How the arts are surviving hard times and why Austin needs them to
By Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 7, 2003
"Starving artists" isn't a term that generates much sympathy these days, bound as it is to images of whiny twentysomethings debating the finer points of existentialism as they waste away in Parisian garrets. The phrase calls to mind all the worst stereotypes of the arts and its practitioners as elitists out of touch with regular folk and daily life. However, when you think about artists as critical players in the municipal economy -- as our city leaders are seriously starting to do -- then the health of Austin's actors, painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors, singers, directors, and designers is of no small importance. For a City of Ideas, as the disciples of Richard Florida like to think of Austin, these creatures of the creative class may be our canaries in the coal mine. If they go, the city goes.
Before you dismiss that pronouncement as mere cultural egotism, consider that there's an ecosystem at work in the intellectual life of the community. Ideas -- about society, about the way we live, about the ways we could live -- are what artists thrive on, and like inventors, engineers, and other creative types, they root out new ideas before the rest of the community. They dig up the new ways that help us understand who we are, define the problems we face, discover solutions to those problems. And what they find can feed everyone, can nourish the entire community, make us all stronger, healthier, better able to succeed. The more artists there are, the more that works for all of us.
In the Florida model, as outlined in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, that's laid out in economic terms: Artists enhance their cities' quality of life and add to the development of innovations, which attracts entrepreneurs and stimulates growth in the marketplace. The thing is, artists are drawn to places where freedom, tolerance, and creativity are encouraged. When those qualities dry up, like a waterhole during a drought, the artists leave for more hospitable environs. And there's nothing like a downturn in the economy to start sucking away support for diversity and originality.
Even if you view that model with skepticism, consider what economist Ray Perryman noted in a landmark study two years ago: The arts in Texas are responsible for more than $5.8 billion in economic activity per annum. That's 12.2% of total state fiscal resources, 12.3% of total expenditures, 13.6% of gross product, 14.6% of personal income, and 15.7% of the state's permanent jobs. No comparable studies specify the impact of the arts on the Austin economy, although a recent white paper by economist Jon Hockenyos claims that "the broadly defined creative sector" -- which would include high tech, entertainment and media, education, and professional services -- "accounts for more than half of the local economy." That makes for a sector worth worrying about when the chips are down. And the chips are down for Austin's cultural community like never before.
The arts in Austin have been drubbed, thumped, and pummeled this past year. In addition to the economic shellacking that every American suffered, every artist and arts organization that made it through the city's cultural contracts process in 2002 was sucker punched with a 31% cut in funding from the previous fiscal year. Revenue from the hotel/motel bed tax, the source of Austin's public arts funding, was down -- way down -- following September 11 and the dot-com bomb, which led City Council to share the pain of this year's decline across the arts funding board. That meant an abrupt loss of thousands of dollars of income to local creative entities. While the individual amounts may seem a pittance beside the 10-figure losses of an Enron-scale meltdown, they are potentially devastating to many arts groups, especially small and midsize companies without the resources to seek replacement funds.
Taking the Hit
What makes this problem historic is that the fiscal collapse caught many local companies in serious growth mode. Austin has always had an exceptional number of arts groups for a city its size, but before the 1990s, relatively few lasted beyond their first season or two. The Nineties saw unprecedented growth in the number of local cultural organizations but also the number of such organizations that survived institutional childhood. Much of the credit for that goes to a new generation of artists who began appearing on the scene early in the decade; they founded companies with long-term plans for their futures and the business savvy to make them last. A number of these companies took advantage of the New Prosperity Austin enjoyed in the decade and grew along with the city.
Unfortunately, when the economic bullet train derailed, those companies were still in the midst of expansion efforts. Tapestry Dance Company, for one, had just hired five new dancers from around the country to join its permanent company. The Rude Mechanicals were building on the national attention and acclaim for their stage adaptation of Lipstick Traces, which played in New York in 2001 and toured the Midwest, Seattle, and Los Angeles last year. And these companies don't just produce; they have facilities to support as well as artists on staff, and no one who works for a small arts organization is swimming in riches. Many would have to get a raise just to make it up to the poverty level; some have consistently sacrificed their own salaries to keep their companies alive. For them, getting the same amount of public funding they had received the previous year would constitute a cut. But they didn't get the same money this year (see sidebar).
For institutions such as the Austin Museum of Art, which dropped from $170,000 to $117,000, city money may represent a smaller percentage of annual income than for midsized and smaller arts groups, but $53K is still $53K. For the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, cultural contract funding is only 1.7% of the budget, but the theatre still had to make up a gap of $24,000, and that isn't as easy now as it was in the high tech salad days. Zach Managing Director Ann Ciccolella estimates that individual contributions are down by a third this year. The Rude Mechs estimate they're down a quarter. Worse, says co-Artistic Director Sarah Richardson, is the steeper decline in grant funding. Nearly every application the Rudes have submitted this year has been turned down; foundations don't have the money anymore either. The only increase the company has seen has been in attendance for its pay-what-you-wish shows. More people have less money to spend on theatre, so they opt for performances with flexible pricing. But even there, the amounts that people "wish" to pay are down from previous seasons.
