- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
During the recently completed session, Texas lawmakers chose the House rendition of steep cuts to the arts, not the harsher Senate version.
That’s the only silver lining that Jennifer Ransom Rice, executive director of the Texas Cultural Trust, an advocacy group, can find in the trims to the Texas Commission on the Arts. Among the hoped-for funds was $5 million for the Cultural Arts Districts program, which supports specialized zones in 35 Texas cities.
“While we are grateful that the conferees adopted the House version of TCA’s budget — a 28 percent cut, over the Senate’s 34 percent cut — we are grossly disappointed that our Cultural Districts initiative was not restored and the program must be suspended,” Rice said. “These cuts included the state’s mandatory 4 percent across the board cut to all agencies, and also deep cuts in arts education — also disappointing and disheartening at a time when public education so greatly needs the shot in the arm that the arts can provide.”
Austin won’t be affected immediately by the Cultural Arts Districts trim because the city has only one, called Six Square, which promotes appreciation for the African-American historical and cultural legacy in East Austin, and the group did not apply for funding during the current biennium.
The commission’s current budget is a little less than $9 million a year. It would shrink to a little more than $6 million a year.
In 2016, the commission awarded $943,412 to Austin arts groups. A chunk of that, however, was federal pass-through money and thus not part of the state budget. In fact, $921,900 of commission grants statewide come from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Compare the state’s contribution to Austin — less than $1 million — with the almost $12 million that the city allotted to its Cultural Arts Division in 2017. That money comes not from the city’s general fund or state taxes but from local hotel occupancy taxes, which are split among tourism-related activities such as the work of Visit Austin, formerly known as the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Of that $12 million, almost $500,000, for instance, went to the Austin Creative Alliance, an advocacy group that also acts as a financial umbrella for smaller arts projects. Women & Their Work pulled in $400,000, three-fourths of which was distributed to smaller projects.
In its recent State of the Arts Report, the Cultural Trust revived an estimate that the arts contribute $5.5 billion to the Texas economy, employ 1 in 15 Texans and contribute $343.7 million in state sales tax revenue annually.
Yet that total included often for-profit sectors such as digital software, audio and video recording, book publishing, filmmaking, zoos, commercial photography, radio networks, television broadcasting, libraries, architectural services and a host of other activities. Only a few categories cited in the report fit the description of the nonprofit arts serviced by the Texas Commission on the Arts.
“The whole creative community needs to be fostered and nurtured by the public sector and the private sector,” Rice said. “For-profit and nonprofit activities operate in a symbiotic relationship.”
The Cultural Trust, which produces the biennial Texas Medal of the Arts ceremony in Austin, produces its own educational programs, and it works with Texans for the Arts, a similar group, to advocate for the Texas Commission on the Arts.
“I hate to lose, and this one stings,” Rice said. “But it also informs all three groups of the work that needs to be done in the interim to foster relationships and show the undeniable ripple effect of arts across the state.”