A slight chill came down the spines of some local arts organizations when they received notice of a “special meeting” called by the City’s Department of Culture and Creative Development (DCCD) for tonight at 5:30 p.m. Download tonight’s agenda and location by clicking here.
With talk of City Manager Sheryl Sculley trying to close the gap on a budget deficit, and worries over changes in the application process to receive DCCD funding, everyone seemed to be a little nervous about the “specialness” of this special meeting.
“Special?” Should arts organizations be nervous?
[Updated at 10:30 p.m.] Tonight’s meeting went largely as expected with recommendations to continue operational funding to arts organizations as is for the coming fiscal year. Mention was made of changes to be discussed for the 2015 fiscal year, however those details will not be fleshed out until future meetings. It was clear the Cultural Advisory Board and DCCD staff intend to move toward greater alignment with SA2020 and the development of downtown. It is reasonable to expect this will influence changes in their funding policies.
According to Henry Brun, the talented percussionist, band leader and chair of the Cultural Advisory Board (CAB), and Felix Padrón, head of the DCCD, “special” simply means that the meeting is not being held on it’s regular date, the first Monday of the month. At the August meeting, they were unable to reach quorum, and so the meeting was postponed until today.
Padrón actually expects a fairly quiet meeting. Earlier in the summer, City Council voted to expand the contracts for arts organizations receiving operational support for an additional year. He said he expects City staff and the CAB to recommend no changes to funding for the coming fiscal year. There is a question of what to do with some yet-to-be allocated funds. This will be on the table for discussion tonight.
But what about that budget shortfall? Could it jeopardize arts funding? Yes and no.
The support given to local arts organizations is funded by the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT), and in part by the Texas Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Brun, the percentage of that tax allocated to the arts is mandated by the state, and only surpluses in those funds are eligible to be allocated to other items in the city budget.
So it’s not that the ordinary funds are up for grabs. It’s that in times of deficit, the city doesn’t have as much extra money to spend … anywhere. It’s that potential surplus that could be needed to keep the city in the black, he said.
This brings up the underlying issue that might really be what has arts organizations feeling a little antsy.
The fact that the arts are funded by HOT is not random. According to Brun, arts and cultural organizations receive those monies because they generate some of the taxable overnight stays. People are expected to stay in our local hotels when they come to partake in our local art scene. It’s supposed to be a virtuous cycle.
So what if it isn’t? That’s the tension being maintained by the DCCD, City Council, and the organizations that receive funding.
“Expenses have become (higher),” said Brun. “How do we keep doing what we’re doing?”
With the increase in scope and responsibility for the DCCD – which now manages artistic and cultural facilities – many feel that the time has come for greater accountability for those who seek funding.
That might mean arts leaders could have to show a “return on investment” (ROI). That’s a tricky metric when measuring the sometimes abstract benefits of public art projects. While some cultural organizations balk at the ROI perspective, others take it in stride.
“While we like the funding we get from the city, we don’t feel entitled. We feel like we have to earn it,” said John Toohey, president and executive director of Arts San Antonio.
They do so by bringing prestigious and profitable arts programming to the city’s major venues. Other organizations have other ways of feeding the virtuous cycle, and as the guidelines for funding evolve to match the goals of SA2020, they will need to demonstrate that as clearly as possible.
SA2020 outlines goals in its Arts and Culture cause with measurements like economic impact of the arts, level of attendance at arts programs, level of funding number of national media references to San Antonio culture, and number of people employed in the arts sector.
“(SA2020) is viable,” Brun said. “But there are some growing pains we need to go through to get to that point.”
One of the major changes, and the big question mark in the minds of many, is how the Tobin Center for Performing Arts, which will house some of the city’s major performing arts organizations, including the Symphony and Ballet San Antonio, will change the game. Right now, though, with the Tobin not yet open, predictions or suspicions are merely that.
So yes, money is tight. Yes, the scent of change is in the air. But for now, no one is expecting a radical change to the way the arts are funded in San Antonio.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.