The danger this represents for the city's arts organizations can be seen in two of the biggest arts stories from 2002. Two major cultural institutions, Austin Musical Theatre and Austin Lyric Opera, found themselves sliding toward deficits of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Naturally, the boards of directors wanted to correct their direction, but their hasty reactions were like those of a driver in a skidding automobile: Jerking the wheel too suddenly nearly made matters worse. ALO's board fired the man it held chiefly responsible for the deficits, General Manager Joe McClain. Considering that McClain co-founded the opera, was its public face for 15 years, and led the way in building its national reputation, this was an extreme move. And with the dismissal taking place with no recognition for McClain's service and extraordinary role in the opera's development, it could have blown up in the board's face, costing ALO valuable public support. It may yet, if ALO cannot find a successor to McClain with as strong a vision for the company or better success with the bottom line.
Meanwhile, at Austin Musical Theatre, the board responded to the fiscal crisis by deciding to scrap the rest of the 2002-03 season and basically shut down the 6-year-old company. A strong public appeal by AMT staff and an emergency fundraising campaign kept the doors open and prompted the board to give the company a second chance. Last week, AMT made a critical comeback bid with a revue celebrating its contributions to the community with numbers from its first 15 shows, and it looks like the company will survive, in a new incarnation (see "Articulations," p.31). While I'm not unsympathetic to financial realities, the fact is that AMT, like so many cultural institutions, is built on the backs of its creators: artistic entrepreneurs who expend their personal creative capital -- plus a few 50-gallon drums of blood, sweat, and tears -- to realize their dreams. If such companies collapse, they rarely recover. If they go, they don't come back.
So far, the majority of Austin arts companies are responding to the economic crisis with a measured approach. Arts Center Stage, which has raised more than half the $110 million it anticipates needing to transform Palmer Auditorium into the Long Center for the Performing Arts, realized last year that raising the rest would take considerably more time than it had originally planned. So the organization moved the date of the center's opening from 2004 to 2005, while keeping the fundraising drive in motion with a handful of $100,000 donations, a raffle for a Porsche that yielded $250,000, and a print and TV campaign to elicit support for the center from more local citizens. Late last week, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the organization is seeking $25 million in city bond money to help build the center (see Articulations).
The Austin Museum of Art was not quite as far along in its campaign to build a permanent Downtown facility, but in 2001, AMOA began to feel that raising $65 million for the facility wouldn't fly in the current economic climate. So museum personnel sat down with architect Richard Gluckman to see if they could rework his 140,000-square-foot design to be built in phases. Then, without abandoning its plans for the Downtown facility, AMOA turned its focus to a project that it could complete on a short timeline: the renovation of its original home at Laguna Gloria. With the help of several AMOA patrons who put up collateral for a $1.1 million loan, the project began in earnest and is expected to be completed in June 2003.
In the short term, several theatre companies have made alterations to their seasons, typically postponing productions deemed too ambitious for a season in which income and attendance were uncertain. The State Theater Company shelved its production of Adam Rapp's edgy drama Nocturne. Zach put its production of the historical musical Parade, with Artistic Director Dave Steakley saying the show would be risky for the theatre in any season but would be financially perilous in this one. The Rudes delayed their January premiere of How Late It Was, How Late until the fall, moving their revival of Requiem for Tesla up from April.
In hard times, it's common to see people and companies turn inward, but local arts groups are taking the financial troubles as an opportunity to reach out to fellow artists and pool their resources. Two dozen art galleries teamed up to form In the Galleries Austin, a coalition that promotes the local scene through events, brochures, and a most informative Web site (www.inthegalleriesaustin.com) that includes a calendar of current and future exhibitions, descriptions of and maps to the member galleries, and links to their individual Web sites. The Classical Music Consortium of Austin performs a similar service (www.classicalmusicaustin.org), and now a few theatre companies are discussing the possibility of forming a coalition of their own, to tackle not only marketing issues but mutual concerns such as liability insurance.
These projects focus on separate disciplines, but efforts are also under way to organize area artists on a larger scale, so they can define their place in Austin and see how they can draw support from area governments, businesses, and citizens. Last May, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the city of Austin Office of Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services sponsored a "Civic Dialogue on Art, Artists, and Community Revitalization" (www.arts.state.tx.us/republic/ ); in September, a communitywide meeting was convened to discuss "arts advocacy in Austin" and Dabney and Associates, a consulting firm hired by the City Council to evaluate Austin's process for funding the arts, facilitated an Open Space meeting to explore ways that the city can support a creative community that adds value to Austin's economic, educational, and civic life" (www.dabneyandassoc.com/ost_page.html ). This week, the Zachary Scott Theatre Center held a meeting with representatives of performing arts companies of various disciplines, including the ballet and opera.
