Austin's Creative Clash

Austin's arts funding process leaves much to be desired -- and consulted.

Arts Commission Chair Andrea Bryant
Arts Commission Chair Andrea Bryant (Photo By John Anderson)

With both city auditors and outside consultants taking swings this week at Austin's arts-funding piñata, City Hall is awash in expertise. But the most important expert guiding Austin leaders right now is here only in spirit -- Pittsburgh professor Richard Florida, whose christening of Austin as a mecca of the "creative class" has been swallowed whole by all who would like to see Austin's dysfunctional cultural arts system reformed.

"Dysfunctional" is the official assessment of the Office of the City Auditor; its draft report (presented last week) finds little good to say about the way Austin, under the auspices of the much-maligned Arts Commission, doles out millions in hotel bed tax to local artists. In the current economy, there are fewer millions to dole -- funding is down more than $1 million from FY 2002, which led to months of chaos and subsequent bitterness. Last month, a totally exasperated City Council, for the first time ever, tossed the entire Arts Commission recommendation in the trash, and instead gave most artists their previous year's city funding, minus one-third.

Despite the auditors' gloomy tone, some players in the emotionally charged saga think the report didn't go far enough. "The old system, as it has been, is gone, and it really needed to go," says Arts Commissioner Bruce Willenzik, the longest-serving member of that board. "The possibilities of where it can go from here is wide open. I'm hoping they come up with an improvement, but the audit is ... incomplete." The audit focuses closely -- and not favorably -- on the commission itself, but says little about the other players in the process (like staff in the Parks and Recreation Dept.) with blood on their hands.

The audit well summarizes familiar complaints about the process -- it's ad hoc, it's political, people abuse it, people don't communicate, sometimes people are mean. But as Willenzik suggests, much more is now on the table. "The audit comes at it from a very finite angle," notes Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman.

Goodman and others have a more-or-less infinite vision of Austin's creative community, its significance, and its potential. Austin's support of the arts "should be a community thing, not a 'city thing,'" Goodman says. "Many people have a stake in making sure that creative artists know that this is their home, a place that loves and cares and celebrates them. Now what do you do to make that vision a reality, and to acknowledge how important artists are to our economic development and well-being ?"

Enter, stage right, the ace consultants -- Lucille Dabney, Eduardo Diaz, and Marian McCollam. (Diaz is the former cultural affairs director in San Antonio; Dabney and McCollam are both former directors of Houston's Cultural Arts Council.) The team, which briefed the City Council Wednesday, had no dispute with the auditor's conclusions -- particularly about the widespread failure of stakeholders to communicate. For example, though anybody could have predicted after September 11 that the hotel bed tax -- Austin's sole source of arts funding -- would decline steeply, nobody warned the Arts Commission to tighten its cultural-contracts belt until the process was nearly over and promises had been made. "It's clear there's no regular system where communication is happening at all levels between all players," said Diaz.

On paper, the Dabney team will give Austin some best-practice ideas for how to reinvent the cultural-arts process to meet local needs. As the team goes along, however, those needs seem to change and get bigger, as the focus on Austin's "creative class" credentials and their economic impact becomes more acute. Rather than fixing the current process, the Dabney team's mission is, at least tacitly, to recommend an alternative that passes the Richard Florida test. (Florida himself, in discussing Austin, seems to think we already have such creative-friendly public policies in place.)

One loud-and-clear point in the consultant's work in progress -- they estimate they're "27%" done with their project -- is that a real city has a stand-alone cultural affairs department or public/ private arts council. Austin is the only major Texas city, perhaps the only comparable city anywhere, that tasks arts funding to a small office within a sprawling city department like PARD, and that has scattered cultural-affairs activities throughout its org chart. However, given the city's fiscal straits, though momentum is clearly on the side of a one-stop cultural shop in Austin, said Goodman, "It may have to be a little bit 'virtual' at first. The economy is so bad right now [that it] puts a real dent in our ability to do what we wish we could."

What the council, or the Dabney team, or the auditors, or somebody needs to do right now is come up with an "interim" process for fiscal 2004 -- especially since volunteer peer panelists, the ground troops of the current system, aren't exactly eager to sign up for months of work that City Council may throw away. The Dabney team is supposed to finish its "Phase I" work by November, but Dabney herself noted that "there are decisions [about next year] that have to be made a lot sooner than November, and we're sensitive to that."

The Arts Commission is having a retreat on Saturday (Oct. 5), at which Goodman and Betty Dunkerley -- who were, at best, coolly received last time they appeared before the board -- will offer their and others' best advice for what to do with the FY 2004 cycle. "I would like to see some more respect for the commission and some more clear guidance from the council," says Arts Commission Chair Andrea Bryant. "I don't know if we're simply supposed to implement a proposed interim process, or if we get to participate and give our feedback. I'm not as demoralized as I used to be, but I'm not very hopeful."

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