The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/music/2023-02-28/rancho-alegre-fundraises-to-save-their-conjunto-festival-during-amplifyatx/

Rancho Alegre Fundraises to Save Their Conjunto Festival During AmplifyATX

By Chad Swiatecki, February 28, 2023, 12:55pm, Earache!

Musicians in Austin’s conjunto community are among the groups feeling the effects of a change in how the city distributes Cultural Arts funding paid for by local hotel taxes.

Organizers of the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival say the spring festival is in danger of not happening this year because the nonprofit group was denied funding through the city’s new Thrive program, which restructures how applicants are evaluated for annual awards. Rancho Alegre applied for just under $100,000 in funding to help pay for the three-day fest, grow the group’s fundraising capacity, and hold quarterly mini-fests – but the organization was weeded out in the first round of evaluations.

Last week, City Council approved the Cultural Arts division’s recommendation to award $3.9 million to 36 groups in the first year of Thrive. The new program is budgeted to continue next year with a new round of applicants and awards.

The loss of city funds, which Rancho Alegre had received reliably since 2014, means the group is depending on private donations. During the annual citywide Amplify ATX fundraising drive, happening this Wednesday, March 1 through Thursday, March 2, the festival aims to raise $35,000. The budget supports more than 80 musicians booked for the event.

“If we don’t do it, for the first time in 30 years there won't be a conjunto festival in Austin, and that just chaps my hide a bit, being that gentrification is kicking these people and a lot of these fans out of their neighborhoods,” said Baldomero Cuellar, executive director for Rancho Alegre. “You're killing traditions that I'm guessing they're playing ignorant on. I understand not everyone knows about it, but you think they would do their due diligence of why it was there.”

Leaders of other arts groups denied funding under the new program have joined Rancho Alegre in objecting to the changes, which were implemented after a multi-year process that saw the city, the Arts Commission, and various arts stakeholders hold several feedback sessions to discuss how to best distribute arts funding.

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Jane Claire Hervey, executive director of Future Front Texas, took to Instagram after learning the group was shut out of Thrive funding. “I just have never had an institution request so much from me yet simultaneously have no desire to fund my work,” she wrote. “Other funding institutions don’t push individuals to perform as much as our City does and I sincerely hope that that can stop. Maybe that’ll be the long-game outcome of our collective effort in this space!”

The city began the long road to revamp its funding process for local arts organizations in 2018 with a move toward emphasizing equity, serving newer groups from marginalized communities, and as a result decreasing or eliminating funding for some long-established organizations. That change brought loud criticism and led to the highly transparent effort to restructure the process, which was paused due to the pandemic. Thrive is the first of three funding cycles this year, with the Elevate and Nexus programs geared toward newer organizations and individual artists – at lower amounts than the $85,000 to $150,000 range for Thrive.

Piper LeMoine, communications director for Rancho Alegre, said the abrupt change leaves many groups trying to cover nearly six-figure holes in their budgets.

“We understand the restructuring, but for lots of organizations a lot of the revenue comes from city funding and they plan their fiscal years around that,” said LeMoine. “For [the city] to completely restructure it this way without a soft transition … I know it's not the city's responsibility to fund our organization and that funding isn't guaranteed, but when you haven't been turned down for funding and it's a relatively safe bet, it's really surprising when you get turned down. It really leaves you scratching your head.”

Cancellation of the festival, which last year took place at Central Machine Works, Far Out Lounge, and Stubb’s, would be a major blow for the handful of conjunto bands active in the Austin area.

“It used to be that Austin had the Top Hat Club, Flamingo Ballroom [El Flamingo Club], and a lot of places to play, but now they’re all gone and that has hurt the conjunto people quite a bit,” said Julian Fernandez, drummer for Los Texas Wranglers. “At that festival we’d get people here from all over the state and other states, because there was so much talent that kept the fans very satisfied.

“Losing that festival would be devastating for the local community and players of conjunto music. In the [Rio Grande] Valley there’s a lot of appreciation for conjunto music and it’s very catered to, but here in Austin it’s not admired, so we look forward to Rancho Alegre to keep us together.”

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