A Better Tomorrow

Is a New Day Dawning for Austin's Troubled Arts Funding Process?

A Better Tomorrow
Illustration By Robert Faires

For years, the city of Austin's arts funding process has been mired in perpetual gloom. The instrument by which our community is supposed to foster creativity among its citizens has instead bred discontent and antagonism among the very people it was intended to help. Artists and arts companies squabble over funding allocations with each other and with the staff and volunteers who administer the program. Controversies erupt on every level of the process, eroding trust in it and encouraging participants to circumvent its procedures. The divisiveness, defensiveness, and plain ill will have cast shadows over Austin's Cultural Contracts Program, leaving it lost in a midnight world.

And when you thought things couldn't get any darker, well, along came last year's decision to disregard the application of an internationally renowned dance company over a technicality. Then came September 11 and the long, downward slide of the economy, which led to a drastic decline in revenue from the hotel/motel bed tax and in funding for cultural contracts. Applicants missed deadlines by minutes and had their applications rejected. Advisory panels slashed funding requests for longtime applicants with little regard for their distinguished records of service to the community, and the commission largely upheld these controversial recommendations. Then, in the blackest moment of all, City Council tossed out all the Arts Commission's funding recommendations for fiscal year 2003 and instituted its own system of across-the-board cuts, based on the previous year's funding levels, less 31%. Besides engendering pain through those cuts, the move seeded considerable bitterness among artists and companies for the way it was made.

Still, as the saying goes, it's always darkest before the dawn. For the first time in perhaps a decade, there are glimmers of light on the city's arts funding horizon. They may not be easy to see, especially for the arts groups struggling to make up shortfalls of thousands of dollars in a stalled economy, but they're there. The city is actively initiating reviews of the process, with an eye toward reform. Cultural institutions and companies are talking with each other about ways they can collaborate in securing funding from sources beyond city government. And all of them -- artists and administrators, politicians and patrons -- are talking together about a vision of what the arts mean to Austin.

The Dark Backward

"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. 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."

-- Leslie Pool, Arts Commissioner, 1999

The new day for arts funding in Austin might not be dawning had it not been for the horrible events of this year. Those inside the system had grown so dependent upon it and had so modified their behavior to get what they wanted from it, that little short of a cataclysm was going to shake them loose of deeply ingrained habits. For most of them, that cataclysm came with the council budget session, but it's worth noting that that was no winner/loser scenario, with council and certain favored arts groups on top and the rest on the bottom. The truth is: Everyone lost in this year's Cultural Contracts process. Everyone. The applicants, Cultural Contracts office staff, advisory panelists, arts commissioners, City Council members, the citizens of Austin. Applicants lost funding, yes, and commissioners, panelists, and applicants lost all the hours they devoted to the process, but we all lost faith in our local system for funding the arts, lost faith that it could ever support and nurture local artists in anything approaching a fair and equitable manner.

That isn't exactly the popular view. A number of people who were burned in this year's process see clear victims and villains, and they've been eager to point them out. Council blames commission. Commission blames council. Staff blames applicants. Applicants blame advisory panelists. Advisory panelists blame council. The injured parties want to fix the blame for whatever loss they suffered on somebody else. But even a cursory examination of the whole process reveals plenty of blame to go around, among applicants, staff, panelists, commissioners, and, yes, council members.

Council has been the favorite whipping boy for its dramatic rebuke of the commission and dismissal of its funding recommendations, not to mention publicly chastising the commission chair. Did council overreact? In a word, yes. In rejecting the commission's recommendations wholesale, council effectively did what the commission itself has been criticized for doing in the past: tossing out the baby with the bath water. While it succeeded in eliminating the recommendations from advisory panels whose work was questionable, it also wiped out whatever valid recommendations had come from the panels that worked well and added to the trauma of an already economically crippling year.

Still, it's unfair to look at council's action as if it came out of the blue. This was an act borne of deep-seated frustration. It was a long time building, the result of many funding cycles in which advisory panels made troubling recommendations, which commission rubber-stamped and passed on to council, which had to contend with applicants crying to them about their ill treatment (real or perceived) at the hands of the panels and commission and pleading for extra funds, and council either capitulated and upped the complainants' funding or suffered through the lobbying and let the recommendations stand. It was a system that put council on the receiving end of many, many more complaints than it desired or deserved to hear, and the commission had plenty of time to fix things. But it didn't. Oh, it made attempts, tweaking the Cultural Contracts guidelines after each funding cycle, but that amounted to slapping Band-Aids on a tire that had already blown.

