Public art for all. La Antorcha de la Amistad, stands out in the downtown city scape. Photo by Jeff Meyers.
Bekah S. McNeel

With all the high-profile ballot items up for grabs on November 6, it was easy to miss Measure 26-146 in Portland, Oregon. The measure passed, and (once they work out the kinks of collecting the monies) will cost every adult in Multnomah County $35 per year to fund arts organizations and education.

This is no 1/10 of a cent tax increase. This is a bill delivered to the doorstep of everyone over 18 to fund about 70 art teachers and approximately $6 million in grants to arts organizations. To be exempt, a person must present paperwork to the county demonstrating income below the poverty line.

Multnomah County is about to start seriously investing in the arts.

Let me be clear: No one is proposing this sort of action in San Antonio. No one.  But hear why I think we should at least strive for a situation in which it would be plausible. Not a situation where we have to pay, but a situation where we would pay if we had to.

To get to a place where a county could even realistically propose charging $35 per person for a yearlong subscription to living there, citizens need to see some serious value-added from the existence of arts education and organizations.

Public art for all. La Antorcha de la Amistad, stands out in the downtown city scape. Photo by Jeff Meyers.

According to SA2020, San Antonio wants to invest in the arts, and to do so progressively. This will require a healthy dose of realignment on the part of our cultural institutions, as well as we the patrons.

Formerly the Office of Cultural Affairs, the Department for Culture and Creative Development is one of two city departments directly aligned with the ambitious vision of SA2020. (The other is SAPD.) It takes its mission from the vision cast by the citizens of San Antonio, and makes every effort at transparent and bold leadership of our creative economy.

They are tasked with a balance of competing strengths: history and progress.

Felix Padron

As Felix Padron, director of the Department for Culture and Creative Development, asks, “How do you foster innovation in a community that values its history?”

Padron sees the arts as a major key to building on history without erasing it. He draws an axis from south to north along the river, a timeline of our city’s investment in infrastructure and culture. The Missions and acequias are the historical foundation of our city, La Villita and Hemisfair represent the twin efforts of relevance and preservation in the 20th century, and now the Museum Reach of the river with Pearl, SAMA, the Children’s Museum, and soon the Tobin Center will hopefully centralize this new energy as we push toward 2020.  “Artists continue to play a key role in the evolution of San Antonio,” Padron says. His office remains committed to fostering their development.

“Artists love San Antonio because it’s easy on the eyes and easy on the wallet,” Padron says.

According to many artists, he’s correct. It’s a really easy place to live. It’s a great place to make art. Let’s rephrase that, visual art and literature. It’s a great place to make the kind of art that can be produced independently without the support of an institution.

San Antonio is an artistic community, but it is not an institutional city. Until the Tobin Fine Arts Center is completed, performing artists, who depend so much on collaboration, are disconnected because they lack the hubs that are only now emerging for visual artists, thanks to Blue Star and the Southwest School.

Ghost Ghost stopping through San Antonio during SXSW. (Peckham, who now lives in San Antonio, is second from right)

Kevin Peckham moved to San Antonio from Brooklyn when his wife got a job with Lake|Flato. He’s a musician, an indie rocker with the band Ghost Ghost. Long-distance collaborations are not uncommon in the music industry; they are increasingly fruitful thanks to digital media. However, long-distance connection is made possible by local infrastructure feeding into the disembedded network.

“For a musician, rehearsal space and performance space is crucial,” says Peckham. “Rehearsal space cannot be in a strictly residential neighborhood or in an area with repressive noise ordinances — instead musician communities tend thrive in dense areas on the edge of urban settlement where light industrial and heavy commercial spaces are just beginning to be converted into smaller shops, bars, music venues, etc. In fact, adding a vibrant night-life to a once-gritty neighborhood can be a very effective way to lower crime.”

Actors and dancers are tightly bound to institutions if they want to make a living through their craft. Lee Daugherty, a New Braunfels native, has made a home in Washington DC where she and her husband, Rex, have been professionally involved in the theater for the past five years. ‘’While we would love to move back to central Texas to be near family, we have some hesitation since we both work in the performing arts…at this time, there aren’t enough acting opportunities in San Antonio for my husband to continue the kind of work he has been doing in the DC area,’’ Daugherty says.

Rex Daughtery on the cover of American Theater Magazine, photo by Dan Brick

Part of supporting the individual working artists, is requiring that institutions take their place in the developing creative economy. Our city has a famously healthy budget, and can afford to invest in organizations that further the arts. However the institutions must do their part in producing a return on the investment. They can’t grow stagnant and disconnected from the city’s desire for progress.

It is fair for the City, when it acts on behalf of the taxpayers, to require institutions to contribute to the stated goals of the community. When people begin to see a return on their investment in the arts, we will incubate the political will to invest further.

San Antonians will need to get used to paying for things too. “For the longest time the community took [the arts] for granted because it was so embedded,” Padron says. But this investment in innovation is going to require some patronage.

That return on investment is both in the form of the ever-nebulous “quality of life,” as well as in marked economic gains. According to the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV report, in Bexar county, audiences attending cultural events generated $72 million dollars in revenue excluding the price of admission. That means that the restaurants, bars, hotels, and retail establishments included in “a night out” at the theater, symphony, or festival all benefit from a vibrant art scene.

Further, the report shows 5,132 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs supported by the creative economy. That’s not a huge number, but it proves that the arts do generate employment, and that investing in it as an industry yields economic benefits.

It may be too idealistic to think that a community will ever pay $35 per year just to improve their quality of life. Just to have more access to things they consider luxuries. But if the arts are part of our cultural identity, if they employ our family members, attract our friends, increase the opportunities for our children, maybe then we would be willing to make that kind of investment.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.