Paint By Numbers
Racial Divides in Austin's Public Arts Funding
The City of Austin hands out money to a broad range of artists and arts organizations each year, mostly in very small amounts -- a thousand dollars here, five thousand dollars there -- through its Cultural Contracts program. Normally, this is chump change in the municipal budget, but for a starving artist (is there any other kind?) a couple of grand can make the difference between cultural legitimacy and the dish room at the IHOP. So the cultural contracts process is always a fertile breeding ground for discord, which sometimes manifests itself as high-minded philosophical debate, sometimes as lowdown, political bitch fits.
The cultural-contracts kitty -- one-seventh of the city's receipts from the hotel/motel occupancy tax, or a little more than $2 million for the upcoming fiscal year -- is not distributed randomly; there's an elaborate process involving Parks and Recreation Department staff, discipline-specific advisory panels (formerly called "peer panels") to the Austin Arts Commission, the commission itself, and then the city council, which incorporates the program into the budget. There are also elaborate guidelines and criteria to ensure a healthy arts scene in which almost everyone who asks for money gets some -- last year, 152 out of 181 applicants were funded to some degree.
But there is one variable that complicates the city's attempts to create a slickly functioning arts-funding machine, and that is race. The amount of money that goes to applicants of color, and particularly to African-Americans, does not match up with their presence in the community at large. Such equity has never existed for the 20-year history of the cultural-contracts program, and it's been one of many points of conflict between artists, and between them and the city's arts apparatus. Within the last year, though, largely through the grandstanding of Councilmember Eric Mitchell, black arts funding has become Topic A as the city and arts community try to create a perfect arts world.
But, although Mitchell likes to characterize the issue -- indeed, the world -- as a basic conflict between black and white, the reality is more complicated. The lack of equity for black artists has a lot to do with the lack of black artists participating in the process, the lack of support for them among their audiences, the lack of the competent and functional arts infrastructure enjoyed by Anglo and Latino artists, and the lack of accountability on the part of mainstream arts organizations for establishing diversity throughout Austin's arts community. Over the last year, the city has tried several ways to meet these needs and create a beautiful picture, but its paint-by-numbers approach hasn't yet completed Austin's artistic palette with shades of black.
The Arts Commission has established as a goal the allotment of cultural contract funding amongst Austin's diverse communities in proportion to their demographics, which would mean 21% to Hispanics, 11% to African-Americans and 3% to other minorities. They're quite close -- about 19% -- with the Latino community, and halfway there -- about 1.5% -- for Asians, Native Americans, and none-of-the-aboves.
But for 1996-97, only 4.9% of the $2,026,753 for cultural contracts will go to African-American artists, which actually represents a substantial improvement over prior years. The city's initial attempt to deal with black arts equity has been the stuff of foul smells and bad dreams, culminating in the meltdown of the Black Arts Alliance -- Austin's only service organization for African-American artists -- and the hijacking of black arts funding by Eric Mitchell, who proved to anyone who doubted that "the community" for which he cares stretches from one end of his Rolodex to the other.
This sorry saga made all the papers, and even earned Mitchell an unprecedented chiding from his towel boys at the daily, but it still bears some lingering, since every episode of the drama highlights a different factor that has helped shape the status quo of African-American arts in Austin. The Black Arts Alliance, in existence for a dozen years, struggled but persevered throughout the 1980s in its work both as a presenting organization -- producing touring events for Austin's black community -- and as a service organization or "umbrella," supporting local black artists, helping them manage their projects, and most importantly helping them get funding from the city and elsewhere. (Since the city can only write cultural contracts with non-profit corporations blessed by the IRS, individual artists have to be sponsored by such a group.)
The beginning of the end came in 1991, when the BAA board hired one Michaele Bocknite as executive director. Bocknite, who had no previous experience as an arts administrator, quickly proved she had no talent either, spending money on administrative overhead and her own $30,000 salary -- not a lot, except that she didn't raise outside money, produce events or serve the local arts community, which pretty much completes the job description of an arts administrator. Bocknite drove off both BAA board members and local black artists who'd never been entirely happy with the alliance's ability to meet their needs, letting other service organizations like Mexic-Arte, Austin Circle of Theatres, and Women and Their Work pick up the slack.
