Multimedia artist Sarah Fox is known for her collages of fantastical animals and large-scale animations projected at recent Luminaria contemporary art festivals. Her career was on a steady upward trajectory, with local shows funded in part by the City of San Antonio and other sources, and opportunities outside the city happening with increasing frequency.

Then, the coronavirus struck in mid-March, and Fox, who had separated from her husband in late 2019, had to pull her toddler son from day care when the city shut down. All public events were shut down, including the gallery exhibitions, performances, craft sales, art fairs, and festivals artists such as Fox depend on for exposure and income and exposure.

Upcoming projects were rescheduled or indefinitely postponed, and Brick, the event space in the Blue Star Arts Complex where Fox works as program manager, went dark.

“I feel like I’m secure in the short term if there’s a vaccine and things change in the new year,” Fox said last month, but the uncertainty is worrying as pressure for income mounts.

Like Fox, arts workers throughout San Antonio have lost jobs, gigs, and sales, while rent, mortgages, and bills come due. Relief funds were granted to the arts sector during the early months of the pandemic, but the amounts were meager. Funding from a more substantial federal relief program is currently being distributed, but with no additional money on the immediate horizon, the question of whether San Antonio’s arts and culture sector will recover from the pandemic shutdown is only beginning to be answered.

For Fox, life has become less about making art and more about scrambling to generate income.

“I’m just hustling, trying to see any way that I can scrape together any kind of money,” she said. Such a situation is not unusual for the artists, musicians, and performers of San Antonio, many of whom work jobs in addition to their arts work, but “this is high gear hustle,” Fox said.

A meager lifeline

In late March, Fox applied for and received funds from the Corona Arts Relief program, a collaborative effort of the Department of Arts and Culture and the Luminaria Artist Foundation undertaken quickly in response to the pandemic.

The program was immediately overwhelmed with applications. In the initial round, emergency grants averaging $569 were distributed to 49 artists. An internet telethon-style fundraiser and philanthropy from private foundations made second and third rounds possible.

In all, the emergency relief program gave out a total of $62,464 to 100 artists, according to Kathy Armstrong, outgoing Luminaria executive director. The grants averaged $625 per applicant.

“It paid for almost a month’s rent, which was nice,” Fox said.

The next round of emergency funding for the arts sector – and a substantially bigger one – arrived in June from the federal CARES Act, and on July 19 the Department of Arts and Culture announced its $2.6 million SA CARES 4 Art Grant Program, with $2 million in emergency funds available for nonprofit arts organizations and $600,000 for individual artists who could demonstrate lost income due to the pandemic shutdown.

Fox applied and found out Sept. 4 she will receive the $5,000 maximum allowable grant through the program.

“Crying with relief and feeling a lot of love for the city,” she texted the San Antonio Report when she got the news.

Another applicant, installation artist David Zamora Casas, is still waiting to hear whether he will receive a grant.

Zamora Casas had been anticipating recreating an elaborate 2019 installation at the McNay Art Museum for a July tour stop of the Transamerica/n exhibition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but the show was canceled when coronaviruses cases spiked in the area. Another installation for a July exhibition at Centro de Artes in San Antonio was put on hold.

At first the delays felt like a relief, allowing him more time to prepare.

“Before this pandemic hit, I was in a good place,” Zamora Casas said. But as he looked forward to resuming his projects, “what I didn’t anticipate is that my creative process was blocked” as the uncertainty of the pandemic brought chaos. “It was like holding my head down in water and I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I knew I had to dig my way out of that.”

Artist David Zamora Casas. Credit: Courtesy / Josh Huskin

Zamora Casas skipped the first opportunity for emergency relief funding from the City through the Luminaria grant, in part because he found the application too complicated. With a potential $5,000 at stake through the SA CARES 4 Art grants, friends convinced him to undertake an application process he considered still more onerous and invasive in seeking financial information.

“I’ve heard from scholars and fellow artists, and they agree that no other application has been this invasive about private information, and difficult,” he said he told Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture and administrator of the grant program.

SA CARES 4 Art application requirements are based on federal guidelines, and eligibility is based on proof of loss of income during the pandemic period through Dec. 30, Racca-Sittre said.

Musicians who’ve lost gigs, actors sitting idle as plays have been canceled, orchestral musicians and performers whose venues have been shuttered, and visual artists like Fox and Zamora Casas must provide documentation estimating how much income has been lost.

Part of Zamora Casas’s issue was with reporting documentable losses, a typical problem for many types of artists.

“My income fluctuates,’ he said. “Sometimes I’ll make a lot of money and sometimes I won’t.” He might go three years without selling a painting, “then I’ll sell a $7,000 painting, or maybe I’ll sell $300 paintings” at a pop-up art event, he said.

‘The plague’ infects budgets

The $2 million in CARES funding dedicated to nonprofit arts organizations will help them recover funding lost when the City in April halted all arts funding for the remainder of the 2020 fiscal year.

But the emergency funds were seen by some as too little, too late, with a consortium of arts leaders asking for $10 million in additional funding. In an open letter titled “Creativity Counts,” the group of more than 40 arts leaders called San Antonio the “cultural heart of Texas,” citing an arts sector economic impact on the city of $4.8 billion in 2019.

