San Antonio’s legendary performing artists receive accolades and honors, earning the respect of their peers and helping enrich the city’s distinctive cultural identity. However for even the most admired performing artists and musicians, making a living can be a day-to-day struggle.

Jazz saxophonist Vernon “Spot” Barnett died in October at age 83 “virtually penniless,” according to music historian Hector Saldaña. Rita “La Calandria” Vidaurri of Las Tesoros de San Antonio survived well into her 80s on a minimum-wage job caring for the elderly before her death in January 2019 at age 94, friend and activist Graciela Sanchez said.

It’s common for San Antonio musicians and other performing artists to live “month to month, hand to mouth, gig to gig,” Saldaña said, despite a music industry that generates more than $500 million annually for the regional economy. Even among more successful artists, “something has to give,” he said, meaning they face forgoing health insurance, falling behind on bills, and playing through illness.

Because of musicians’ status as cultural icons, it’s possible that “we just hold them in such reverence, we don’t even see them as people” with common needs and monthly expenses, Saldaña said.

Both Barnett and Vidaurri had been honored recently at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with Distinction in the Arts (DIA) awards, fêted onstage for a lifetime of accomplishment.

While DIA awards do not come with a cash honorarium, Las Tesoros received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2019 worth $25,000. But divided among the group’s four members and over their nearly 35-year career, that would amount to $238 per year each, not including taxes on the award. Even divided between its two remaining members (Janet “Perla Tapatia” Cortez died in 2014), $12,250 would not reach the poverty line for annual income.

Blanca “Blanquita Rosa” Rodríguez (left) and Beatriz “La Paloma Del Norte” Llamas of Las Tesoros de San Antonio.

“Sometimes those two things, respect and money, are not in alignment,” Saldaña said.

Eva Ybarra is known widely as “the Queen of the Accordion.” In 2017, Ybarra was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship for her 60-year career, adding to a list of hall of fame honors and lifetime achievement awards. Yet she still goes “kitty catting,” a slang term for strolling through restaurants with a couple of fellow musicians, asking patrons if they’d like a song for $5 or $10.

For gigs back in the 1990s, Ybarra would get paid $40 for four to five solid hours of danceable conjunto music, and she said today the fees are up to $50 or $60. “They don’t want to pay,” she said of the clubs that feature live music, meaning that normal gig fees rarely account for the number of musicians onstage, and occasionally she’s had to pay her backing musicians out of her own pocket to make up the difference.

While patrons of those clubs will happily shell out for food and drink, they might balk at paying a cover charge for the musicians. “The money’s there, but we don’t make the money,” Ybarra said.

Recognition Isn’t a Living

It’s not uncommon for musicians, in particular, to be asked to perform for free, with the assumption that mere exposure is compensation enough.

“You can’t eat exposure,” Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the City’s Department of Arts and Culture, said after a November meeting of the San Antonio Arts Commission.

At the meeting, Racca-Sittre introduced the framework for a new performing arts plan that will include a policy on paying performing artists for all City-sponsored appearances. The policy is meant as a model for private interests to follow suit, she said.

The issue of artists receiving proper payment along with their recognition is a “mindset kind of problem, that our community as a whole needs to value artists as professionals,” Racca-Sittre said. “… We need to get in the mindset that art is not free. It costs money. And people who are artists are making a living doing this, and they have bills to pay just like everybody else.”

Others feel the City needs to go further in funding individual performing artists. Performance artist and activist Marisela Barrera began a Facebook campaign to advocate for direct public funding of individual artists, attracting more than 100 supporters as of early December.

While the City does provide some funding to individual artists, that funding is limited in scope, supplied through two organization that redistribute, or “regrant,” City money based on artist project proposals.

The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures restricts its funding to Latino artists, and Artist Foundation regranting – now in the hands of Luminaria, which has rebranded the program as Luminaria Artist Foundation – has been restricted to between four and seven artists per year after a reorganization in 2017. The Luminaria Artist Foundation just announced it would regrant three awards of $10,000 each in the category of literary arts, visual arts (including film), and performing arts.

Barrera points out that other Texas cities, including Dallas, Austin, El Paso, and Houston, have direct individual artist granting programs. Of 61 arts funding grants awarded to organizations, festivals, and artists by the El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department, 26 went to individual artists of various disciplines.

Barrera suggested that the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture (OAC) presents an ideal funding model through its ArtsActivate 2020 granting program. The funding is project- and proposal-based, open to individual artists, as well as nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, social services organizations, artist collectives, and other eligible nonprofit organizations, according to its website.

Performance artist Marisela Barrera

Individual Dallas artists may apply for two types of grants: up to $7,500 for projects of up to 30 days in duration and up to $15,000 for residencies of longer duration, with three full granting cycles per year. Artists are eligible to receive grants in two of the three annual cycles.

