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Arts groups oppose new rules for getting city funds

Guidelines require offering activities that 'support tourism.'

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Representatives from several dozen arts groups gathered Tuesday to strategize how to challenge changes in the city's arts funding guidelines that could leave many cultural organizations ineligible for municipal monies.

At issue is new language that requires groups applying for the city money to offer "public activities that directly support tourism," according to a document produced by the city's Cultural Arts Funding Program. The guidelines also require organizations to keep track of and report on how many out-of-town tourists attend arts events and programs.

The city pays for its cultural contracts program principally through the 9 percent hotel-motel occupancy tax. Cultural funding receives the smallest share — 12 percent — of the occupancy tax fund. For the current budget year, the Cultural Contracts Program distributed $5.2 million to more than 200 arts groups and projects.

Arts groups were notified of the guideline changes by the city's Cultural Funding Program on March 12. The deadline to apply for city money is May 1.

The new guidelines — and the timing of the announcement — have some arts leaders crying foul.

Alex Alford, managing director of Austin Shakespeare, said that his group routinely collects audience statistics, but the new guidelines seem to require a new level of information-gathering.

"It appears that what they're now asking for us to do is not just keep track of more audience demographics, but specifically who in our audiences stayed in a local hotel," said Alford.

Austin Shakespeare has an annual budget of $350,000, of which 17 percent comes from city money, Alford said.

"We use the bulk of our city money to fund our annual free Shakespeare production" in Zilker Park, Alford said. "If the city pulled our funding, we'd have to cancel that free show."

Alford said that the arts community would like to get the guideline changes on the City Council's agenda as soon as possible.

"We don't have a lot of time before the funding deadline," he said.

"This change stands to harm the smaller and minority arts group the most," Gloria Mata Pennington, chairwoman of the Austin Arts Commission, said Tuesday. "I find it a little disturbing that the guidelines were changed like this."

"It shouldn't be about getting more tourists into hotel rooms," said Bruce Willenzik, vice chairman of the arts commission. "It's about what brings people to Austin for business or pleasure in the first place, and that's our creative culture as a whole."

The Austin Convention Center is allocated 50 percent of hotel-motel occupancy tax revenue, while 16 percent goes to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. About 22 percent goes to a bond redemption fund used to pay for the convention center expansion.

According to cultural arts program manager Vincent Kitch, the current cultural contractors have combined cash budgets of nearly $65 million and reached an audience of 4.3 million individuals in 2009, including more than 1 million tourists.

At its Monday night meeting, the arts commission, which does not have the authority to change funding guidelines, voted unanimously to ask the City Council not to accept the changes.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699