The San Antonio City Council approved changes Thursday to the Department of Arts and Culture’s arts funding program for the next three-year funding cycle, which runs from 2022 to 2024.

The first change is in the name, from Arts Agency Funding to the Core Grants Program. The name change reflects the new program’s biggest change, to include direct funding for individual artists for the first time since 2017, when the statewide StArt Place program was discontinued by the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Debbie Racca-Sittre, the department’s executive director, said the name change was made because the inclusion of individual artist grants goes beyond the previous organization-focused funding scope, and funding artists and arts and culturally-focused organizations “is a part of our department’s core business.”

After persistent requests by performance artist Marisela Barrera and other San Antonio artists, the department in January convened focus groups to consider individual artist funding. Though the City currently funds individual artists through regranting programs maintained by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) and the Luminaria Artist Foundation, which each annually receive $30,000 from the City to distribute to artists, some artists have complained that the focus of these organizations limits accessibility. For example, NALAC makes grants only to artists of Latino heritage.

Barrera has been a vocal advocate for unrestricted funding for individual artists, pointing out that other major cities, including Austin, Dallas, and Houston, maintain public programs that fund artists directly.

“I am very relieved to see this,” Barrera said after reviewing a draft of the new funding program. However, she expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of money – one $5,000 grant per year – each artist can apply for.

“It’s a slow and painful start to begin to welcome individual artists into city funding,” she said, noting that she was able to apply for more funding per year while in Dallas in the 1990s. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would equal almost $10,000.

In the current Dallas Office of Arts and Culture (OAC) ArtsActivate grant program, artists are eligible to apply for grants of $7,500 to $15,000 during each of three annual granting cycles, with a limit of two annual grants for a total of up to $30,000 per artist. Such cases are rare, however, according to Glenn Ayars, cultural programs manager of the Dallas OAC. The 2020 annual OAC arts funding budget is $775,000, which includes both individual artists and organizations, and Ayars said the number of artists funded per cycle averages 12. The City of Dallas also maintains other culturally focused programs that fund individual artist projects.

Racca-Sittre and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who also participated in the focus groups, both said programs in other cities were consulted to gauge best practices and offer insight in program budgets and designs, including Dallas, Austin, and Houston in Texas, and cities of comparable size outside the state such as Detroit, Miami, and New Orleans.

In order to fund the individual artist grant program, the City will phase out its capacity-building grant program totaling $75,000 annually, intended to help small organizations grow with stability and guidance. Racca-Sittre said the department anticipates funding up to 15 individual artist projects per year, depending on the overall budget approved annually by City Council.

“Ultimately, we want to keep artists here,” Treviño said in February after the focus groups convened. “We know that this is an important aspect of how the arts exist here in San Antonio, and how they exist in most communities. So we’re going to … really give this a much closer look, more scrutiny, and truly find a way to make it work for San Antonio.”

City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Since the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced the Hotel Occupany Tax income that in part funds the Department of Arts and Culture and its granting programs, Treviño has sought other ways to direct money toward individual artists.

He has advocated for an Art Works program that would invite artists to participate in public works projects as an expansion of the current 1 percent for arts program that funds public artworks through a small percentage of new development budgets.

The new changes to City arts funding are not related to the pandemic, but have been in the works since Racca-Sittre won approval in 2018 for her five-year Cul-Tú-Art strategic plan, which called for a program review after its first three-year funding cycle ending with the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Another Core Grant Program alteration with potentially major implications is changing a funding category from “festivals” to “events,” with a more inclusive reach for potential grant recipients, Racca-Sittre said.

The issue arose during the Dec. 10 meeting of the Culture and Neighborhood Services Committee, when Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) asked whether a neighborhood organization such as the Beethoven Maennerchor might be eligible to apply for funds toward annual events such as Oktoberfest. Racca-Sittre answered in the affirmative, citing foundations and historical preservation organizations would not have been eligible under the prior guidelines.

“Those organizations were the ones that we were specifically targeting when we looked at changing to [the] events [category], from festivals,” Racca-Sittre said. She gave a further example of a community group that hosts a neighborhood arts fair.

“We also wanted to encourage events in non-traditional, yet accessible, settings throughout our beautiful city,” she said of the category change.

The last significant change in the new funding guidelines removes arts presenting organizations from eligibility for City funding. With the January dissolution of presenter Arts San Antonio, which brought touring acts such as the Joffrey Ballet, Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, and Yo-Yo Ma to local stages, the change is largely moot.

During the Thursday Council session, before the new arts funding program was approved unanimously, Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) congratulated Racca-Sittre on a “very well put-together arts funding program,” and said, “our arts funding speaks to our commitment to every single member of our community. And this is what great cities do, we fund art.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...