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After a successful first year, the Art Space Assistance Program will not continue

Thursday, September 21, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

The Art Space Assistance Program that is aimed at assisting creative-focused nonprofits facing permanent displacement, those previously displaced, or those facing lease renewals at substantially higher rates did not receive funding from City Council for 2018.

Council approved $200,000 of General Fund money for the new program in June. The program was intended for organizations with at least a three-year lease term that required financial assistance to continue to provide space for creative people. It offered grants of up to $50,000 for tenant improvements and up to $35,000 for rent stipends.

This grant program is made possible through one-time funding from the city of Austin General Fund. There was no such allocation for the next fiscal year.

On Sept. 8, the Cultural Arts Division awarded partial grants to 12 of the 17 applicants to this pilot grant program. Those who received funding were the Vortex Theatre, Imagine Art, Latinitas, Austin School of Film (Motion Media Arts Center), Tapestry (Visions in Rhythm), Rude Mechanicals, Pump Project (Shady Tree Studios), Ballet Afrique, Austin Visual Arts Association, Austin Creative Reuse and the Dimension Gallery.

At the Arts Commission meeting on Sept. 18, Meghan Wells, the Cultural Arts Division manager for the Economic Development Department, said, “We knew going into this pilot that the city would not be able to offer assistance to every applicant in need, so we are continuing discussions with those applicants (who were not awarded funds) to identify potential solutions and options on a case-by-case basis.” However, she said, “All of these (applicants) were worthy, it’s just that we had a pot and only so much.”

Overall, Wells said that requests for funding were in excess of $543,000.

Vice Chair Michelle Polgar saw the partial fulfillment of applications as an opportunity to open further discussion both with creative spaces and the community who supports them. She explained, “Any time that you are dealing with something that is an emergency funding response, the stakes are high which means that emotions are high.” Therefore, she said, “I think it’s important that we say we’re not done yet, we’re still working to fix this.”

For those who were unable to receive funding, Wells told the Austin Monitor, “The Cultural Arts Division staff is exploring other city and community resources to assist with the needs of those not offered funding.”

Commissioner Brett Barnes noted that with such a small budget, donating a larger portion of the funds to fewer groups made the grants more effective. “We didn’t dilute it so much that the money they were receiving wasn’t going to do what it needed to do,” he said.

To clarify precisely what the intended effect of the ASAP grant was, Chair Lulu Flores asked, “Of the ones that were funded, are they able to fix their problem?” Wells responded that the way the application was structured allowed for awards to only those who could remedy their need with the grant money.

Nevertheless, Wells said that currently it is not possible to definitively say if the grants helped encourage long-term stability. “I don’t think that we can say before a year,” she said.

While the Cultural Arts Division hopes to receive Council funding for 2019, it has contingency plans to continue administering the Creative Space Survey in an effort to collect more granular data on creative space needs to help inform policies, programs and public-private partnerships.

Similarly, creating affordable creative spaces “continues to be a specific priority for the division and broadly for the Economic Development Department,” Wells told the Monitor.

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