Good evening, class, and welcome to Democracy In Action. No, it’s not based on the Jon Stewart-Daily Show bestseller. That was Democracy Inaction. It’s open seating, so you can put your tax returns and proofs-of-residency away. Thank you.
All right, tonight’s subject: Arts Funding: the Scylla and Charybdis of Public Investment. Damned if you do/damned if you don’t, etc. We are fortunate to have a real-life example to work with: The City of San Antonio is in the process of finalizing two-year awards to local arts organizations, including ballet, low-rider festivals, opera, filmmaking, museums, and more. This time around, the agency charged with the thankless task, the Office of Cultural Affairs, has more than $4 million to divvy up among the contestants in four categories: City anchor tenants such as the Carver and Centro Cultural Aztlán that occupy municipally owned facilities; visual-arts groups such as Artpace and the San Antonio Museum of Art; performing-arts groups such as the San Antonio Opera and Arathi Indian Group; and multidisciplinary organizations that like to mix it up a little. Applicants in this last category include the Esperanza, and ARTS San Antonio.
Now, four mil may sound like a lot, especially compared to previous funding cycles, but since total requests, as usual, exceeded the monies available, someone’s not going to be happy. The group that has to make the tough calls is the all-volunteer, appointed Cultural Arts Board, which crunches scores that come from OCA staff and peer panels … I’m sorry, what’s that, Mr. Greenberg?
“In San Antonio, the process fails because knowledgeable, objective reviewers with high critical standards are the exception. That’s just about unavoidable if the committees comprise local volunteers, many of whom have limited experience. A stronger system would entail assembling paid teams of widely recognized experts from out of town … ”
I understand your concern, Mr. Greenberg. But the City is essentially purchasing cultural activities for the community, so I think it makes sense to have community members involved in the decision-making process. You’ve done your homework, but perhaps for Oligarchy 101? Last time around, the crux of the complaints about panelists was that they were too elitist and didn’t give enough credence to the cultural significance of Westside institutions. This year I’m hearing that the panels are too unsophisticated, too grassroots. Democracy functions on correctives; perhaps better training would resolve some of your concerns? I also might suggest that some of the artistically excellent groups that feel snubbed appeal to San Antonio’s many deep private pockets.
OK, then, let’s get back to the numbers. CAB received a range of scores for the applicants, along with their budget requests. The amounts organizations could request were capped by their operating budgets — essentially, smaller organizations could request more money from the City, while larger, established organizations could request less. Some groups requested less than the maximum amount and expressed dismay when they realized that they could have asked for more and that the request amount affected the grant amount. Déjà vu all over again, as that sports guy used to say.
So, imagine you’re a CAB member. You’ve got the staff scores, you’ve got the panel scores, you’ve … yes, Mr. Tedesco?
“But the people in charge of the money are complaining about a confusing process that might not be fair to everyone.”
It involves math and human beings, so I suspect it is confusing, Mr. Tedesco. Yes, Ms. Ybañez? I undestand you’re on the real-life CAB?
“Last year’s process was totally different.”
I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, but didn’t Felix Padrón assign that project to a committee of arts representatives and CAB members? I seem to recall a number of papers on the topic last winter on the new system, so it’s not like it wasn’t on the syllabus. Yes, Mr. Greenberg? Oh, I’m sorry, I cut you off earlier. You were saying we need what?
“ … people who could bring a national perspective to their evaluations and who would not come to the process already entangled in the local arts scene.”
Well, you’ve got a point there. I suspect some out-of-town professionals might question whether it’s appropriate for the 10-member CAB to have two members whose fledgling Artist Foundation is umbrellaed by ARTS San Antonio, which has applied for City funding (and received one of the lowest scores from the peer panelists). I’m not saying there’s been impropriety, but if we’re going to make some changes, why not start with readily apparent entanglements?
Nonetheless, I don’t think you can take away the public vote once you’ve granted it, not when public monies are involved, anyway. All right, we’re out of time. Your assignment for next week: Design an arts-funding system that incorporates meaningful public input and makes everyone equally happy. I’ll extend the deadline if necessary.
Ed note: the quotes attributed to Mr. Greenberg appeared in Mike Greenberg’s October 22 Express-News column. Quotes attributed to Mr. Tedesco and Ms. Ybanez appeared in John Tedesco’s October 26 Express-News story, “Grants process confuses arts advisory panel,” which quoted panel member Theresa Ybanez.