Austin's Black cultural community looks for ‘a city of real opportunity for all'
The Black arts community is pushing to create a cultural center at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, and the effort comes amid broader work for equity in the city’s cultural arts programs and historic preservation in East Austin.
“Everybody says the words equity, sustainability. But it turns out, if there's no intention, no action behind it, it means nothing,” City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told a diverse crowd of arts supporters in July. They were gathered to celebrate the return of Black contemporary dance company Ballet Afrique to East Austin. “We have so much work to do to make this a truly equitable and truly inclusive city that lives up to our progressive reputation.”
“We must harness the energy of disruption to remake Austin as a city of real opportunity for all,” Mayor Steve Adler said at a City Council meeting on March 4. “To ensure our institutions are just and equitable, it's going to require us to make investments,” he said.
In 2019, the city contracted with an outside consultant, MJR Partners, to conduct a review of city-allocated cultural arts and heritage funding.
An interim report titled “Re-envisioning Equitable Cultural Funding” was released in June. It outlines strategies to achieve greater equity, as well as some of the challenges the city will face. At the top of a section titled “What we heard” — which compiled notes from 39 listening sessions with stakeholders — the report notes “traditional and white-led institutions struggle to accept that historic inequities exist in the city.”
One of the report’s core recommendations suggests that the city should put into operation a "policy-based plan to redistribute the city’s cultural financial resources designated for arts, music, and heritage, with an intentional focus on equity and inclusion.”
“I think the city is really trying,” said Carl Settles, director of the nonprofit E4 Youth, which aims to build bridges between underprivileged area youths and Austin’s creative and tech industries. Settles also is part of the East Austin Creative Coalition. He called the city’s efforts to reconfigure cultural arts funding “courageous.”
“They're pissing off a lot of white folks,” he said.
“Part of the story to be told is how inequitable it's been,” said Pamela Benson-Owens, director of Six Square. “Black organizations have taken their $2 and stretched it to $200,000, because we are literally conditioned to do it.”
Benson-Owens said wealthier organizations don’t always recognize the “stress that goes with that.”
Austin’s Live Music Fund was created in 2019, when City Council approved a 2-cent increase in hotel room taxes, earmarking 15% of the new revenue for live music. Black musicians, led by current Austin Music Commission chair Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone, successfully lobbied the city to prioritize marginalized communities when allocating grants from the fund.
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The recently approved expansion of the George Washington Carver Museum and Genealogy Center complex — which includes what was the first segregated library in, opened in 1933 as “the colored branch” — will expand the facility to add a living museum, improved outdoor spaces and an artist’s studio. Leaders of a music education program at nearby Doris Miller Auditorium also have been pushing the city to invest in the space as a music hub.
Harper-Madison does not see these efforts as competing with the Kenny Dorham’s proposal. Instead, she sees the various cultural facilities in East Austin as “a suite of assets” for the historically underserved neighborhood.
“I am in full support and cheering for any project that helps anchor us to our history, allows us to be present for what we are experiencing now and that also looks to a legacy and a future that's more inclusive,” Benson-Owens said.