Austin presses pause on arts funding changes amid debate

Ground Floor Theater is an incubator for performances tied to underrepresented communities. (Courtesy Ground Floor Theatre)
Ground Floor Theater is an incubator for performances tied to underrepresented communities. (Courtesy Ground Floor Theatre)

Ground Floor Theater is an incubator for performances tied to underrepresented communities. (Courtesy Ground Floor Theatre)

Image description
Latinitas is a nonprofit offering media and technology programming to girl. (Courtesy Latinitas)
Image description
Austin Playhouse is a professional theater performing musicals and classic and modern plays. (Courtesy Austin Playhouse)
Image description
Penfold Theatre Co. is a North Austin theater focused on reimagining classic plays (Courtesy Penfold Theatre Co.)
Image description
The Black Austin Muscians' Collective is local association of Black musicians engaged with artist sustainability and promotion. (Courtesy Alex Parker)
Austin city staff spent months rolling out a plan to address inequities in cultural arts funding, but they announced Sept. 20 they were pumping the brakes due to public feedback.

The proposal, developed after two years of community input, would have redistributed arts funding to reach more minority-led organizations, which city data shows have not received funding at an even level. The proposal would also trim funding to be more sustainable. City staff said those cuts became much deeper as the pandemic slashed the city’s overall bottom line. The combined effect of the smaller pot of money and the reorganization of its distribution would mean many organizations that had received money historically would no longer be able to rely on the cash.

Questions and concerns from the creative community regarding the implementation of the changes led the city to put the plan on hold.

While there are no widespread calls for the city to abandon its equity goal, defined by the city as reaching a point when race does not affect opportunities and quality of life, the timing and the changes have led many to speak up.

“It’s going to be devastating to the arts ecosystem,” said John Riedie, CEO of the Austin Creative Alliance, which has received or managed millions in cultural funding since 1982. “We agree that there’s inequity in the system. We don’t agree with the city’s path toward fixing it.”

The city of Austin is trying to address what it calls an inequity in the cultural arts sphere. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Equitable distribution

Austin’s funding of local artists stretches back decades with nearly $150 million doled out to support hundreds of painters, dancers, musicians, jewelers, authors and other cultural institutions since the early 1980s, according to city data. A selection of some top recipients over the years includes the Zach Theatre, The Contemporary Austin, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Mexic-Arte Museum, Center For Women & Their Work, and the Vortex Repertory Co.

Austin’s Cultural Funding Program, the target of staff-proposed changes, is bankrolled through a portion of city hotel occupancy taxes. For years, the money has been crucial to many local art institutions.

“I started a theater company [eight] years ago. Although I am no longer a part of it, we relied heavily on the cultural arts program to get us started as it was the main source of revenue for us to mount shows,” actor and singer Jacqui Cross said.

The program supported more than 350 distinct members of Austin’s cultural space last year alone, but city staff said they increasingly became aware the funds were not reaching certain sectors of the arts community.

“We knew that we had marginalized folks and that we had excluded some community members because of the components of our system that were inequitable,” said Meghan Wells, manager of the city cultural arts division.

In 2019, the city kicked off an engagement process that led to a proposal. The money would be available to those scoring highest on an equity-based rubric, with preference given for more diverse hiring, community mentorships and expansions of cultural programming. The funding is not necessarily aimed at matching the demographic makeup of Austin.

Staff said they hope the approach will eventually serve groups of all demographics, with priority given to applicants identifying as minority, LGBT, disabled and women. The proposal was put on hold in September. However, the size, scope and timeline of the plans are likely to change.

“I wouldn’t say it’s new versus old or white versus [Black, Indigenous, people of color], it’s just a new framework of looking at the city’s investment to support a more equitable system overall,” Wells said.

Shrinking funds

When the city began planning for the equity changes, it also expected to trim the budget as the amount of money being doled out was unsustainable, staff said. However, as the city faces other pandemic-related budget issues, the cuts will be more significant than initially anticipated.

The arts funding is expected to be reduced to around $3.5 million next year, about one-third of last year’s program total. The reduction comes amid hotel tax shortfalls brought on by COVID-19’s effect on tourism in the city, and to balance the size of the recipient pool, according to the cultural arts division.

“Part of the hard conversation we’re having with the community is that city funds are never a guarantee,” Wells said. “It’s a reality that has proven out that in no way, shape or form should city government be the mainstay of your funding for your organization because it is volatile.”

“If you get it wrong in a normal year, you’re going to have a lot of people upset. If you get it wrong in a pandemic year, people are already at a point where they’re stretched thin and feeling desperate,” said Ryan Crowder, Penfold Theatre’s producing artistic director.

While the community anxiously awaits the arts funding revamp, some pandemic-related relief could be coming. The arts commission, which has worked closely with staff on the program changes, recommended to City Council on Sept. 20 that around $5.4 million of Austin’s American Rescue Plan Act funds be sent to former award recipients.

The art community reacts

While the city’s plan will likely reduce the payout for many organizations used to receiving the fund, it has garnered praise from those who see the equity change as long overdue.

Singer-songwriter Mobley co-founded the Black Austin Musicians’ Collective last year as an outlet to advocate for underserved artists. He has not received funding, and he said the city has seen years of neglect for members of his constituency in spaces such as hip-hop or R&B, and on “the wrong side of the ‘high art-low art’ divide.”

