Public arts funding doesn't get much messier than the City of Austin's Cultural Contracts Program, but this year's process may go down in history as the messiest yet.
Arts Funding Turmoil
Public arts funding doesn't get much messier than the Cultural Contracts Program here in Austin, but this year's process may go down in history as the messiest yet. There was a precipitous drop in the amount of funding available from the hotel-motel occupancy tax -- about 20% down from last year's $3 million -- which would have made this year's funding process painful under the best circumstances, but the best circumstances they weren't. The application and review process was particularly turbulent, with some Advisory Panels -- the first line of applicant evaluation -- making controversial funding recommendations, and the Arts Commission making some equally controversial decisions in regard to accepting or rejecting those recommendations. That led to the standard outcry from applicants whose funding was slashed and the now-entrenched lobbying of City Council for funding to be restored. Of course, this year Council has nothing to restore it with, and council members found the commission's recommendations to be way off the mark for a year in which funding was down so dramatically; some companies and artists were slated to receive almost the same amount they had received the previous year, while others had their funding cut in half or worse. So at the council's first budget meeting Monday, which ran relatively smoothly until the subject turned to Cultural Contracts, council members basically ignored the Commission's recommendations and opted to reduce all funding for returning arts applicants by 32%. This upset Arts Commission Chair Andrea Bryant, who expressed satisfaction with "the way the process worked." That prompted a dressing-down from Council Member Raul Alvarez, who told Bryant that Council had sent a clear signal to the Commission to "share the pain" -- i.e., spread the funding cuts among applicants as evenly as possible -- and that she ought not to have been surprised by the council's action when the Commission's actions ran so far counter to its directives. A decision on the funding was left until Tuesday, when Council decided basically to go with the FY2001-02 recommendation levels, with a few tweaks. The exasperation of the council was perhaps best articulated by Council Member Jackie Goodman in a story in Sunday's Austin American-Statesman: "It will be over my dead body that the same process is the one in place next year." Goodman has been the point person for a complete revamp of the Cultural Contracts process, which led to the city hiring a consultant to study how it funds arts groups. The consultant, Dabney & Associates, will spend the rest of September and all of October gathering information and then report to the city auditor's office in mid-November. The scope of the report will cover the current funding process, models for public funding in other cities, and recommendations for a new Austin model. For a look at this situation in the context of the city's overall budget picture, turn to the report by Mike Clark-Madison in this week's News section.