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Another report, same story: Austin’s too pricey for artists

Monday, July 16, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Don’t stop, even if it seems like you’ve read this one before: A new city report finds that Austin’s musicians and creative class are feeling the financial squeeze while the rest of the city prospers.

That finding, released last week, comes from the Economic Development Department’s 2017 Creative Space Survey, which gathered data from more than 500 artists over a three-month period last summer.

The survey’s broad conclusion is one that’s become a common refrain in arts and other circles: that the rising price of real estate, in East Austin especially, is continuing to force artists and arts groups out of their working or living spaces, with suburban communities such as Lockhart, Elgin and Smithville becoming desirable landing spots for Austin expats.

Among the more detailed findings:

  • 51 percent of organizations and businesses said their space was currently too small
  • 42 percent of respondents said they have considered leaving Austin for another city or state
  • 23 percent of organizations and businesses are in a precarious position with month-to-month leases
  • 12 percent of organizations and businesses shared that they currently do not have or are in immediate danger of losing the space they need within the next year

The latest survey was constructed with the intention of gathering comparison data for 2018 – it is open for submissions here – so city leaders can gauge how the climate for creatives is changing for better or worse over the years.

It also adds to a growing pile of city-involved studies, surveys and analyses – a 2013 report from Minneapolis-based Artspace, 2015’s Austin Music Census, 2016’s Creative Sector Needs Assessment, or this year’s Thriving in Place report, to name just some – that were at least partially commissioned to spur policy from city leaders to intervene and help preserve Austin’s artist and music community.

Mayor Steve Adler said city administration requires data like those found in the many reports like those above to formulate appropriate policies that can succeed. One example he provided was the pilot program, later made permanent, that provided later sound curfews for some clubs in the Red River Cultural District and produced a modest increase in weekend alcohol sales for the thin-margined businesses as a result.

“The city is moving toward an ever-greater reliance on data to assess the effectiveness of where to spend funds and direct our resources,” he said. “The data confirms what we’ve known anecdotally for a while, but it also gives us the means to measure progress on these challenges over time.”

While the city has enacted some arts-focused initiatives such as the Art Space Assistance Program and a busking pilot program for musicians, leaders in the arts community are growing frustrated at the city’s slow pace and are turning more to the private sector for financial cover.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, editor of the Sightlines news site focused on Austin’s arts community, said the slow pace of city action and uncertainty from Austin’s philanthropic community has left artists with decreasing financial resources to earn a living as the area cost of living increases.

“The No. 1 topic among artists is the affordability crisis when it comes to space and venues, and any time the city is mentioned in conversation, it’s usually a ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ kind of thing,” she said. “A lot of artists have given up on the prospect of anything from the city because there is so much issuing of studies or getting together a list of recommendations – and then nothing happening. There’s kind of a growing weariness in the community of this being just another round of the same.”

One possible bright spot is that the city’s bond proposal set for the fall election could see $12 million included and earmarked for the preservation or creation of space for the city’s creative community.

Some arts leaders see a long-brewing slate of private development deals and partnerships with arts organizations coming to a head in the next two years, which could result in more spaces for studios, performances and more around the city.

“We’ll start to see things change in the next couple years, but the problem we have right now is we didn’t start really caring about it until it was three or four years too late,” said Brad Carlin, a former member of the management team at Austin’s Fusebox Festival and a member of a working group studying CodeNEXT on behalf of Austin’s Music and Arts commissions.

“In a certain way, we’re seeing what exactly needs to happen because when the projects will need some city involvement or support come forward, the city will have its data in hand and everything will be teed up. We are going to see things turn, and the thing I don’t want to see is an overcorrection, so we don’t lose a delicate balance between what artists say they’d like to have and what the market can sustain.”

Photo by Tim Patterson made available through a Creative Commons license.

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