The San Antonio Arts Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture’s budget for arts agencies. The City’s fiscal year 2019 budget will go before City Council in August and it will include the first arts agency budget developed under new equity lens guidelines.

If approved, local nonprofit arts organizations will receive an annual total of $6,783,833 over the next three fiscal years. That figure represents an annual funding increase of $537,433, or nearly 8.6 percent more than the 2018 budget. In past budgets, arts agency funding was set in two-year increments. Under the new Cul-TÚ-Art Plan, Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture, has recommended a three-year budget cycle.

The funds are derived from a portion of local Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue, dedicated to “the creation, encouragement, promotion and exhibition of the arts and culture of San Antonio,” according to the City’s website.

Most agencies will experience funding increases, to 120-150 percent of 2018 funding, and none will receive less than 75 percent of their previous funding allocations. Increases and decreases were capped by the department in order to prevent unmanageable changes to agency budgeting, Racca-Sittre has said. Click here to download a full list of funding changes.

The overall increase in available funds allowed funding increases for 37 of 43 eligible organizations. Of the six “large agencies,” four received the same amount of funding as in 2018 (The DoSeum, Briscoe Western Art Museum, Southwest School of Art, and San Antonio Museum of Art), and two, the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Symphony, will receive decreased funding to 75 percent of their previous levels. Two festival organizations, Cactus Pear Music Festival and Luminaria, will also receive 75 percent of 2018 funding.

Silhouettes walk in front of the Luminaria sign at Hemisfair Park.
Figures in silhouette walk in front of the Luminaria sign at Hemisfair Park in November 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Two other festival organizations, Avenida Guadalupe Association and the Japan America Society of San Antonio, did not meet eligibility guidelines for City funding.

Nicole Amri, program director for youth arts education agency SAY SÍ, disagreed with the peer review panelists who found that her organization did not meet “culturally specific” program guidelines, which would have made SAY SÍ eligible for an additional 15 percent funding over their base funding for operational support.

Two other groups, Network for Young Artists and Forward Progress, were also deemed ineligible for culturally specific program funds. Eligibility guidelines and funding details for those funds are available on page 13 of the City’s arts funding guidelines.

Through SAY SÍ educational programs, kids learn to express their identities, and become creative leaders in the community, Amri said, “doing exactly what we think this designated funding has the opportunity to do, really break down barriers and let this next generation cultivate what culture means, and what inclusivity means.”

In response to Amri’s concerns, Racca-Sittre pointed out that the “culturally specific” designation is based on the nature of the programming and mission of an agency – not on whom the agency serves. Arts Commission Chair Guillermo Nicolas pointed out that SAY SÍ will receive 107 percent of its 2018 funding amount next year, though it will not receive the extra 15 percent it wanted.

SAY SÍ plans to expand its programs, Amri said, and will have to seek funding elsewhere to meet those goals.

Sofia Rodriguez, 14, works on an installation depicting high school drop out rates in Bexar County at SAY Sí. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Seven groups will receive funding under the culturally specific category: Conjunto Heritage Taller, San Anto Cultural Arts, Inc., Centro Cultural Aztlan, American Indians in Texas at the Colonial Missions, Urban-15 Group, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. All received a range of increases to 120 percent to 150 percent of their 2018 allotments.

“It seems like it was a win for everybody,” said Graciela Sánchez, executive director of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, crediting Racca-Sittre’s prior experience in other City departments, where equity in contracting with minority-owned businesses is mandated.

“What she did I think helped everybody,” Sánchez said. “Not just culturally-specific groups,  but everybody in general. And yet there’s room for improvement,” she said.

During its meeting, Arts Commission members said they appreciated the hard work done by Arts Funding Committee members, peer review panelists, the department’s staff, and particularly Racca-Sittre, who became director of the department in 2016 and has guided its new cultural equity funding policy.

“Debbie Racca-Sittre is a breath of fresh air. She has changed what that office was,” said Henry Brun, a prominent jazz musician and 20-year Arts Commission veteran. “Now the office is truly a champion of the arts … [she has] put in long hours.”

Interim Department for Culture and Creative Development Director Debbie Racca-Sittre speaks about the World Heritage Public Art Project initiative.
City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Those “long hours” included multiple community input sessions and workshops with artists and nonprofit arts organizations, to explain how the new focus on cultural equity would affect funding decisions, and to help guide agencies through the application process.

Most importantly, Brun said, was Racca-Sittre’s focus on community involvement in helping shape the policy. “To have guidelines actually inspired by the people, and vetted by the community, says a lot about what that office has done over the last two years,” he said.

Now, though, the true hard work begins, Brun said. “To me, the agencies need to be accountable for producing stellar programming with the money they get from us,” he said.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...