even when recognized on a national or international level, have no place in the Cultural Contracts Program.

And as these troubles came to light, so did evidence of other irregularities: procedural inconsistencies in accepting applications, misinformation from city staff regarding applicants and past policy, potential conflicts of interests, as well as just plain conflicts, between those overseeing the process and those seeking support through it. The Commission could hardly tackle an item of business without some new problem bubbling up.

The commissioners could have rebounded from these missteps by acknowledging the flaws in the process, applying a bit of common sense to the situation (i.e., recognizing that these arts groups have time and again proven themselves deserving of support by the city), and doing a bit of gracious backtracking, but instead they chose to concentrate their energies on minutiae surrounding these two cases, defenses of their actions, internecine squabbling, and blaming the artists whose interests they are ostensibly in place to serve. So the controversies kept swirling around, that gumbo just getting hotter and hotter, eventually earning the commissioners not just the expected strongly worded protests from members of the arts community but also the attention of city council.

Since the Chronicle reported on the story in July, the heat hasn't diminished and little has happened to make any Arts Commissioner think any more fondly of 2001. In brief:

  • Two members of the commission took their leave of the body. Chelby King, a commissioner for four years and former chairperson of the Commission, and Deana Hendrix, also a commissioner for four years and the commission's current secretary, resigned this summer. Neither claimed the Commission's troubles as a cause for her departure -- both cited personal reasons -- but one can hardly imagine them being sorry to leave the body and all its wrangling behind. In any event, it leaves the commission at seven members, one of whom, UT Assistant Professor of Sculpture Mel Ziegler, is just joining the group. And it may stay at that number a while, as at least one council member's office has expressed reservations about sending a replacement to a commission in such a state of disarray.

  • The Texas Commission for the Arts (TCA) took note of this year's Arts Commission follies and decided to withhold state funding for local artists that it channels through the city commission, pending an investigation into the Commission's activities. On August 2, TCA deputy director Rick Hernandez announced that the state agency would withhold $158,000 in grants to the city of Austin while it conducted "a formal investigation" into the city's disqualification of Sharir + Bustamante. "We have to determine if there was any impropriety," Hernandez told the Austin American-Statesman. The agency also expressed concerns about the Mixed Arts Panel evaluations and requested documents related to the panel's activity.

  • The City Council took a look in the commission's bubbling stew and thought so little of what they saw that one council member began laying the groundwork for an overhaul of the whole arts funding system. Several council members have been taking an active interest in the Commission's activities since this spring, talking with commissioners or having aides present at commission meetings, but Jackie Goodman has staked out the point position in the matter. In May, she penned a letter to the Commission questioning its actions regarding the denial of Sharir + Bustamante's application and asking for clarification on several points. (No written response was ever made by the Commission.) Then, the first week of August, she circulated to the commissioners and her colleagues on the council a draft proposal for a revamp of the Cultural Contracts process, so as to make it "an upgraded and accountable system." Opening with the diplomatic suggestion that "every process becomes somewhat eroded or dated" with the passage of years and that they commonly require "revision to mission, goals, and mechanisms to accurately address the needs of the future," Goodman proposes a review of Austin's arts funding apparatus.

    Her proposal calls for a comprehensive audit of "the entire Cultural Contracts Program, including internal processes and systems, development, application and amendment process of the guidelines, arts panelists selections, ranking and funding processes and criteria, etc." and the hiring of an arts funding consultant for "at least one, and possibly two years, as we make sure our program's mission, goals, and processes are those that establish a credible and ethical program able to meet the needs and expectations a cultural arts grant program must provide to the community that funds it and benefits from it." Goodman also calls for more immediate reforms "in order to remove the impact that has raised legitimate and critical concerns during our current application and allocation process." She wants to determine specific policy guidelines "to correct real or perceived conflicts of interest and undue influence" in the Cultural Contracts process and to more clearly define "the credentials, the roles, the commitments, and the criteria involved for those who decide recommendations and those who are the subject of recommendation," and she suggests "assigning an auditor to review the application budgets for comment and/or recommendation to the Arts Commission" as a means of relieving advisory panelists of the responsibility for evaluating budgets so that they might concentrate on evaluating the art.

    Anyone expecting these developments to have jolted the commissioners into a newfound sense of cooperation and goodwill may be what Rodgers and Hammerstein once referred to as a "cockeyed optimist." Judging by reports from individuals in attendance at the commission's July and August meetings, recent events have done little or nothing to change the prevailing attitudes of inflexibility and shortsightedness. Although the Commission completed its funding recommendations to forward to council -- allocating more than $3 million to more than 190 applicants, according to Commission Chair Andrea Bryant -- the meetings featured more splitting of hairs and internal bickering, some of it over the same issues as in previous meetings, with commissioners holding hard and fast to positions they developed earlier in the year and, to revisit the image of the living cliché from the earlier Arts Commission feature, digging in their heels rather than make any sort of compromise.

    And based on eyewitness accounts of the meeting this past Monday, August 20, that applies even when a City Council member comes to them in person to request that compromise. Goodman came to the Commission meeting to take one last shot at effecting a resolution to the Sharir + Bustamante situation. As if to demonstrate its lack of interest in the matter, the Commission resisted protocol and let the council member cool her heels while it worked its way through the agenda to get to the Sharir + Bustamante issue. Once Goodman was recognized and made her appeal, it was met with shaking heads, the same old arguments, what amounted to a collective shrug. It was enough to try the patience of even the most diplomatic of council members. But as it turned out, nothing could be done anyway; a snafu in posting the agenda -- more grist for the mill! -- meant no action could be taken on the item anyway, and Bryant had to schedule an additional Commission meeting for Friday, August 24 (11:30am, Room B of the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.) just to vote on the matter.

    So the Commission's Annus Horribulus rolls on. In response to this week's activity -- or lack of it -- one applicant was inspired to characterize the Arts Commission as "a renegade body. They have no regard for even what council says to them. Why are they digging in their heels? It's totally mystifying to all of us."

    An answer to the applicant's question may not be forthcoming, but some change in the way things work may be. After all, the council has the ball now, both in terms of making its final determination about the arts funding levels for 2001-02 and the fate of Sharir + Bustamante. Even if the Commission fails to rescind its ruling on the ineligibility of Danceworks, it's likely council will find some way to fund the company. Plus, Goodman has started the ball rolling on reform, and you can bet her colleagues would heartily endorse an overhaul of Cultural Contracts if it meant they'd be spared a mess like the one they've had to deal with this year. Then there are the applicants themselves, the artists and arts administrators who felt so burned by this year's process that they began meeting to discuss alternatives and solutions: They can be counted on to build momentum behind the Cultural Contracts reform and keep it going. So while no one will be singing "It Was a Very Good Year" about the state of the arts funding process in 2001, there's a chance -- maybe even a pretty good chance -- that in 2003 or so, we all could be. We'll keep you posted. end story

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    Austin Arts Commission, Texas Commission on the Arts, Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks, Cultural Contracts Program, Rick Hernandez, Jackie Goodman, Andrea Bryant

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