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Arts Commission encourages artist collaboration to save funding

Monday, July 24, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

The Arts Commission is encouraging collaboration among Austin artists not only for a sense of community but also to safeguard its cultural arts funding process.

Commissioner Richard “Bears” Fonte said artists have double-dipped in the cultural arts fund by splitting into separate art groups working toward the same or similar projects and applying for grants, and so the Arts Commission last Monday added changing its funding guidelines’ language to its goals. The commission reviews the guidelines every year and makes changes if necessary.

The city’s cultural arts funding programs provide money collected from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue to artists in the form of grants. Nonprofit art groups, individual artists and sponsored artists may apply for any of the different categories of funding, which include things like festivals, long-term projects or maintaining an existing creative group.

Commissioner Brett Barnes said he was unfamiliar with the double-dipping issue, and so Fonte used a hypothetical example of a Shakespeare theater group where members splinter off to start their own group but perform the same plays, maybe to be cast in a more desirable role or to have their own vision of the play realized.

Each group then applies for a grant from the cultural arts funding program, even though money is going to the same ideas or performances. Fonte said the groups then compete for limited resources such as rehearsal space and audiences, and as more groups splinter off less money is available as it is divided among them.

“It’s a lot of the same actors and they’re fighting over space, they’re fighting over rehearsal space, they’re fighting over audiences,” Fonte said.

Commissioner Bruce Willenzik offered up another scenario where a facility owner allows a vocalist to use their venue and get funding for that program, and then that vocalist’s group applies for funding for a show there as well. Willenzik said the problem is different entities apply for funding for the same vocalist and essentially the same shows, which used to happen about a decade ago but not as often.

Willenzik said it would be hard to track where exactly the money is flowing because the applications are blind to the Arts Commission.

“We’re not supposed to even know the main people who have applied, much less anything about their application other than there’s a score with no name,” Willenzik said. “That makes it very responsible and very unresponsive.”

Contract compliance specialist Anne-Marie McKaskle-Davis told the Austin Monitor panels made of the same artists, such as a painter panel or a dancer panel, review funding applications for their respective art discipline. Although the Arts Commission does not know who it is funding to prevent favoritism, those panels do have the names of the groups and can spot double-dipping in the review process before the application reaches the commission. McKaskle-Davis said the panels’ and Cultural Arts Division’s review process are thorough when reviewing applications and seeing who is involved.

“It’s up to (the panel) to decide either funding one or the other and making sure applicants aren’t double-dipping into the pot,” McKaskle-Davis said. “It’s pretty rare that that happens.”

Commissioners agreed with Barnes’ opinion that while the Arts Commission weighs in on funding, it can encourage but not force art groups to work with one another, which must be explicit in the guidelines’ new language. Before the commission could move the new language along, Commissioner Alissa McCain pointed out that some groups may prefer to work alone because it may be hard to decide which group should receive the most credit and therefore the funding for a project.

“Sometimes the policies that are set in the cultural arts grant system prohibited or discouraged collaboration because you wanted to do so many events a year,” McCain said. “But then it’s who claims this cultural arts grant. Maybe some organizations would need some guidance on how to do that.”

Barnes then suggested having a primary recipient and then a collaborator listed on the application to determine which group should receive funding based on the work it does. McKaskle-Davis told the Monitor final financial reports ask artists to disclose who their collaborators are, but there are no requirements in the language.

The commission will consider changing the guideline language to encourage collaboration as part of its goals, and it will review the new language sometime in the fall before the Cultural Heritage Festivals’ funding cycle for Fiscal Year 2018-19 begins.

Photo by Rodrigo Carvalho made available through a Creative Commons license.

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