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Council questions proposed arts funding change that emphasizes equity

Thursday, August 26, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council has asked Cultural Arts staff to look at revising or delaying its plan to significantly redistribute its limited pool of contracts toward groups that meet an increased focus on equity.

At a Tuesday work session presentation, the proposed new funding structure was seen as too severe toward longtime recipients, especially legacy arts groups that have received significant city funding for 10 years or more.

The shift toward equity has been in the works for more than two years and would prioritize scoring for cultural contract applicants to heavily favor groups led by racial minorities or other historically marginalized groups.

Council’s objections were brought on in large part because the Covid-19 pandemic severely reduced Hotel Occupancy Tax funds that have traditionally supplied money for Cultural Arts contracts, leaving far less money to award even under the traditional methods. Staffers told Council that with only $3 million available for the next budget year, funding the existing pool of several hundred contractors would equate to awards of only $6,000 each or $20,000 each for only legacy groups.

Instead, staff proposed spinning up two awards pools, one of which would provide 100 contracts of $5,000 to smaller groups and another that would provide $30,000 to $80,000 to up to 35 recipients. Cultural Arts staff said the discussion is ongoing about how to use some of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan money as an additional funding source for groups that would receive reduced or no funding under the new system.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who requested the presentation, said there is concern in the arts community that the drastic change using a smaller pool of funds puts many arts groups at risk of closure.

“The concerns coming from the community are that we are about to implement new guidelines that are not based on data that is transparent and that the public has been able to read and process to provide feedback on,” she said. “My concern is not with moving forward with an equitable model. I think that is great and needed … but the question is, is this the appropriate time for us to be moving toward a model that will leave out organizations that are dependent on this funding? We need to ensure that we are not leaving behind individuals who have history in Austin that are part of the fabric.”

Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, interim director of the Economic Development Department, said the city is still taking feedback on the proposed changes, but said, “it was inevitable that we needed to shift the model.”

In breaking down the historic inequities in how the city has funded arts groups, staff noted that of the 144 legacy groups active, fewer than 25 percent are led by minority executives or boards.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she wants Council to have a clear transition plan for using ARP money to help groups whose contract amounts would drop significantly or disappear altogether.

“We really need to understand the impact as we transition, and I’m not seeing this data,” she said. “I need to understand the impact on our legacy organizations, many of which are led by women and are part of the historic fabric of our community. I don’t think our plan is complete if we don’t have a transition part … we’re talking about a pretty substantial change here at a very bad time for the community.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said part of the difficulty faced by staff and arts groups comes from a move in recent years to increase the total number of contract recipients. That caused outcry at the time because the historically large pool of hotel tax dollars was being spread to more groups, with funding levels for many legacy organizations being cut as a result.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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