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Arts space assistance doubles in new budget, but is it enough?

Monday, September 17, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has revived the Arts Space Assistance Program that was created in 2017 and received overwhelming demand from local arts groups facing a loss of space, but was discontinued in the current budget due to lack of funding.

The Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget passed last week by City Council includes funding for a variety of programs related to capacity building for the city’s arts community, with ASAP set to receive at least $400,000, or twice the amount provided in its pilot last year.

Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, assistant director of the Economic Development Department, said it’s possible even more money can be directed toward ASAP to meet what is expected to be overwhelming demand for assistance from theater and arts groups facing increased rents or the threat of lease terminations because of development pressure.

The pilot version of the program drew more than $500,000 in assistance requests from 17 groups, with the city administering the $200,000 allotment on a pro rata basis to the 12 groups it found to be eligible. Those groups were Vortex Repertory Co., Imagine Art, Latinitas, Austin School of Film, Tapestry Dance Company, Rude Mechanicals, Pump Project, Ballet Afrique, Austin Visual Arts Association, Austin Creative Reuse, Dimension Gallery and Conspirare.

“We know the need is there because it was oversubscribed last time,” Holt-Rabb said. “Because we get calls all the time from companies losing their space, we are almost certain it’s going to be oversubscribed again this time. I know three organizations I’ve talked to in the last two weeks who are on the verge of losing their space or the rent is going up for them.”

The revived program will stick to its initial framework of providing grants to support arts nonprofits facing permanent displacement, those who have already been displaced, and those who are expecting drastic rent increases in their next lease. The grants can be used to subsidize part of the rent or to cover the cost of property improvements by the tenant arts group.

The fate of arts organizations trying to stay solvent and retain their facilities amid Austin’s increasing cost of living has become a political and economic issue around City Hall, with Council Member Ann Kitchen as the most vocal supporter of programs to assist artist preservation.

There were a series of EDD requests related to creative capacity building that did not receive funding, including money for a continuation of the Cultural Asset Mapping Program, though Holt-Rabb said the current data collection effort will remain alive, and some components of cultural placemaking will be incorporated into the city’s revised economic incentives system when location-based incentives are used.

A request for funding to pay for training of arts-based nonprofit groups was also not included in the new budget. Holt-Rabb said the department plans to use at least $20,000 remaining from a 2014 Council allocation of $150,000 for artist enhancement to address those training needs. She said it’s also possible the city could pair its training with training announced for more than two dozen arts organizations provided by the Bloomberg Foundation.

“We realize in all of our programs that we need to get (arts nonprofits) ready to move into a place on their own, get qualified for a loan, et cetera,” she said. “We recognize that technical assistance is going to be important, so while we may not have gotten funding, we’re trying to carve out a portion of what we already have.”

The new budget does include some additional assistance for arts groups, mostly via a $1.2 million expenditure for the implementation of the city’s new business incentives system, which in part was updated to assist creative-focused businesses. Holt-Rabb said it’s possible considerations for below-market commercial space – seen by most as a key piece for arts space preservation – could be incorporated into the ongoing push for the city to put 13 pieces of city-owned land into use for development.

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

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