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Arts Commission endorses letter requesting $5M in economic relief for art nonprofits

Friday, June 19, 2020 by Savana Dunning

The Austin Arts Commission voted in support of a letter from various creative sector organizations asking City Council to budget $5 million in Covid-19 disaster relief for arts-based nonprofits.

The city has allocated $6.35 million in disaster relief funds to support nonprofits of all types across the city, with $1 million specifically earmarked for arts and culture-related nonprofits. The city has budgeted another $7.5 million to fund creative sector assistance grant programs, which are open to individuals and organizations. This includes a general assistance fund for creative sector individuals, a specific fund for musicians called the Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund, and a program for organizations and individuals displaced from their physical venues called the Austin Creative Space Disaster Relief Program.

The letter addressed to Council requests $5 million to help nonprofit arts organizations retain jobs and sustain operations. The letter thanked Council for establishing the three funds, but argues that at least 177 cultural nonprofits don’t qualify for those programs because the organizations are not in the music sector or based in a physical venue.

“An investment of $5 million now, could mean avoiding a loss of over $40 million over the next five years,” the letter states. “Not only are arts organizations facing enormous declines in public funding, we have lost all of our revenue from ticket sales, events, fundraisers, site rentals, and public programs. A vast cultural infrastructure built over decades is on the brink of permanent damage that will affect our region’s overall economy for years to come.”

The letter is signed by over 240 individuals from various organizations across the city, including Sylvia Orozco, co-founder and executive director of the Mexic-Arte Museum; Lisa Scheps, founder and co-artistic director of Ground Floor Theatre; and Dewy Brooks, the board chair for Austin Creative Alliance.

Scheps called in to the Arts Commission meeting to urge the commission to endorse the letter, saying philanthropy for the arts has also decreased, leaving cultural organizations stretched thin for ways to support themselves without a stream of earned income.

“Small nonprofit cultural organizations are hurting, we’re hurting bad,” Scheps said. “Many of us feel like we aren’t going to be able to open until the end of the year, so in 2021, and even then we’re not 100 percent certain that audiences will be flocking to our theaters to come inside.”

Commissioner Lulu Flores motioned for the Arts Commission to write to Council in support of the letter’s request for $5 million in additional funding, which Commissioner Bears Rebecca Fonte, already a signee to the letter, seconded. The motion passed in an 8-1 vote.

Commissioner Brett Barnes, who voted against the motion, and commissioners Michelle Polgar and Amy Mok raised the concern that the Arts Commission should spend more time clarifying the specifics of the letter in order to advocate for its request.

“I think in order for us to advocate at a time where every area is needing additional funding, we would need to know just some more information to help be really good advocates for this,” Barnes said. “Just going to City Council and saying, ‘We need $10 million for the creative economy,’ we would be the 10th group to say that within the last hour with so many groups saying the same thing.”

Flores and Fonte said since the amount was specifically requested by those organizations, it would be better to listen to the community members who signed the letter and go ahead with their recommendation, though Flores and Polgar said they supported returning to the organizations to request more information before writing to Council.

“If there’s a way to prevail in any way on the city to find an additional $5 million for this very important economic sector of the city, I would obviously be in favor of pushing a letter to that effect so that they can be heard,” Flores said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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