And while change is coming, he also noted that systemic issues could continue if the city is not careful with the plan’s implementation.

Laura Donnelly, founder and CEO of the girls media and technology nonprofit Latinitas, said she welcomes a new equity-based thrust in the city programs. In the past, she said some groups benefited from funding while putting little effort into diversifying leadership or opening programs to a broader selection of Austinites.

“Making your organization or audience more diverse and inclusive is a long game. It takes courage, and there will be discomfort,” Donnelly said. “To my peers in arts delivery griping about these necessary changes to keep in pace with Austin’s existing and growing diversity—I say welcome to that journey!”

Cross and Tonya Pennie, a director and performer with the Lannaya Drum & Dance program and Dance Africa Fest, shared similar sentiments.

“Organizations that did not seem to reflect cultural heritage were applying, and that was no fun. That was inequitable,” Pennie said.

Lara Toner Haddock, co-producing artistic director at Austin Playhouse, said the uncertain outlook for reduced city funding means she cannot rely on the money for future budgets. Since the mid-2000s, the playhouse has received tens of thousands of city contract dollars.

Toner Haddock also said the perceived lack of transparency and support for Austin’s arts ecosystem in the new plan could have a negative effect on the art industry.

“Something that gets lost often in these discussions of helping the arts and helping the artists is that we’re actually a major employer. ... It’s not just a couple plays that won’t happen a year; it’s people who won’t be employed and who will look for jobs elsewhere if Austin is no longer seen as a welcoming cultural center,” she said.

City staff said they are prepared to assist community members in navigating their options as the programs open up in the months ahead.

Wells said the city plans to track the proposal’s progress once it is in place, both with data and anecdotally, to ensure it is having its designed effect.

“We don’t want unintended consequences to come from the work that’s very well-intended but may accidentally shoot us in the foot. So we’re looking at all the aspects of how we can evaluate whether we’re really getting there,” Wells said.

By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. After spending more than two years covering in The Woodlands area, he moved to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city.


Photo of Austin Community College pharmacy students preparing vaccines
Austin Public Health ramps up COVID-19 booster shot offerings, prepares for pediatric vaccines

High-risk individuals who received Pfizer are Moderna doses six months ago or more are now eligible for boosters—as are most recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The first-ever Williamson County Fair and Rodeo opens its gates to guests Oct. 21 with live music, carnival rides, food vendors, rodeo events and more. (Courtesy Pexels)
CI NATION ROUNDUP: Inaugural Williamson County Fair and Rodeo underway; delivery drones coming to Friso and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Oct. 22.

Rendering of the UT Leona Child Development Center
UT Austin set to open new Child Development Center east of I-35

A new university child care facility is headed to 2216 Leona St.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey briefed City Council on Austin's spending of more than $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding on homelessness Oct. 21. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Officials share outlook of 3-year plan to house 3,000 homeless people in Austin

Although the path to build more than 1,000 new spaces for those without shelter will take time, officials believe the goals are achievable.

Photo off APD sign
Austin police cadet academy review notes positive strides but says instructors lack buy-in to 'reimagined' concept

Reforms at the Austin Police Department academy are mixed so far, while the department and outside evaluators agree on several potential improvements going forward.

Franklin Barbecue in East Austin closed its dining room in March 2020. (Courtesy Franklin Barbecue)
Franklin Barbecue to reopen dining room on 11th Street in Austin

The dining room will reopen just before Thanksgiving.

Cumby Group is planning development for three adjacent multifamily projects on Manor Road in East Austin, including The Emma apartments. (Courtesy Cumby Group)
3 years in, Austin is falling behind on goals in affordable housing plan

From 2018-20, the city only reached 12% of its 10-year goal to build thousands of new homes and rental units.

Taco Palenque is now open as drive-thru only in Round Rock. (Brooke Sjoberg/Community Impact Newspaper)
CI NATION ROUNDUP: Taco Palenque opens in Round Rock; Plano ISD considering two draft calendars for 2022-23 school year and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Oct. 21.

The Austin Transit Partnership is exploring above- and below-ground options for a transit center at the East Riverside Drive and South Pleasant Valley intersection. (Courtesy Austin Transit Partnership)
Project Connect plans to explore above-, below-ground options for East Riverside/Pleasant Valley Transit Center

After hosting a community design workshop, the group overseeing Project Connect designs is moving forward with options for both an underground and above-ground station at the intersection.

A calculator created by the Rocky Mountain Institute looks at the environmental impact of TxDOT's proposed designs for I-35 in Central Austin, one of the most congested roadways in the country. (Benton Graham/Community Impact Newspaper)
Nonprofit's tool says TxDOT I-35 expansion proposals would have profound environmental consequences

The tool says that the proposal would create between 255 and 382 million additional vehicle miles traveled per year.

Photo of the Travis County administration building and sign
Travis County hears update on process to reassess master plan for aging correctional facilities

The process comes after county commissioners opted to pause all activities of the master plan over the summer.

Photo of a row of houses, with one under construction
Central Austin home prices decline for second month but still tower over previous year

Homes prices in the Central Austin area are up 15.5% from September 2020.