And she wasn't nice about it, neither. "We didn't leave the Black Arts Alliance because we wanted to hang out with white people," says Clarksville Jazz Festival producer Harold McMillan, who bailed BAA in favor of Women and Their Work. "We left because we wanted to be treated like human beings." (During her short career in the arts, Bocknite also managed to get appointed to the ACTV board, where she promptly fired two key staff and attempted to oust two of her fellow board members -- none of these actions being part of her powers -- and ended up convulsing two local cultural groups at once.)
By last year's cultural contracts cycle, the Black Arts Alliance had ceased to perform any meaningful activity for the Austin arts community, and as a response, the Arts Commission's advisory panel recommended that they be defunded. Since the BAA's city funding -- averaging about $45,000 a year -- was such a large part of the total allocated to African-American artists, this would have left less than 1% of the city's 1995-96 funding in black hands. The Arts Commission responded by cutting the Black Arts Alliance recommended funding to $25,000 and crossing its fingers. Enter Eric Mitchell, who, with a typical flourish of the race card, doubled that amount to $50,000, triggering an automatic city audit of groups receiving that amount of money or more. The audit turned up financial irregularities -- specifically, a lack of matching funds as required by the city contract -- on top of the BAA's other problems, which led to the money being yanked back, Bocknite being fired, the BAA board disbanding, and the IRS putting a lien on the organization's accounts.
What happened next seemed at first to be a major stride forward -- the Arts Commision decided to reallocate the $50,000 and opened a special one-shot application process, in which 18 black artists and arts groups participated (out of 25 applicants total), as compared to 12 in the entire 1995-96 funding process. To acknowledge this and encourage future participation, the Commission decided to allocate small amounts -- from $1,000 to $6,000 -- to each of the 14 ethnic applicants (one Hispanic, 13 black) who were not otherwise disqualified for technical reasons. Re-enter Eric Mitchell, who had apparently not made it clear that, when he said he wanted more money for black artists, he meant artists of his choosing. At council, Mitchell strong-armed his white-guilted comrades into replacing the Arts Commission's list with his own list, which eliminated six of the 14 winners, added a grant for one of the losers, and raised the remaining grants to fat 'n' happy levels.
Some of Mitchell's choices make perfect political sense -- for example, filmmaker Wendel Handy, one of the applicants Mitchell axed, had wanted funding for a documentary on the current East Austin redevelopment initiative, a subject on which the councilmember is famously thin-skinned. Other changes can only be explained by patronage concerns -- for example, his $2,500 award to Dancer's Edge, a group identified by PARD staff as Anglo, which failed to win funding in the regular 1995-96 cycle and in the current funding cycle. (This year, the group was ranked dead last among all applicants.) And Mitchell's biggest prize, a $10,000 contract to smooth-jazz star Kyle Turner and KAZI radio -- on-air home of the councilmember's biggest media fan, the Rev. Frank Garrett -- is, according to the application, for a one-hour program at Catfish Station on Sixth Street, designed as some sort of outreach for young people. ("Sketchy" is the adjective used by the Commission to describe Turner's application.) How one spends that kind of money in an hour, or does a kids' program at a full-liquor bar on Sixth Street, is unclear to PARD staff or to members of the Arts Commission. (As of press time, the Chronicle is still waiting for promised details from KAZI General Manager Michael Coleman, and PARD is waiting for a refined budget from Turner and the station. No contract has yet been signed.)
The whole Black Arts Alli- ance mess bares questions not just about the hows and whys of minority equity, but about the solidity and integrity of other areas of the process. The PARD staff supporting the cultural-contracts program is overworked and hasn't been able to keep a close enough watch on groups like BAA to keep such disasters from occurring. "The cultural contracts office tries in every possible way to identify groups in trouble," says Bruce Willenzik, the longest-serving member (since 1989) of the Arts Commission, and the current chair of its funding subcommittee. "But there's always the ability to hide the truth from the officials, postpone and postpone getting in reports, and obscure the difference between the figures being delayed and the figures not being what the city wants to see."
