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In public, support for the struggling San Antonio Symphony among city arts leaders is nearly universal. But privately, directors of smaller arts organizations in San Antonio worry that with so much attention — and money — given to the Symphony, their own fundraising and marketing efforts might suffer.
Facing a major campaign to raise funds for the Symphony, based on a Bexar County matching grant of $350,000, one arts group responded by writing a letter to County Commissioners and the office of Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Roberto Espinosa, new board chair of the Classical Music Institute, sent the letter detailing his nonprofit organization’s concerns. City and County money recently reallocated to the Symphony, Espinosa wrote, “may affect, divert, or detract support for many of the smaller organizations that rely on these sources.”
To date there has been “no official response” to the letter from the Mayor’s office, Espinosa said, but that informal conversations have taken place.
Nirenberg pointed out in a text to the Rivard Report that no City funds have been reallocated, and that “The symphony money was already appropriated.”
Espinosa clarified the intent of his letter, which also called the Symphony “the pinnacle of classical music in our city,” in a phone interview.
“We don’t want [the Symphony] to be less successful, or not raise the money they need,” Espinosa said. “But for our part, we want to make sure our mission is also funded.”
Espinosa said that reacting to immediate problems like the Symphony’s near-collapse can distract from the overall goal, which is “to generate the audience that’s going to appreciate, attend, become members and patrons and supporters of all the different [arts] organizations [in San Antonio.]”
Leaders of other San Antonio arts groups have been raising similar concerns for years. Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, has long agitated for better balance in City funding, particularly for fellow members of the Westside Arts Coalition, who feel they have been historically underfunded.
In 2014, Sanchez and the Coalition prepared a study of City arts funding trends dating from 1980 to the present, which demonstrated that funding for Latino arts organizations has hovered around 17 percent of total funding for city arts organizations since 2007. The study found a low of less than four percent City arts funding in 1980, with a high of 36.8 percent in 2004.
Along with the Esperanza Center, coalition members include American Indians in Texas – Spanish Colonial Missions, Centro Cultural Aztlan, Conjunto Heritage Taller, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Jump-Start Performance Company, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and Urban-15.
“They keep on keeping us small,” Sanchez said of what she sees as indifference from the City towards smaller groups, as well as from major private foundations.
The Department of Arts and Culture’s new Cul-TÚ-Art Plan is meant, in part, to address these perceived inequities. One major feature of the proposed arts funding guidelines under the new plan is to provide funds for “cultural-specific” organizations and programming, a category that would apply to the Westside Arts Coalition member groups, and potentially influence the programming goals for other organizations.
Cultural-specific programming, as defined in the City plan, is specific to a cultural community, or “a group of people united by shared experience of oppression and cultural resilience, based on past discrimination. These are defined in policy as gender (women) and the following racial minorities: African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans.”
The other main category for City arts funding is operational support, which is vital to the survival of many smaller arts groups, particularly those without large donor bases, endowments, or historical funding support in amounts large enough to build stable operating funding bases, Sanchez said.
Another issue is that more groups are drawing City operational support from essentially the same percentage of city funding. Operational support funding has grown modestly from 29 percent of the overall budget in 2008, to 33 percent today. That means that 10 years ago, 15 smaller groups each received an average of $86,000. Today, 25 groups average $76,000 each.
Espinosa said that the one hopeful effect of the Cul-TÚ-Art Plan is encouraging San Antonio’s diverse arts groups to work together more than they have traditionally. The plan, he said, “presents a good opportunity for cultural organizations to learn from each other,” in terms of leveraging information on governance and administrative issues, programming, and shared marketing.
Indeed, one feature of the new City arts funding plan is a requirement for collaboration between arts groups in order to qualify for funding, Racca-Sittre said Friday during City Council’s Arts, Heritage and Culture Committee meeting. The Committee voted to move the Cul-TÚ-Art Plan’s arts funding guidelines forward for a full City Council vote on Feb. 15.
Anya Grokhovski, artistic director and chief executive officer of Musical Bridges Around the World, said she is working on an open letter to the community along the same lines as Espinosa’s that will be signed by all San Antonio arts groups.
“This letter would be in support of the Symphony,” Grokhovski said, in part to show unity, but also because “the San Antonio Symphony is like a cultural aquifer of the city” in its influence and effect.
Establishing a Symphony endowment of $100 million would create a stable base for the orchestra’s continuing operations, Grokhovski said, echoing other board members and arts leaders in the city, and “would make us all prosper,” freeing up more public and private money to help support smaller arts groups.
For his part, of the Classical Music Institute letter already signed and sent, Espinosa said “it’s a starting point to engage in a conversation about a paradigm shift in the arts.”
Sanchez spoke in support of Racca-Sittre’s Friday presentation of the new Cul-TÚ-Art Plan’s arts funding guidelines.
“I think all of us in the Westside Arts Coalition will see an increase in our operational support. We’re really excited about it,” Sanchez said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) thanked the Westside Arts Coalition for their advocacy work. Instead of merely shifting funding from one organization to another, Viagran said, “We want to make sure we’re setting all of us up for success here.”
For city officials, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said, “our No. 1 job is to always make sure we’re understanding the bigger picture, and how that bigger picture moves us forward, together.”
Perhaps ironically, the Symphony’s rescue may have been the catalyst for the paradigm change Espinosa seeks. Treviño said that discussions about the Symphony’s future have centered on building meaningful connections with the entire community, including the smaller organizations.
“It’s a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude,” he said.