Arts Consultants: Connect the Cultural Dots

The city's consultants recommend a new, one-stop shop and more funding for Austin's arts programs.

The city first resolved to hire an arts  consultant after City Council members,  particularly Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, decided that the cultural contracts  program had become too politicized.
The city first resolved to hire an arts consultant after City Council members, particularly Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, decided that the cultural contracts program had become too politicized. (Photo By John Anderson)

In the cover letter to her team's final report, arts consultant Lucille Dabney notes that "the timing of this endeavor coincided with an important initiative of City Council related to economic development." That timing was largely accidental, but what a difference a year makes. What began as an effort to clean up the city's contentious arts-funding program has turned into a key plank of Austin's bring-business-back strategy. The Dabney report, presented to the City Council on Dec. 10, calls for major reorganization at City Hall, with the creation of an independent "full-service, private, non-profit arts agency" to "connect the dots" in Austin's culture programs and replace the benighted status quo.

The city first resolved to hire an arts consultant back in 2001, when council members -- particularly Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- decided the cultural contracts program, handing out bed-tax money to artists under the auspices of the council-appointed Arts Commission, had become too politicized and controversial. But City Hall dragged its collective feet for a full year over recruiting and hiring a consultant team, during which the economy tanked, the bed-tax fund dropped more than one-third, and the cultural-contracts program lost whatever respect and credibility it still enjoyed. When adopting the current year's budget, a disgusted City Council ended up throwing out the entire Arts Commission recommendation and substituting its own formula funding scheme for the cultural arts fund.

By that time, though, the stakes had gotten much higher -- Dabney (of Houston) and her colleagues Eduardo Diaz (of San Antonio) and Marion McCollam (also of Houston) had on their plate not only a dysfunctional funding program but Austin's status as a mecca of the "creative class." Even as the Dabney team (working under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor) prepared its final report, the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy rolled out its recommendations, which focus heavily on promoting Austin's cultural vitality -- i.e., keeping Austin weird. "As the arts are integrated into city goals for economic growth and city image," Dabney writes, "the prominence of Austin as a creative center will be enhanced."

Accordingly, under the Dabney proposal, the new temporary home for the city's arts programs -- which have been anchored in the Parks and Recreation Dept. since their inception -- would be the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office. This new arts shop would integrate not only the cultural-contracts and Art in Public Places programs from PARD, but also the film and music offices (currently assigned to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau) and the civic art and design staff already in EGRS. This would be the first step in a two-year process of spinning off an independent arts council -- a private nonprofit akin to ACVB, which would potentially have access to private philanthropy that wouldn't be available to an actual city department.

All three consultants have run such programs in other cities, which makes their suggestion that they actually run the embryonic Austin program something other than a fit of hubris. (In their recommendation, Diaz would be the interim executive director of the Austin arts council.) "I appreciate the offer to come in and take some hits in the initial period so that we can put this thing in place," Mayor Gus Garcia noted. Beyond the basic start-up tasks, whoever runs the new program would have a full plate -- starting with devising a new cultural-contracts process, which is currently in limbo. (The Arts Commission -- which would be dissolved under the Dabney proposal -- decided to stick with the council's formulas for next year's allocation.) The Dabney report is no more specific than suggesting the city "recast the grant program based on best practices" and "immediately begin revising, revamping, and enhancing the program and the process."

As the mayor implied, a lot of punches might get thrown before this proposal becomes reality. In a city that's having fits over spending less than $700,000 on the Austin Music Network, a multimillion-dollar arts department may be a hard sell. The consultants make clear that the current supply of bed tax is not enough and that the city needs "to build a case for inclusion of arts programs and services in the General Fund budget." (As it happens, the current EGRS budget comes out of Austin Energy.) And the creation of a single, central arts authority -- along with a overarching civic arts policy to guide it -- is bound to spawn turf battles and will need careful management and negotiation that, if ACVB is any model, will probably take longer than two years.

But the momentum appears to be on the side of big thinking and big changes in the city arts agenda -- which, as we head into an election season where City Hall candidates will spar over who will do the best job keeping Austin weird, is unlikely to change. "A commitment to move forward, even though we may not be able to achieve all of the next steps right away, is an incredible and enormous step forward for us," said Council Member Betty Dunkerley. "And I think, together with the economic initiative, this really could be a brand-new day for Austin, one that is as bright and entrepreneurial as the Austin spirit is supposed to be, [rather than] slogging along in the old mud rut as we tend to do."

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Lucille Dabney, Marion McCollam, Eduardo Diaz, Arts Commission, cultural contracts, cultural arts fund, bed tax, Art in Public Places, civic art and design, Economic growth and Redevelopment Services, EGRS, keep Austin weird, creative class, Betty Dunkerley

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