In public meetings, Racca-Sittre has backed up this assertion, saying San Antonio nonprofit arts organizations spend almost $80 million in San Antonio [annually]. “Of that, the city provides between $5 [million] to $7 million a year. These agencies directly employ over 3,500 people,” she said.

A Brookings Institution nationwide study of pandemic losses among the “creative industry,” a wide-ranging term that includes upholsterers, advertising agencies, television broadcasters, and many other categories, estimates that San Antonio lost $552 million in sales, and 15,639 jobs, in the period between April 1 and July 31.

Urban-15 Music and Media Director George Cisneros lauded the City for its relief funding efforts but pointed out that federal relief funding would account for only one-quarter of the money arts groups need annually. The $2.6 million is “not at all adequate,” he said. “That would have to be $2.6 [million] times four to be adequate.”

A proposed $5.4 million for arts organization funding in 2021 represents a reduction of 30 percent in City funds for the 47 agencies that sought money in 2020. No additional money is slated for individual artists, beyond the $80,000 already dedicated annually to artist regranting programs run by the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures and the Luminaria Artist Foundation.

The lack of funding for individual artists angered Marisela Barrera, a performance artist and activist who has consistently advocated for City funding to go directly to artists. Prior to the pandemic, Barrera’s activism spurred public workshops with the Department of Art and Culture at which individual artists pushed for up to $1 million in direct funding. Planning for any such future program has been put on hold, Racca-Sittre said.

Then in an Aug. 7 email to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council, and Racca-Sittre following the announcement of the proposed budget, Barrera wrote, “The plague arrived and public arts funding was the first line item cut. Our artistic homes are at stake.”

Artist and arts advocate Marisela Barrera. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A working solution

A vocal supporter of the arts, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has an idea in mind to help individual artists recover from the pandemic. After gathering support from several council members, he sent a formal Council Consideration Request (CCR) to Nirenberg in July.

In the request, Treviño details a comprehensive “Art Works” program that would bring public art and design enhancements back under the purview of the Public Works Department, where those programs existed between 2000 and 2014. Treviño proposes that the program would be funded by the City’s next general obligation bond, up for approval by voters in 2021. Over the five-year term of the bond, the proposal could mean additional spending of between $16 million to $20 million that would benefit local artists working on designated projects.

The Art Works program proposal would double the current 1 percent allocation of eligible public works projects dedicated to public art to 2 percent, with the additional eligibility of design enhancements, that would employ artists and artisans to beautify what would otherwise be standard infrastructure including landscaping elements, outdoor spaces, building fixtures, and the new San Antonio Zoo signage, a contentious issue for Treviño.

The Art Works program would need to be approved by City Council, and while several members have expressed conditional support, others have voiced skepticism.

During a Sept. 16 meeting of the Governance Committee, several council members expressed conditional support for Treviño’s proposed program, while openly wondering whether the City can afford arts funding while a potential housing crisis still looms. The committee passed the Art Works CCR with amendments requiring further consideration by other City committees, including the Planning and Development Committee, which would address concerns of developers in addition to the needs of the arts sector.

Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) has expressed support for the “basic elements” of the idea to help San Antonio’s artists but questioned whether City funding would be better spent on fulfilling needs such as affordable housing.

“We shouldn’t ignore the fact that no one’s buying art, because people are out of work, and I’m going to make choices between paying rent or food. And so paying artists to create art that will collect dust in some inventory is going to be problematic for us,” Palaez said during a City budget discussion on Aug. 26.

Racca-Sittre countered that the CARES relief program is intended for the entire arts sector, which includes musicians who have lost gigs, dancers, orchestral groups, and arts beyond the visual art Palaez suggested, and that the money is not meant for new art production but to make up for losses incurred during the pandemic.

Surviving, so far

Meanwhile, artists continue to ride out the pandemic while looking for new ways to market art, with some successful efforts that counter Pelaez’s assertion.

Rigoberto Luna, proprietor of the Presa House gallery, said his venue had “probably its best June ever” in terms of sales.

“Some of the collectors that usually buy some stuff from us immediately reached out and bought things that they were interested in, but had been on the fence about,” he said, because they were aware that the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of artists and venues that support them.

Other arts workers have responded to the shutdown of events and venues by moving assertively to sell art over the internet, creating online programming to generate income. SAY Sí Executive Director Jon Hinojosa, one of the primary authors of the Creativity Counts open letter, helped create a new Facebook page to sell artist goods and services.

Fox said she has enjoyed regular sales over the past six months, with supporters aware of the pandemic’s effects stepping up to purchase artworks. But in terms of how things play out for the future of the arts sector, everything depends on how quickly things can get back to some semblance of normality, she said.

Facing the prospect of having no coronavirus vaccine until 2021 means “a whole year for some of these small businesses, like the Brick and little galleries, not being able to bring in income,” she said. “It’s really hard to survive. They’ve been able to do it so far, but it’s not going to last forever.”

Nicholas Frank

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...