Uncertainty reigns among San Antonio arts leaders over pending changes to the City’s Department of Arts & Culture‘s funding policies.

After several community workshops and fielding responses from 3,002 survey respondents, the Department of Arts & Culture is moving toward its new Cul-TÚ-Art Plan. Key components of the plan are new policies and processes for funding arts nonprofit organizations to meet the City’s new equity lens budget guidelines.

At a Dec. 12 public meeting of the San Antonio Arts Commission’s Arts Funding Committee, leaders of several arts organizations said the process is moving too quickly, with its terms not yet clearly defined.

“This is moving way too fast,” said Jon Hinojosa, artistic and executive director of the creative youth development program SAY Sí, during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting. “It’s so damn important,” he added, referring to the City’s overall effort toward cultural equity.

The Arts Commission’s new Statement of Cultural Equity stipulates that funding priorities should ensure that “all people … are represented in the development of arts policy,” particularly “historically underrepresented” groups. For a copy of the commission’s statement, click here.

“There are so many different things that are really exciting about this, and where we should be as a city and community,” Hinojosa said.

But the Department of Arts & Culture has not provided enough details on how funding decisions will be made during a previous workshop session and during Tuesday’s meeting, he said.

Fellow arts leaders echoed his concerns.

“This process could be really enriching and positive and help us move our entire community forward,” said Kellen McIntyre, executive director of Bihl House Arts. “But it will not be that because of the rush.”

For arts leaders, the overall goals of the plan are not in question, but how some key terms are defined remains unclear. Terms up for debate include “cultural authenticity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity,” which identify priorities for future evaluation of arts funding applications under the new policy.

“The language that we saw here … We could not agree at our table about that language, much less agree in the room,” McIntyre said, referring to terms discussed at the meeting and previous workshops.

San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre gives a presentation to City Council about the selection process for artists applying for public art projects.
San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Whether future arts programming aligns with guiding principles of the plan, such as preserving and promoting the “authentic culture of San Antonio,” might affect whether certain  programs are funded, said Debbie Racca-Sittre, executive director of the Department of Arts & Culture, in an interview after the meeting. “Culturally specific” programming, identified as significant by two-thirds of survey respondents, will also be important under the new policy, she said.

“The sense I got about the word ‘authenticity’ was so broad,” said Veronique LeMelle, executive director of Artpace. “There was a lot of confusion about that,” in a previous workshop discussion, she said. “Are you going to define, or refine, what you mean by that category?” before taking it to City Council, she asked during public comments.

The term “authenticity” is included in new policy discussions in part due to advocacy by community-based organizations, said Malena Gonzalez-Cid, executive director of Centro Cultural Aztlan.

Of programming by her organization and other members of the eight-group Westside Arts Coalition, including the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Conjunto Heritage Taller, Urban-15American Indians in Texas – Spanish Colonial Missions, and others, Gonzalez-Cid said, “We help keep San Antonio authentic through our programming, activities, and culture. That’s what we do.

“[These traditions] help us identify who we are,” she said of the city as a whole.

“Many of these small organizations have a proven track record of serving these communities for decades despite being under-resourced,” said Cristina Ballí, Guadalupe Center executive director, in an e-mail. “I believe these new guidelines will take some of this into account … while at the same time it won’t deprive any arts organization of significant amounts of funding.”

In a November statement presented to the City, Gonzalez-Cid said that traditionally, a mere 16 percent of available funding derived from the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) has gone to Latino artists and arts organizations. The remainder has benefited “seven major arts institutions,” according to the statement.

HOT funds are, in part, dedicated to “the creation, encouragement, promotion and exhibition of the arts and culture of San Antonio,” according to the City’s Arts Funding website page.

In response to timeline and policy concerns aired at the Dec. 12 meeting, Racca-Sittre cautioned against slowing down the process. “When you change a policy, things aren’t going to stay the same,” she said.

If the funding process and recommendations are not completed by August, Racca-Sittre said, the City would move forward without applying the equity lens to its arts and culture sector funding.

“Essentially if we don’t meet the timeline, everything stays the same,” she said.  “I was told that’s not acceptable,” she said of City administrators’ directives to present the Cul-TÚ-Art Plan for approval in time for the City’s fiscal year 2018-2019 budgeting.

All potential funding recipients must complete the application and evaluation process by June in order to meet the  Cul-TÚ-Arts Plan deadline, all of which is a detailed, involved process, Racca-Sittre said. Policy issues must be resolved by February in order to provide enough time for organizations to submit effective applications, she added.

The department has gone to great lengths to receive and consider community input in crafting its new policy, Racca-Sittre said, evidenced by the schedule of public meetings and workshops since the plan’s October kickoff.

However, during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting, Hinojosa, McIntyre,  LeMelle, along with Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art and Frank Villani, chief executive officer of Magik Theatre, all asked for more dialogue and information-sharing among arts community members.

“The more that we can understand, the more we can actually provide really meaningful feedback” to the Arts Commission and Department of Arts & Culture, Hinojosa said, which would result in “a really transformational change for the city.”

Arts leaders and other arts-concerned citizens will have further chances to air their concerns and discuss policy details at upcoming meetings.

The next meeting of the San Antonio Arts Commission is Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 9 a.m. in the Culture Commons Gallery at 115 Plaza de Armas. At 2 p.m. the same day, the City Council’s Arts, Culture & Heritage Council Committee meets in the Municipal Plaza Building’s Media Briefing Room.

“We are all invested in making the San Antonio arts community the strongest community it can be,” LeMelle said. “Which means, let us participate in the process.”

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...