Of $320,000 awarded in the most recent granting cycle, $97,000 went to 12 individual artists, said Glenn Ayars, cultural programs manager for OAC. The City of Dallas provides $6 million annually for his agency, with $775,000 dedicated to the ArtsActivate 2020 granting program.

There’s one key difference in how San Antonio’s cultural funding is sourced: While a portion of arts and culture funding comes from hotel occupancy taxes (HOT), other funding is derived from Dallas’ general fund, which can be used to fund artists directly.

While the $6.8 million in current annual San Antonio cultural funding derives from HOT money, the Westside Arts Coalition was able to get additional 2019-21 funding from the City’s general fund in the amount of $400,000.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said that while he supported the additional funding, the unusual move does not provide a precedent. After meeting with Barrera and Racca-Sittre to discuss the issue of individual funding for performing artists, Treviño said he’d instead like to see a programmatic approach.

“We want to create a something that ultimately will happen year after year,” he said, and that a program similar to ArtsActivate 2020 is possible in San Antonio.

“I will make sure that we find a way to make that a priority in our city. The arts are a priority to me and I will make it a priority in our budgeting.”

In response to Barrera’s advocacy, Racca-Sittre and Treviño convened a public meeting Jan. 15 to gather input from artists of all disciplines. In 12 focus groups, more than 80 visual artists, filmmakers, theater artists, dancers, musicians, and performance artists discussed their desires for individual artist funding and more transparency in the funding process, and gave details on how such funds might be used. Racca-Sittre said another such meeting would be convened soon.

“Ultimately, we want to keep artists here. We know that this is an important aspect of how the arts exist here in San Antonio,” Treviño said.

Power in Numbers

Others say the real issue lies less with public funding than with individual initiative and changing perceptions.

“Musicians too often are perfectly willing to prostrate themselves in weird ways to get exposure – the dreaded exposure,” said Richard Oppenheim, president of the Musicians’ Society of San Antonio Local 23, a chapter of the American Federation of Musicians labor union.

Katchie Cartwright’s Brazilian Trio plays during Brazilian Jazz Afternoon on the River Walk at On The Bend Oyster Bar & Lounge.

While some venue owners might perceive dealing with the musicians union as too difficult or too expensive, Oppenheim insists otherwise. “Approaching the union is a perfectly valid and useful way of trying to establish some kind of norms,” he said.

The Local 23 wage scale stipulates a minimum fee of $100 for musicians hired by a small venue, defined as accommodating an audience of 500 or fewer, with a 5.45 percent pension contribution – amounting to an additional $5.45. The wage scale also accounts for large venues, contractor fees, festivals, parties, and most events where performers would be hired.

Blayne Tucker, owner of The Mix music club on the St. Mary’s Strip, said he supports the idea of the musicians union in principle – though he feels San Antonio might not yet be ready for its independent musicians to all become members.

“Getting young rock-oriented or indie musicians organized in some sense like that is tantamount to herding cats,” Tucker said. “It’s tough to get that kind of coalescence together and committed to that kind of unified vision that I think you need for union activity to really be successful.”

He forgoes a cover charge at The Mix specifically to encourage younger and more experimental bands to find an audience. Depending on bar sales, bands generally earn between $100 and $500 per night, split as the musicians themselves determine.

“I’m a firm believer in paying artists,” he said.

Charlotte Tyer and Pete Cleveland chat outside The Mix. Photo by Scott Ball.
Charlotte Tyer and Pete Cleveland chat inside The Mix.

Still, Tucker said, it’s up to the bands to create enough hype to attract clubgoers, which he characterized as a relatively small portion of San Antonio’s population. Bands face the additional challenge of overexposure among a high density of venues in a small area. “The way to make money these days as a musician is getting out there and getting on the road and exposing yourself to new markets,” Tucker said.

To help area venues see each other less as competitors and more as contributors to the local culture, Tucker started the North St. Mary’s Business Owners Association in 2015.

Tucker said club owners would need to agree on the musicians union issue to make things work. He’s seen similar efforts succeed, having worked with the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians to provide access to health care and other services for professional musicians.

For its annual dues of $176, the Musicians’ Society of San Antonio also provides access to health insurance, instrument insurance, and other services for its 210 members. Still, Oppenheim said, many San Antonio musicians have not joined.

“Musicians need to really get their heads around the idea that … they are workers,” Oppenheim said, “and as such, they are without any useful leverage unless they can somehow take it upon themselves to work in concert.”

Saldaña described the overall issue as mirroring the sometimes difficult, perplexing, and fiercely independent creatures that musicians can be.

“They are the first to tell you they’re no different than anybody else,” he said, “but their talent and their spirit – their aura – is what uplifts us, so they are different.” 

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...