Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Westside Arts Coalition (WAC) received $200,000 in 2019 City funding for its eight member arts groups, beyond funding recommended by the Department of Arts and Culture.
The coalition's pursuit of the additional funding marks a departure from arts groups' traditional approach to seeking public funds.
City Council approved the $2.8 billion City budget for fiscal year 2019
on Thursday . A budget amendment, which included the requested $200,000 for the arts coalition, had wide support among Council members. Also approved was an additional $200,000 for the 2020 budget, for a total of $400,000 in additional funding.
The funding will come from the City budget's general fund, rather than from the Hotel Occupancy Tax allocation from which all City arts funding is traditionally derived.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said that while some groups can be antagonistic about requests for funding, when he was first approached to support the extra funding earlier this year “the Westside Arts Coalition showed up prepared, and were really impressive. It was a foregone conclusion once they asked me for it.”
Brockhouse serves on the Council’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee, and said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) “was a big champion even before this term” for the eight-member coalition, and asked him to support the budget amendment.
The Department of Arts and Culture included a requirement that arts groups not lobby Council members for additional funding during the application process, to ensure that all groups receive fair treatment, said Debbie Racca-Sittre, the department's director.
WAC members lobbied Council members individually, and because the money is to be derived from the general fund, such advocacy efforts did not fall under the no-lobbying guidelines.
“We could talk to the council about this funding, so we did,” said Graciela Sanchez, executive director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, one of the coalition members.
The WAC request is specifically for “capacity-building” funds, an inclusive term which applies to organizational functions such as marketing and promotion, audience and board development, resource-sharing, and seeking additional funding sources.
During a Council budget session on Aug. 28 in which the Department’s recommendations for Arts Agency Funding were presented, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) expressed support for the WAC but aired concerns.
That the additional funding would come from the general fund was crucial to gaining his support, Treviño said. “I wanted to make sure that it did not affect the budget that the Department of Arts and Culture created,” he said.
When she was hired in 2016 to head the Department of Arts and Culture, Racca-Sittre set out to create a new strategic plan intended to incorporate "equity lens" budgeting for arts funding in San Antonio. Over the past two years, multiple meetings and workshops with community members and arts groups vetted her Cul-TÚ-Art plan, with a goal of transparency and collaboration in how arts funding would be distributed.
“Not everybody gets everything they want in the process, but we’ve tried to be equitable, and that was the idea behind the guidelines,” she said.
The Cul-TÚ-Art plan includes a new “Culturally Specific” category, for groups "whose specific mission includes promoting, preserving and enhancing the identity and character of a specific Cultural Community," according to its guidelines.
All seven arts groups recommended for funding under the new category are WAC members: American Indians in Texas at the Colonial Missions, Centro Cultural Aztlan, Conjunto Heritage Taller, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Anto Cultural Arts Inc., and Urban-15 Group.
Funding for those groups totals $1,375,404 each year over the three year funding period, representing an annual increase of $358,904, or 35 percent, from 2018 funding levels. Eighth WAC member group the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) has also been recommended for a 25 percent funding increase, from $30,000 per year in previous years to $40,000 per year, for its regranting program for Latinx artists.
“I appreciate the process that we created,” Treviño said of the Cul-TÚ-Art plan, “and hope that we can stick to those processes. The City Council, of course, has the purview to make adjustments when needed.”
WAC members began lobbying individual members of City Council in early 2018 for additional funding.
“We challenged the City to fund more money to support our organizations,” Sanchez said.
Jazz musician Henry Brun, who has served as a San Antonio Arts Commissioner for 20 years, said he feels the Westside Arts Coalition should have worked within established Department guidelines.
“I was blindsided,” he said. “I wish they would have accepted Debbie [Racca-Sittre]’s invitation to discuss this, as opposed to going and doing something on their own.”
He does support capacity-building for the eight groups, he said, but “would have preferred it happen a different way.”
Treviño made clear that he supports both the Cul-TÚ-Art plan and getting more City funding for arts groups. “Knowing that these groups got extra support without it impacting that process or plan, I don’t think anybody could be against that.”
Brockhouse agreed. “If any organization could come forward and convince a council member, then so be it,” he said. “I could care less if [anyone thinks] it’s out of the process or abnormal,” he said of those who might object.
“We’re elected to represent and lead our communities, and ultimately, we have the final say on these budget items,” he said of City Council.
In the big picture, Brun said, every arts organization deserves an opportunity for capacity-building.
“San Antonio culture is all of us, not necessarily just eight of them," he said of the coalition members. “I don’t disagree at all with money coming from the City. But if you give to one, the reality is you have to give to all.”
Thus, the potential for a new precedent being created for arts agency funding is a concern, Brun said.
Brockhouse acknowledged that the allocation presents “a dangerous slope,” but said “if it's worthy, we’re going to fight for it.” He praised WAC as “an organization rooted in the community that’s been working hard to get to this point.”
Sanchez said that for several of the WAC groups, the additional funding is a matter of survival. Aging directorship creates a need for organizational stability, and the groups should be doing more work in the community and not less, she said.
“It’s critically important for the city of San Antonio to make sure that these organizations survive,” she said.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he supports the additional funding for WAC groups as a matter of equity, and that money for arts groups coming from the budget’s general fund is not unprecedented.
“It is critically important that San Antonio has vibrant classical arts – opera, ballet, symphony – but it’s critical that we also have a healthy arts community beyond those three,” he wrote in an email to the Rivard Report.
“We wouldn’t be a major metropolitan city without the symphony, the opera or the ballet, and we wouldn’t be San Antonio without the Westside Arts Coalition,” Nirenberg said.