There is also an inherent risk in the city's heavy dependence on service, or umbrella, organizations to bring into the process those artists who will help fill gaps within ethnic groups or, for that matter, within disciplines. "I hope that, in the future, all of us -- panelists, arts commissioners, cultural-contracts staff -- have the time and opportunity to ourselves participate and reach out into the community," says Vince Hollister, chair of the "mixed arts" advisory panel that gets first crack at the applications of service organizations, among other groups. "We need to explore who's out there waiting to be funded instead of waiting for them to, on their own, discover their potential. I think we'd be richer for the effort."
But, as Willenzik points out, the service-organization system has on balance worked well because of "the artists that work with those groups -- they're vocal and active and get what they want. If you don't have artists who are vocally insisting on service, what tips the umbrella off to what's needed? Any artist or group has to take responsibility for making sure the community perceives the value they deliver."
The centrality of the umbrella groups is in part spawned by the rigors of the process itself, which lie mostly beyond the ken of the Arts Commission, says Marilyn Good, the arts commissioner who oversees development and review of the cultural-contracts guidelines. "Speaking for myself, I see the barriers as including the cash-match requirements, the difficulty of three different review processes, the insurance requirements, the reporting requirements, and the scheduling of funding -- when groups actually get their money," she says. "The Arts Commission doesn't have control over any of those things. Several months ago, we asked for a [city] council worksession and the opportunity to start from ground zero -- to look at the ordinance from the ground up and change what's needed. These things were written long ago [in 1986, to be exact] and don't necessarily apply to today's world. But that requires cooperation between us and council."
As a whole, though few people in the cultural-contracts process seem thrilled with Mitchell's fiat, they generally focus, either pragmatically or diplomatically, on what happens next. "In general, the Arts Commission has to see that persons of color are given the same break that any other person would have. We have to both talk the talk and walk the walk," says Bernadette Phifer, curator of PARD's Carver Museum and the only African-American member of the Arts Commission. "We have to make the process more favorable -- not necessarily easier, but more comfortable for those who would participate -- and make sure there is equity all the way through. Even when the Black Arts Alliance was there, the need to encourage a diverse group of people to participate was also there."
There has been some speculation as to what organization might emerge to replace the BAA; the current favorites would appear to be McMillan's DiverseArts Production Group -- which, if the Arts Commission recommendation holds, would receive the biggest contract in 1996-97 (nearly $31,000) of any African-American-led group -- and actor Boyd Vance's new Progressive Arts Collective (ProArts), slated for a $20,000 contract. However, McMillan sees inherent danger in keying the equity issue around a single group, no matter how good. "It's this whole gentleman's-agreement mentality -- just like on the council itself -- that got us into trouble in the first place," he says. "It shouldn't just be one group's responsibility, or even just people of color's responsibility, to ensure that there's diversity and equity in the arts. The city and the community got used to thinking that giving money to the Black Arts Alliance was the same as promoting black artists and artworks, and that's not the case."
The Arts Commission's strategy for this year avoided that particular pitfall, but opened up new chinks to be pierced by the arrows of the disaffected. When the board convened last week, out of the $2 million-plus to be allocated, all but $127,912 had been spoken for, either through multi-year applications (more on them later) or through the decisions of the advisory panels. Before addressing the equity issue directly, the commission first reviewed those applicants whose funding had been cut from prior years' levels by the panels, and summarily restored many of those cuts, especially for the higher-ranked groups. It then reversed the process and cut (a smaller number of) applicants who'd received significant increases over prior years. This swapping left $56,041, most of which got added to lists of ethnic applicants prepared by Phifer (for African-Americans) and by commissioners Albert Valle and Valerie Menard (for Hispanics), the latter list being somewhat more exhaustive than the former. One black applicant got their contract quickly doubled (that change was later reversed) in order to push the African-American percentage of funding closer to 5%.
Though it's hard to say any of the applicants in question were undeserving of the funding with which they ended up, it's also hard not to call this a quota system, with people receiving funding simply because of their ethnicity. This may not be a bad thing, but the tenor of our times, in liberal strongholds like Austin, seems to embrace affirmative action but remain squeamish about the means to its ends. Phifer contends that such funding decisions tend to balance each other out. "Money will be there for everyone to meet their same needs and their different needs," she says. "Sometimes you may get a dollar more than I, and perhaps I live in a fantasy world, but I can rejoice in your getting now, but hope that you will rejoice in my getting tomorrow."
