Artists start to line up behind mayoral candidates they hope will support development of the city's cultural assets
In the 2002 City Council race, District 1 candidate Jon Thompson had the best signs. Designed by local artist and graphic designer Robert Tatum, they evinced no small amount of support from the city's contemporary arts community. Alas, architect Rene Balderas was also popular among the Southtown and Government Hill sets, and whatever tangible "art vote" there was split. Roger Flores, who likes to describe himself as a pothole-fixer, eventually took the seat after a run-off against Balderas.
Now comes a mayoral election on the heels of a contentious biannual arts funding process in which the Office of Cultural Affairs tried to equitably distribute a paltry $2 million in Hotel-Motel Tax funds to more than 40 applicants `see "Bottom line blues," June 24-30, 2004, "Clear as mud," July 1-7, 2004`. Despite some intense lobbying on the part of the Westside Arts Coalition and others, the newest City budget allocates almost the exact same amount for the coming year, and no real attempt was made to increase the arts' HOT allotment from roughly 8 percent to its potential 15 percent. Certainly many cultural organizations would like to see the arts less dependent on the HOT funds and subsequently less tied to tourism in the minds of city leaders, but at the moment it's the only significant source of public funding they've got.
Another issue that was raised (again) by OCA director Felix Padron during the funding season was that outlying districts such as 9 and 10 may not be underserved economically, but when it comes to the arts, they're the inner city's poor cousins. District 10 councilman Chip Haas has suggeted that this is one reason it's so hard to convince North Side voters - and therefore North Side politicians - that public funding for arts programs should be increased.
As these debates simmer, OCA holds out the promise that the Cultural Collaborative initiative begun last year `see "The Collaborative Kickoff," November 20-26, 2003` will provide some solutions. But even an optimist might admit that the glass looks middlin' at best. Fortunately the arts community has some industrious optimists in the form of painter, gallerist, and current Cultural Arts Board member Bettie Ward, and photographer Arturo Almeida, who serves as art consultant to UTSA President Ricardo Romo and as curator of the new gallery at the UTSA downtown campus.
Ward is supporting attorney Phil Hardberger for mayor, a man many see as an outsider candidate who can rise above the city's partisan bickering and get developers, environmentalists, Latino activists, and everyone else to buy into an all-encompassing vision for San Antonio's future. "I'd like to see the mayor look at the city's economy in a new way," says Ward, who is planning a March street-party "friendraiser" for the candidate. "I would like to see leaders see `the arts` as a reason to come to San Antonio." For Ward that means increasing the HOT allotment, among other things.
Hardberger says he would consider increasing the HOT arts funds, but he would look for places to eliminate waste first. "My feeling is if you cut out 10 percent of the people who work for the City, you'd never miss them and you'd have a lot more money for art and potholes."
Hardberger's wife, Linda, served as the curator of the McNay's Tobin Theater Arts collection for 15 years, and the Hardbergers' personal collection includes works by several local artists. "The arts are way too important to push to the bottom of the trough," says Hardberger. "To focus only on immediate tangible benefits such as tourism, that's a very shortsighted view of the arts."
The mayor's most important role for the arts, adds Hardberger, is as a spokesperson to the Council and business leaders. More specifically, he says the city needs a performing arts center, and, "I love the downtown area, but I think we have to look at spreading out our arts area."
Last Friday, Almeida hosted an art auction fundraiser at Chella's restaurant for District 7 Councilman Julián Castro. Almeida says that leadership and communication are the most important qualities he is looking for in a candidate. "I believe `Castro's` smart and he has integrity," but, "You've got three very qualified candidates, so it's all good."
Castro also has some concrete propositions. He favors increasing the HOT allotment until arts funding can find a "permanent" and "stable" home in the general fund. "I don't believe our cultural experience should be held hostage to individuals outside the city," he says, referring to HOT's tourism strings. He sees a goal of the Cultural Collaborative as "taking the unique Hispanic culture in San Antonio and packaging and marketing it in a way that makes it attractive to locals and tourists."
Castro believes the political will to support the arts can be increased by encouraging non-profit arts organizations to have their corporate board members lobby city council. "I must say, another part of the strategy is to get individual councilmembers to invest personally in the arts," he adds, but that doesn't necessarily mean ploughing art dollars into the North Side. First, "I would like for representatives of North Side districts to appreciate the value of the arts. Usually what we hear is they want lower taxes."
District 9 councilman and mayoral candidate Carroll Schubert puts the meat in Castro's musings. While he favors public financing of City-owned facilities such as the Botanical Gardens, he says, "The City budget should not be the place of first resort for projects of any kind to look for funding." He favors increased private funding, and cites Linda Pace and ArtPace as an example (unaware, perhaps, that ArtPace has been seeking City funding, too). More art in District 9? Not so much, thanks, says Schubert.
"I think schools are doing some of that," and heck, they've got cars, so they can drive downtown. "Maybe mobility is not as much of an issue in some of those areas."
Which puts us in mind of a demographic map compiled by UTSA's Metropolitan Research & Policy Institute. In shades of red, it showed that San Antonio's North Side population has a greater percentage of post-high school education than its art-endowed central neighborhoods. Maybe a college education isn't what it used to be. •
By Elaine Wolff