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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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With cuts reduced, arts groups push city to reshape future funding
The city’s Arts Commission has asked City Council to allocate more than $1 million in extra money to arts organizations recently informed they were facing sharp cuts in their funding from the city’s Cultural Arts Division.
At last Monday’s special meeting of the commission the group voted 6-1, with Commissioner Felipe Garza voting against, to support changes to the city’s funding matrix devised by a working group formed in response to criticism that the city and commission failed to notify affected groups of the coming funding cuts.
The changes bring the total allocation for cultural contracts to $12.4 million, just shy of the most recent budget year.
Organizations will still face cuts up to 11 percent of their previous funding amount from the city because more than 100 new groups applied for funding this year and 421 of the 427 total applicants being judged as eligible for funding.
The affected groups learned of the cuts shortly after Council approved the fiscal 2019 budget earlier this month. Because of a combination of additional applicants, increased administrative costs and lower than expected transfers in funding from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, the city had just over $11 million to give to contract recipients. Using the same scoring and allocation method for the increased applicant pool Cultural Arts would have needed more than $13 million to maintain previous funding levels while also giving money to the new groups, many of which are from various minority groups.
“The equity lens is something we’ve looked at through all of this,” Commissioner Michelle Polgar said. “Part of the reason we’re in the situation we are is because we’ve been so mindful about how we try to provide access to organizations that haven’t had their entry into these programs. That’s been successful and positive but also been hard to handle.”
The extra $1 million came from a revised increase in transfer funds, using all of the 5 percent reserve the commission usually requires to be left in the general fund, decreasing the budget for tourism and promotion and cutting programs such as community initiatives.
After the vote, representatives of some of the impacted groups were relieved to receive less of a cut than anticipated, but many were critical of what they described as a lack of communication from city leaders about the prospect of a funding shortage.
“I am bewildered at how a pot of money that was escalating rapidly over a period of years is suddenly decreasing,” said Don Dixon, a former board member of Tapestry Dance, which had faced a cut of $49,500, or 26 percent of its contract with the city. “I look around this town and see 40-story hotels going up and all the (short-term rentals), how can we possibly have less money to distribute to these organizations? If you’re going to change our funding, do it incrementally. Don’t pop it on us that we’re going to lose $49,000.”
Discussion throughout the meeting returned to how the city evaluates cultural contract applicants, with some speakers calling for a higher threshold to qualify for city money.
Chair Jaime Castillo said there will be ongoing discussions about possible revisions to the funding matrix, which was first constructed in 2005, and invited audience members to stay connected with commission members going forward.
Garza said the cuts are a needed trade-off to provide more money for new applicants, including those representing minority groups.
“We looked at our demographic numbers and realized those numbers do not represent the community of Austin right here right now … you guys do not represent the community of Austin,” he said.
“We wanted to bump up the numbers particularly with the minority folks, and with this application process we have the highest number of minority applications we’ve ever had before. Don’t be surprised that we had so many new folks, because we had workshops for new folks to apply so they could get some of the same advantages that you guys have gotten in the application process.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Arts Commission: The Arts Commission advises the Austin City Council in all arts-related matters, fosters the development of the arts, and promotes cooperation between the City and the public.