Specific allotments for ethnic groups are not the only means through which the Arts Commission hopes to increase diversity and equity. The city has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with which it is developing what PARD calls the PAMPER Project (meaning, "Professionals as Mentors: Partnerships and Education Resources"). This would make both funds and technical assistance via professional volunteers (mentors) available to ethnic and emerging arts groups ("emerging" being defined as groups less than five years old, with budgets of less than $100,000) specifically to improve their administrative and management skills -- in PARD's words, "Assistance will be primarily directed to the organizational and developmental needs of establishing and conducting a business."
"One of the problems we've always been aware of is that smaller and emerging groups don't have the staff and resources for this," says Dr. Mario Garza, formerly a member of the Arts Commission and now the PARD staffer coordinating the NEA project. "Some of the larger groups have their own grantwriters, but the smaller ones are so busy in production that one person has to be director, choreographer, promoter and everything else. We hope the program will not only teach smaller groups what they need to do, but help make money available so they can hire staff to help them keep doing that." Garza adds that the program is currently looking for volunteer mentors.
Another innovation in the latter-day cultural contract process is the multi-year application -- allowing organizations, usually large ones, with long histories (five years or more) of city funding to lock in their contract amounts for three years (though not to actually sign a multi-year contract, which would be against city procedure) and budget accordingly. In exchange for this stability, the multi-year applicants have to have "an outreach program intended to develop exposure to the applicant's art form in communities historically underserved by the organized arts."
This system has both practical and philosophical benefits, according to Good. Without having to horse-trade and bicker over allotments to the likes of the Austin Museum of Art, Ballet Austin, and Live Oak Theatre, "the advisory panels knew exactly where and how much money was available," she says. "We can go in and look at geographic or ethnic or disciplinary underservice, and deal with that. It gives us more money to be flexible and deal with problems." On the other hand, she continues, "We need to build bridges between and among artists, arts organizations and across I-35. How do we do that? With rules and quotas? None of those things lead to good feelings. So we decided to offer larger groups an incentive -- if you reach out, we'll give you stability so you can afford to reach out."
This is, again, a step worth taking, but leads back to McMillan's contention that these larger groups have more inherent responsibility to reach out to diverse audiences as part of their routine endeavor, not as a special project. "What sometimes happens, when major-league, mainstream groups attempt outreach, is that they ask the city to fund those projects with cultural contracts," he says, recalling his own experience as a longtime advisory panelist. "The rest of their programming, their promotions, the artists they feature and hire -- the stuff funded by their donors and underwriters -- isn't diverse at all. They don't advertise in the East Side papers. They don't present dramatic works dealing with the lives of black folks. They don't bring minority artists to their stages. And the funding authorities, including the city, are reluctant to actually punish them or force them to make those kind of changes."
The reflexiveness with which majors get money as compared to minors -- one of the key, if not foremost, controversies during the arts wars -- is a consistent sore point among some arts constituencies, but not all of the support the big groups receive throughout the funding process is simply due to risk-aversion and political obligation. "The major institutions are serving large communities, including those of diverse cultural heritages, and we risk losing the potential of large organizations making an impact on the total community if we just cut their funding," says Hollister. "That's simplistic. We need to promote not only a great number of artists and organizations, but also stability and maturity, and support those organizations that can help the others survive."
Both Hollister and Good are part of a coalescing effort to create an actual city-wide lobbying organization to increase support for the arts in all sizes, colors and flavors. "If we had community-wide advocacy for the arts, Austinites would respond to the needs of both large and small groups. If all they hear is a few people asking for more money, we won't get their support," Hollister says. "We haven't had the savvy, the inclination, and the will to get people in the community -- both businesses and audiences -- to stand up and use their skills to support the arts.
"Right now, we have one small group of people, supported by another small group of people, supported by another," Hollister continues. "So of course our reputation in the arts is somewhat less than stellar, even though we're an open and fair and intelligent town. 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."