These are all responsible responses to the economic shift, and they support the notion that our cultural companies operate with true business sense. But there's a catch: The arts are not businesses; that is, they can't always bob and weave with market forces the way traditional businesses can. Their "product" is too costly to allow it. If you don't believe me, ask Ray Perryman: "By their very nature, the arts will not experience the same level of productivity growth as other sectors. Thus, they will be a declining part of the economy in the absence of proactive efforts to the contrary. If they are allowed to fall relative to overall economic activity, the creative force necessary to sustain prosperity will ultimately be undermined. ... Without adequate public and philanthropic input, the cultural arts will be underproduced and underconsumed."
In other words, you can trim all the fat out of that administrative budget and mount lean, mean stage productions, but short of charging ticket prices that only a few Dellionaires could afford, you'll never earn enough income to meet expenditures. The arts require outside support. That doesn't mean they get a free ride from the community. Remember the ecosystem; artists provide substantial benefits. But for the community to continue to enjoy those benefits -- better yet, prosper from them -- it must make a significant commitment to support its artists.
Austin's city government appears to recognize this right now and is reconsidering just where the arts fit in the civic structure, particularly the municipal money machine. This review began as simply a reform movement, Council Member Jackie Goodman's drive to find something -- anything! -- to improve the long-troubled Cultural Contracts program, with which the city has funded the arts for two decades. Goodman led the call for a city audit of the arts funding process -- on view at www.ci.austin.tx.us/auditor/com_au02304.htm -- and the hiring of a consultant to review the program, look at other cities' programs, and recommend alternatives for Austin.
Keeping Austin Weird
But in the meantime, out came Dr. Florida's book with its ranking of Austin as the No. 2 Creative Hot Spot in all the land, and city leaders began to see the arts in a new, rather rose-tinted light. In November, when a mayoral task force delivered its report on resuscitating the city's flat-lined economy, it called for action "to sustain and improve Austin's creative and cultural amenities and sectors," a recommendation that was sound-bite condensed to the bumper-sticker phrase "Keep Austin Weird." By the time Dabney and Associates handed in its report on Cultural Contracts a few weeks later, the concept of overhauling the arts funding system had acquired a new gravity, not unlike that seen in Austin environmental issues.
And as well it should. Artists are a natural resource. Like Barton Springs, they have contributed to the identity of Austin and the welfare of untold numbers of its citizens. Who enshrined the armadillo as our cultural symbol? Artists. Who made "Austin city limits" mean more than a sign on a highway? Artists. For decades, they have produced the art, the literature, the theatre, the music, the dance, and the comedy that have turned the world's gaze to this city. From Stevie Ray to Stephen Mills, Greater Tuna to Lipstick Traces, the arts have made this a city where people want to be -- and kept doing it through boom and bust alike. That doesn't mean we should take them for granted. Their place in the community is fragile and can be lost if we're not vigilant. It goes back to what our pal Mr. Perryman said about "proactive efforts." They're essential. Left alone, the arts won't make it. And like Barton Springs, when they're gone, they're gone for good.
So this time in which Austin is reviewing its cultural commitments offers a historic opportunity for the city and the arts. This is the chance to truly recognize the place of creativity in the life of Austin, to respect the contributions of its artists and integrate support for them throughout the city. That may mean, as Dabney and Associates recommended, moving city cultural programs from the Parks and Recreation Department to the Office of Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services and consolidating them with offices for the film and music industries, or creating an independent arts council to oversee the granting of cultural contracts. However, this is little more than the kind of bureaucratic shuffleboard that we've come to expect in a city that is forever creating comprehensive city plans that it never implements.
To truly "sustain and improve Austin's creative and cultural amenities and sectors" will require more than city business as usual. It will require creativity -- innovative thinking about the needs of art makers. Say, instead of having an arts funding process that forces artists to be accountants and statisticians, why not develop a process that allows applicants to demonstrate their creativity? What if the city treated theatres, museums, and galleries like other businesses, offering them breaks in utility service or financial incentives to locate in specific geographic areas? Since the city has drafted artists to provide educational and social services, what if it had educational institutions and health providers grant services to artists, say, free tuition or treatment at clinics? Helping artists and arts companies pay their bills so they can afford to live and create here could do more to add to Austin's prosperity than realigning the city's cultural departments under a single letterhead.
But whatever course of action the city takes in regard to the arts, it can't be predicated on a trendy notion that this city's creative types are the source of some economic "magic bullet," ô la real estate in the Eighties and high tech in the Nineties. Any attempts to support the arts must recognize that they are worthy in and of themselves. To quote Mr. Perryman one last time, "The arts are a public good with positive externalities, ensuring benefits to society far exceeding those captured in the marketplace. ... [They] are essential to the long-term economic development initiatives of any community."
Whether you feel Austin is weird enough or desperately needs to be weirder, the fact is the city is home to a wealth of creative individuals who have contributed much that is valuable to the character and success of this city. If Austin wants to savor the good times again, it ought to heed a bit of cultural advice with a Texas twang: "Dance with who brung ya."