Colorblind Arts

illustration by Doug Potter

Austin is a city whereleaders line up to express their commitments to social justice -- where diversity is celebrated, the keeping of the peace is valued highly, and healing is actively sought for the wounds of the past. The city has long been sensitive about the implications for ethnic diversity in how it spends its money (the issue even seeped into the controversy over City Manager Jesus Garza's reorganization of Austin Energy; more on that next week), so when the reappointment of a member of the Arts Commission was challenged because of her stance on funding for minority arts groups, things got a little tense.

The point of contention was Commissioner Pat Orman's plan to change the financial policy of the Arts Commission to eliminate the money set aside for minority artists, and funnel it into the commission's regular budget (which comes from a percentage of the city's bed tax, and totaled about $3 million last year), thereby raising the take for all groups. The injunction to serve minorities would remain a goal, as it does in other city programs such as hiring and contracting, and would be expanded to include other groups underrepresented in -- and underserved by -- the arts, like the disabled and elderly.

When the idea was floated at a May commission meeting, it initiated a controversy that had many recalling the infamous "arts wars" over arts funding in the 1980s. Orman said that her proposal was developed in cooperation with the other two members of the commission's funding subcommittee, but that their support for the change "slid out under the door" after the "huge reaction" from other commissioners. The proposal is no longer on the table, but the rancor raised by its initial debate remains, and it boiled up this week when Orman's appointment to the commission came up for renewal.

Orman said she was trying to ensure that the city could continue to consider all populations in making its arts funding allocations. Some of her peers on the commission, however, alleged that her proposal was an attack on a hard-won funding source for minority artists who still face discrimination on the basis of race. Tomas Salas said the plan would work fine -- in a perfect world. "That would be well and good -- if there was no racism." But, he added, "It's not a level playing field."

The commissioner and her critics went back and forth at the council meeting, both seemingly favoring the same goals of equal opportunity in arts funding and participation. Orman cited as justification for her proposal a city ordinance mandating the Arts Commission to "equalize access to the arts, both participatory and professional," the very objective that some minority commissioners said her proposal would threaten.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman noted the similarity of the two sides' stated desires, and defended her appointee, Orman, against the charges: "Some of the things I've heard bear no resemblance to the person I know and respect. Whoever I would appoint would [never] seek to negate the special charges and the special values that we as artists in Austin have put into the process; I have not found a word of truth in allegations that have come my way. I think if we all look back to actual communication, maybe we will understand that all of our goals are the same."

The discussion gave Councilmember Gus Garcia, the only one to vote against Orman's reappointment, the opportunity not only to continue his record of voting with minority groups who petition the council, but to hold forth on the nature of art: "Expressing one's art form is a way of gaining self-esteem. We learn something about who we are. That's one of the things that's been missing in Austin (for minorities). The rebellion we see in young people is directly tied to lack of self-esteem." Garcia lamented "men and women coming from cultures that are so old, so rich, and so deep, feeling no self-esteem." He exhorted Orman to do a little leg work to increase her level of cultural enlightenment: "Go out and visit with them so you begin to understand."

In her reaction to the controversy, Orman was guilty of lacking some of the cultural sensitivity that is so essential to coalition building -- and therefore to success -- in Austin politics. She called the original uproar over her proposal "much ado about nothing, a bunch of hooey." And to be fair, the concern of minorities over funding for their arts priorities is not "hooey." The fact is that minority arts groups have traditionally been left out of the arts funding race, and would lose a sure revenue source if Orman's proposal were adopted.

Behind the scenes and way off the record, though, city officials have said that recent legal trends have made formal set-asides for minority groups vulnerable to court challenges, and that accomplishing the goal of equal opportunity now requires more subtlety of method. It is in this direction -- stealth affirmative action -- that Orman seemingly would move the arts commission, and though that is unsavory to some affirmative action supporters, it may be a necessary accommodation.

But the terms of debate in such discussions can be highly loaded, with all kinds of emotional and historical baggage attached. In the words of one participant in the appointment process (who naturally asked not to be identified), "charges of racism are the hardest to defend against. It's like calling somebody a witch." The council was brave, therefore, to trust Goodman and give Orman a chance. The vote was more or less a referendum on the new mayor pro tem's reputation for fairness, which even Orman's critics acknowledge is solid. But councilmembers should make good on Councilmember Willie Lewis' warning that "this is going to cause four or five of us to take a closer look at the things that do come from the Arts Commission,"and give the arts funding process (and all city affirmative action programs) the scrutiny it deserves, and that's something people of good will should welcome.

This Week in Council: The City Council does not meet this week. They'll be back October 22. And early voting begins Saturday.

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Council Watch, Council, Arts Commission, Pat Orman, Tomas Salas, Jackie Goodman, Gus Garcia, Willie Lewis, Funding, Minority, City Council

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