About the Author
Chad Swiatecki is a 20-year journalist who relocated to Austin from his home state of Michigan in 2008. He most enjoys covering the intersection of arts, business and local/state politics. He has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Daily News, Texas Monthly, Austin American-Statesman and many other regional and national outlets.
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Dispute continues over program to expand artists’ access to cultural centers
There appears to be little progress in a dispute between a group of Austin arts organizations who claim they’ve been mistreated and marginalized by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in its work to expand operating hours and access at four arts and culture centers.
That means that groups that currently rehearse and perform at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center – Proyecto Teatro, Teatro Vivo, Aztlan Dance Company and Los Bohemios Perdidos – still have a deadline on Friday, Jan. 19, to sign their contracts that would grandfather them into the city’s Artists Access Program.
Last week, the MACC Advisory Board asked the city to suspend the program, which was created to give local artists the ability to rehearse or hold performances at that venue; the Asian American Resource Center; the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center; and the Dougherty Arts Center.
A meeting scheduled for last Friday between the Parks and Recreation Department, Economic Development Department and Cultural Arts Division never took place because a representative from the affected arts groups didn’t show up.
Luis Gutiérrez, executive director of Proyecto Teatro, said he was not told about the Friday meeting and said the miscommunication is one more item on his group’s list of grievances with city staff over the Artists Access Program.
The chief criticisms include that advisory groups from the three cultural centers weren’t given enough input in shaping the program that will use their facilities, that some stipulations of the 17-page contract pose concerns for children involved in activities at the centers, and that ethnic arts groups could be displaced from the cultural center where they feel most at home.
Gutiérrez said his coalition is planning a press event for this week to call more attention to the dispute and put more pressure on the Parks and Recreation Department to halt the program. If the groups currently operating at MACC don’t sign the contracts by Friday’s deadline, their residency there could be in jeopardy.
“We’re calling for this to be frozen until the program can be audited, because it was built with erroneous assertions and the various cultural boards were not involved in its creation,” he said. “We want to inform the community about what’s going on with this program, because people of color are not aware of how this has been done.”
Laura Esparza, division manager of museums and cultural programs for the city, said staff are moving ahead with the program that was approved by City Council in December to help local arts groups that are having problems finding rehearsal and performance spaces as rents increase. She said so far 11 new arts groups have applied to take part in the program, in addition to any of the groups eligible for the grandfather agreement.
“The most pressing deadline is the need for artists to have space that they can use, and we’re doing our best to serve the needs of the arts community,” she said.
Esparza also pushed back against Gutiérrez’s points of dispute, including his point that cultural advisory boards weren’t involved in shaping the access program. As an example, she said the program implemented a suggestion from the group behind the AARC that participating groups be able to hold rehearsals and performances at different facilities if schedules allowed.
The dustup has some groups wanting to take a closer look at what they had at first thought was a fairly perfunctory and standard process.
“I know it was briefly explained to a workgroup for the AARC and there was a possibility of opening up evening hours, which was important to us because we’d lost some temporary funding that caused us to lose our evening hours,” said Vince Cobalis, chair of the Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission.
Cobalis said his group hasn’t taken a stance on the dispute yet but plans to spend the next month gathering information so it can be discussed and possibly voted on at the February meeting.
“We kind of took it all at face value and were most concerned that Asian-American groups would have an opportunity to apply, but we also may need to make a decision on how this was done,” he said. “I’m getting completely different stories and I’d like to get that hashed out before I jump on one side or the other.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.
Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center: An Austin center with exhibits and events that explore Mexican-American heritage and culture.