That's not to say the commission was wholly at fault. The system encouraged applicants to go outside the system for redress. When advisory panelists judged an applicant's work as if with an ax to grind, and complaints at the annual appeals hearing with the commissioners fell on deaf ears, then applicants felt their only recourse was to go to council. And with a broken system, that was a valid option. The thing is, applicants continued to play the game year after year as if it weren't broken. Rather than demand substantive reform from the commission, they abided by the rules until the rules didn't work in their favor, then they ignored them, which encouraged others to do the same. This may sound like blaming the victim, and it is, but the difference here is we aren't talking physical abuse; we're talking voluntary participation in a public funding system.

Worse than their continued participation in this flawed system was the corrosive attitude of many applicants, denigrating the work of other applicants. This has fomented divisiveness within the arts community since at least the early 1980s, when small and midsize companies felt the support for large civic institutions (the museum, the ballet, the symphony, and Zachary Scott Theatre) was squeezing them out. Such companies attacked the so-called "majors" for being mainstream and white bread. By the end of the decade, the criticisms largely came down to being white. Artists of color argued that these institutions deserved less money because they were culturally racist. The race card still gets some play today, and complaints about the "majors" are on the rise again, but there has also been an increase in what could be called aesthetic imperialism: deriding other artists on the basis of their art. "It's not the kind of work I create or find worthy, therefore it's bad and doesn't deserve funding." Applicants too often treat other applicants as their enemy, and that's wrong.

Of course, these attitudes and the system's chronic flaws, as well as the failure by all parties involved to address them, were no secret. They were discussed privately and publicly by those inside the process and were chronicled in the media year after year after year. Still, as if anyone needed confirmation that there were long-standing problems with the funding process, it was all laid out in black and white in a report this year by the city auditor's office. If nothing else, that document makes clear that Cultural Contracts was imploding long before council leveled its 31% sword at this year's applicants. And everyone can claim some responsibility for that situation. (The report may be read at www.ci.austin.tx.us/auditor/com_au02304.htm .)

Circling the Wagons

"If we had community-wide advocacy for the arts, Austinites would respond to the needs of both large and small groups. Right now, we have one small group of people, supported by another small group of people, supported by another. No one in the audience gets off their ass. They have to get involved not just in heated battles over cultural contracts, but all the time. We have an opportunity for all parties to talk at the table if everyone is focused on the goal of a healthy arts community."

-- Vince Hollister, Arts Commissioner, 1996

The 31% cuts by council caused some people to get mad. It caused others to get moving. The latter group, though just as outraged by the council's actions as the former, realized that things could not continue as they had. The system needed reform, and whatever reforms were made, whatever new system was created, it needed to reflect the needs and vision of the artists and companies working in Austin today. And those artists and companies needed to join their voices together if they, like the tiny Whos in Dr. Seuss' book, wanted anyone besides their friend Horton to hear them.

A meeting was called for Sept. 17, high noon. The idea was not to force a showdown with council over its actions the fortnight before or even to discuss the city funding process, but, in the words of Salvage Vanguard Theater Artistic Director Jason Neulander, who led the meeting "to discuss a larger picture of arts advocacy." This was the first step in articulating a community-wide vision for the arts in Austin, one that drew on ideas and sentiments of those many diverse contributors to Austin's cultural wealth: individual artists and representatives of large institutions; Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Anglos; newcomers and longtime residents; emerging artists and those in the middle of their careers; city staff, volunteer panelists, and commissioners, and the citizens who support the arts.

Given the intensity of feeling among participants in the process about the council cuts and the call for action heard from many corners, turnout for this meeting was light. Fewer than 20 people showed up at the Dougherty Arts Center that day. However, even though the group was small, it reflected a range of interests in the arts community: small theatre companies, the ballet, a radio station, a film organization, a small dance company, city staff, panelists in the funding process, arts commissioners.

And to their credit, those present spent little time rehashing Cultural Contracts issues or personal beefs with the process. Rather, they devoted most of their attention to the big picture: finding ways for local arts organizations to share resources; developing a living wage for local artists; promoting creativity as a foundation for a healthy local economy; committing to long-term audience development for all the arts. No solutions were identified by the end of the meeting, but none were expected. The purpose of the gathering was to get people in the same room, face to face, and start a conversation, to share ideas and lay the foundation for future collaborations. That happened. It was successful enough that those in attendance set a date for a second meeting: October 18.

A Better Tomorrow

"Unfortunately, we all take the [Cultural Contracts] process too seriously. Artists, commissioners, panelists, staff -- everyone gets caught up in the desperate rush of money's quick fix. This program is never going to sustain artists, although it does go a long way toward keeping projects from going under. One wonders what will happen as more and more artists seek city funding at the same time that established companies are trying to grow as cultural institutions."

