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Arts, music groups target underserved communities with $12M for creative spaces

Wednesday, November 20, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The first draft of guidelines for how the city will allocate $12 million in bond money for creative spaces shows that priority will be given to historically underserved communities and groups that have a track record of working with marginalized people.

The public got a look at the long-expected recommendations Saturday at a joint meeting of the city’s music and arts commissions. Commission members have spent the past 11 months studying how best to use the voter-approved funds to preserve or open new spaces for artists and musicians who are facing a loss of space because of the city’s soaring property values.

The suggested requirements, which will need to be approved by City Council to open a request for proposal process, include equity considerations that 33 percent of an applicant organization’s management or leadership be composed of historically underserved populations. In other considerations, recipients would offer free or reduced space use to marginalized groups, and the city’s RFP process should include targeted outreach to underserved communities or people of color, to increase the number of proposals from those groups.

The working group made up of members from both commissions also specified that flexible rehearsal spaces, performance venues with capacity of more than 50 people, and gallery or studio space for visual arts use would be preferred uses for the funds, which can only be used to purchase or make improvements to property to be used for a creative purpose.

The presentation of the recommendations was followed by a public comment period, which will be compiled with feedback from the city’s SpeakUpAustin website to revise the recommendations that the arts and music commissions will vote on separately – likely at their respective January meetings. The finished product will be forwarded to City Council for approval to initiate the RFP process.

Commissioners serving on the working group said it took several months to clarify how the voter-approved funds could be used, with legal precedent suggesting the city will need to be the owner of record of any property that will receive funds.

Arts Commissioner Lulu Flores said responses to a city survey this summer that pointed to the need to use the money on existing sites in or near East Austin helped the working group identify specific parts of the city that would be given priority. Those four regions are: east of Interstate 35 and west of U.S. Highway 183; south of Lady Bird Lake and north of Ben White Boulevard; downtown Austin; and the area north of 30th Street and south of U.S. 183.

“We really looked at this from all angles and perspectives and after a few months of making sure everything was clear to us, we were able to boil down what we had heard from the community on the equity issue and the initial crisis that started this whole attempt to get money to resolve the ongoing issue of losing creative spaces,” she said. “It was very intentional and thoughtful, and it was very confusing at times, but we did our very best throughout the whole process to get through it and bring forward something that could provide a solution.”

Discussion among commission members touched on the need for groups to collaborate on their proposals, with those focused on equity issues likely receiving highest consideration in the eventual evaluation process.

Arts Commissioner Krissi Reeves told the Austin Monitor that the state’s legal guidelines on how bond money can be used make it likely the city will need to take control of an existing facility, or possibly use the bond money to build a new space.

“The bond money has to be used for capital purposes and improvements so purchasing an existing building is a possibility,” she said. “Our recommendations leave it open to one or multiple facilities, so I would say depending on how the community gets together and applies for the funds will determine how many projects are funded.”

The public comment period featured plenty of recommendations for specific spaces to possibly use the bond money, with multiple speakers specifically mentioning Mosaic Sound Collective. Commissioners also heard several speakers address the dire career prospects for artists and musicians in Austin, with the undercurrent that the city needs to provide direct economic stimulus for creatives.

Music Commissioner Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone said those concerns are valid, but that feedback for bond money recommendations needs to be focused on the issue of how to provide usable space for local artists.

“The opportunity here is to create space. It’s not to fund programs. It’s to create space for programs. That is the issue and the task at hand,” he said. “If you are hearing ideas within this group or in your community, and you start to think about ideas for space and how you can take some of your issues and direct those to how they could be addressed by creating space for your community, then this is your opportunity.”

He continued, “It seems like people come to these meetings to repeat their agenda, and that is a wasted opportunity because we need to hear from you guys about these recommendations. … We give these to City Council and we don’t decide where the money goes. We’re trying to create an avenue or a street to walk down for an idea or several ideas to address the fact that creative space is dwindling and disappearing.”

Photo by Frolzart [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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