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Arts community hears feedback on city’s diversity goals for cultural funding

Monday, January 27, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The initial summary of feedback on how the city should consider diversity and equity in funding decisions for Cultural Arts found a wide array of concerns shared from more than 600 participants in recent community input sessions.

The presentation Saturday at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin was attended by roughly 100 people, who heard representatives from consultants MJR Partners deliver a summary of the fall sessions. The analysis is expected to last through this year and will eventually be presented to City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, with the goal of creating a new framework for how the Cultural Arts Division prioritizes diversity and equity in all of its activities, including the allocation of grants and cultural contracts.

The feedback was broken down into five themes:

  • Disconnection: poor information and misunderstanding of how the Hotel Occupancy Tax can be used, how committed the city is to cultural equity, and conflicting priorities in how to deal with increased funding requests;
  • Direction setting: determining whether tourism is more important than equitable participation, dealing with resource redistribution away from long-established organizations, and gauging the importance of neighborhoods and culture;
  • Grant making: making the grant process more efficient by involving related city departments, and improving the panel review process of applicants;
  • Arts Commission: general misunderstanding of the commission’s role in setting vision for the Cultural Arts Division;
  • Definitions: concerns about the push for racial diversity ahead of other demographic considerations, what is included in ideas of equity and resistance to the city pushing organizations to consider equity in their programming decisions.

After the presentation of the findings, members of the audience had a chance to ask questions of city staff and the consultants and raise additional concerns about how the department allocates funding that in recent years has been outstripped by the number of applications for city dollars.

Artist Daniel Llanes said he’s hopeful the process will result in a correction to many years of nonwhite artists and those from other minority groups being overlooked.

“There’s a custom of bias to support and promote white organizations and white culture, and there’s a custom and culture of or ignoring or disenfranchising artists and arts organizations of color,” he said. “That’s historic and it’s not just in arts, it’s in everything across the board with systemic racism. This is just our version of it, but because of the nature of art we have a better chance of achieving equity through Cultural Arts than anywhere else because artists by nature have always worked together.”

Saturday’s presentation came as the Arts Commission and Cultural Arts staff are also working on how to award funds for the Core Cultural Funding and Cultural Heritage Festivals programs. Those programs are typically funded in two-year cycles, but 2021 has been made an “interim year” for funding, with the application and review process for applicants still being decided.

That process will be among the discussion items at Monday’s meeting of the Arts Commission, which will form a working group to examine and make a recommendation soon. The commission will also discuss how to define “equity” and “diversity” in the context of the decision-making process for Cultural Arts.

Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division, said Saturday’s session and others in coming months will help staff and Council decide on “north stars” to guide decisions on how to allocate resources in a way that reflects the community’s heritage and makeup.

“At the end I hope the vision is an adequate and appropriate representation of where we haven’t been and where we want to go,” she said. “I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, but I know that right now it is not working and the funding is not reaching the people who live here, and (the funding allocation) doesn’t look like the people who live here. There’s good work being done in the arts, but who has access to (funding) and what is it achieving? That’s where we need to have more conversation.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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