-- Robi Polgar, The Austin Chronicle, 2000

The coalition meeting at the Dougherty was one sign that the arts community had begun to look at the city funding process -- and itself -- in new ways, but there were others even before that. The previous year, when Cultural Contracts was embroiled in controversy over the city's disqualification of Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks and charges of irregularities in the panel process, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman began laying the groundwork for a total revamp of the process, to make it, in her words, "an upgraded and accountable system."

In a draft proposal that she circulated to the council, Goodman called 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."

The events of September 2001, coupled with the city's rapidly expanding economic woes and distractions like the Stratus development deal, derailed Goodman's plan to engage a consultant in time to overhaul the arts funding process for FY 2003. But she was able to move forward with the audit and members of an audit team managed to observe the FY 2003 funding process. As noted above, the final report spelled out in no uncertain terms the shortcomings of the process and its failure to serve the city's interests in cultural affairs.

Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Redevelopment Services Office of the city of Austin convened a "Civic Dialogue on Art, Artists, and Community Revitalization." Janet Seibert of the RSO and Ric Hernandez of the TCA invited officials from local and regional governments, design professionals, representatives of civic and social service organizations, developers, educators, artists, and arts workers "to explore how the creative resources of our community can play a role in preserving, enhancing, and creating the best and most enduring qualities of Austin."

More than 60 people came to the initial two-day meeting on May 31 and June 1. Following a speech by Sherry Wagner on "What Makes a Great City?" participants suggested topics for discussion and separated into groups to share opinions and ideas. Conversations ranged from a public art master plan for downtown to affordable housing for artists to individual artistic vision versus broad public audience expectations. As with the coalition meeting that would follow in September, recurring themes included cooperation and sharing of resources, raising public awareness of Austin as a cultural leader, and creating an environment that reflects that reality. (See notes from the dialogue at www.arts.state.tx.us/republic/.)

An unofficial sequel took place four months later when another host of individuals from all corners of the arts community came together to discuss the future of the arts in Austin. This all-day meeting was convened by Dabney and Associates, a consulting firm engaged by the city to review the Cultural Contracts Program, look for alternatives in other cities, and recommend ways the city might implement them in Austin. Yes, it took a year, but Mayor Pro Tem Goodman finally got her consultant. On Aug. 19, Lucille Dabney and her partners Marian McCollom and Eduardo Diaz, all with extensive experience in managing cultural arts funding programs, were engaged to study Austin's arts funding morass.

One way they chose to do that was to bring several dozen citizens into the Waller Center one Saturday to talk about where they want to see the local arts scene moving. The meeting followed the same open space format as the civic dialogue, with participants developing session topics themselves based on the theme of "exploring the ways that the city's investment in Austin's arts assets can support a creative community appealing to residents and visitors and add value to Austin's economic, educational, and civic life." Topics included the now-familiar city's vision for the arts and how to implement it, revisions to the Cultural Contracts Program, restoring trust in the process, finding resources beyond the bed tax, marketing the arts, diversity, and building coalitions.

The makeup of this gathering was arguably the most diverse -- and potentially explosive -- of the year, containing as it did many participants in the funding process -- city staff, advisory panelists, panel chairs, arts commissioners, and applicants -- and one council member (Mayor Pro Tem Goodman, if you hadn't guessed). Raw feelings were in evidence throughout the day, which led to a few rounds of the blame game and much misguided speculation as to how council did what it did and why, and yet the tenor of most of the discussion was remarkably civil. Participants made good on their claim to want more open and better communication by listening to each other and treating each other with respect. At the end of the day, as the group reconvened in one large circle reminiscent of a 12-step program, there was even room for humor. "My name is Mike Melinger, and I am an artist," said the musician, prompting laughter around the ring of chairs.

The remark may have been more telling than Melinger realized. Art, while not precisely an addiction, is something that certain people are driven to create, and sometimes they wind up beating their brains out against a program like Cultural Contracts for a few thousand bucks, just so they can keep creating art. As I wrote here last year, "all artists are seriously underpaid and under-appreciated, and making them jump through extensive bureaucratic hoops for relatively small sums of money is, at best, contrary to the goals of a system that seeks to support the arts and at worst, denigrating and humiliating to them as citizens who elevate the quality of life in our community."

Now, that idea is gaining more currency in our town, not just among artists but business people and civic leaders -- witness the widespread thumping of that new bible, Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class. It's too soon to say for sure that the artists of this city are on the verge of enjoying a new respect for their efforts and economic support to boot, but people are talking, and they're the people who have reason to make a change and are ready to work to make that change. After a dark night longer than a polar winter, Austin arts funding is beginning to see the light. end story

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