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Music Commission looks at Black cultural district, music fund based on equity

Monday, July 13, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Turning its attention to equity issues facing the city’s music and creative communities, the Music Commission plans to meet every two weeks for the foreseeable future to address those concerns.

The commission voted unanimously at last week’s meeting to create a working group that will look for ways the city can improve and enhance the section of East Austin that was designated an African American Cultural Arts District in 2007. The goal will be to make public works improvements and possibly move forward with the creation of a dedicated music venue or creative space to promote the city’s Black artists.

Harold McMillan, director of DiverseArts Culture Works, said the district should receive the same amount of attention and resources as the Red River Cultural District, which was created in 2013 and has made comparatively more progress toward solidifying its reputation as a center for live music.

“Now would be a good time to address some inequity in that designation and in the system,” McMillan said. “(For Red River) they basically told the city manager, go ahead and get this done and spend money and find property and let’s do this. If you’ll also read the 2007 resolution for the designation of an African American cultural district you’ll see it’s just a piece of paper that says, OK, you Black folks have a district now. I am thinking that now is the perfect time, since we’re dealing with historic and systemic racism in how the city functions … now is the right time to address that.”

McMillan’s proposal calls for the city to update zoning and planning documents to reflect the importance and goals of the district, which is bounded by the Interstate 35 frontage road on the west, Airport Boulevard to the east, Manor Road on the north, and portions of 11th and Seventh streets and Rosewood Avenue to the south. The Six Square cultural nonprofit is generally focused on that region, although McMillan said the group is an entity contained in the district and could be heavily involved in enhancing the area.

Other possible steps include incentivizing culturally relevant businesses to open in the district; working to preserve historic landmarks and structures; and finding the best ways to use some of the Live Music Fund and a proposed Black Live Music Fund.

McMillan hopes to involve the Urban Renewal Board, Arts Commission and the African American Resource Advisory Commission in the effort.

“The city needs to make an investment in things that will keep Black creatives living in Austin. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve dealt with through the years, bright young people that came here for five years and kept leaving because that support infrastructure wasn’t there,” he said.

“As much as I would like these conversations to be about art and culture, the only reason we’re having this conversation right now, in the pointed way that we are, is because of historic and systemic institutional racism in the city of Austin.”

The commission opted to continue discussion of the Black Live Music Fund at its next meeting, and will move forward with a consultant to look at how to put the newly created Live Music Fund to use. A separate working group has spent much of this year discussing ideas for that fund, with recommendations expected to come before City Council in the fall.

Margie Reese with MJR Partners said her goal is to help those involved find a way to turn the fund into an ongoing resource.
“Establishing a fund is not going to be able to resolve and erase all the things that have happened in the past, but perhaps going forward you can advance things through the lens of equity, not equality, and making an investment in the group of musicians that you’re looking to work for,” she said.

“What you don’t want to do is set this group up for failure so there is one or two quick actions that are taken to put salve on a wound, and then a year from now the financial picture changes or the Council focus shifts when some other distraction occurs and you haven’t created a system for building support.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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