Council Considers Drawing On More City Funds To Help Out Austin Artists

May 18, 2017

For many Austin artists, finding affordable space to create is an enormous concern. The Austin City Council is set to consider a plan Thursday to help them out.

If approved, the Art Space Assistance Program would provide $200,000 in grant funding for local arts nonprofits. Groups could either apply for stipends of up to $35,000 to help pay rent or grants of $50,000 to help bring their venues up to compliance with city code. Some spaces have had to shut down because of code violations.

Mayor Steve Adler made a series of proposals last year, specifically aimed at assisting the city's musicians.

Speaking at a City Council work session Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo questioned whether this funding model would have the most impact.

“We tend to provide grants to some of the same organizations year after year because they’re larger, more established, they have the capacity to apply for grants,” she said. “I think we have the ability to really reach out to some of the smaller organizations with a more accessible kind of program, and this could be just the right opportunity.”

Tovo said dividing the money into grants of, say, $10,000, could provide more support to smaller groups that are struggling. But Meghan Wells, Austin’s Cultural Arts Division Manager, said that might not work because the need for assistance is so widespread.

“The $10,000 range would not give them much relief because we’re looking at such huge demands on the resources for rent" or to address code violations, she said.

In a memo to city council, Austin’s Economic Development Director Kevin Johns said city staff  “anticipate overwhelming demand for the funds.” His department hopes for future funding to continue the assistance program, but Council Member Jimmy Flannigan raised concerns about its sustainability.

“I am concerned about subsidizing rent,” he said. “It does not seem like a sustainable program. I’m much more inclined to support low-interest loans that allow an organization to buy property or even the assistance to fix code violations. That’s more of a capital assistance.”

City staff noted that many of the nonprofit groups they consulted with are not eligible for traditional loans.

Tovo said she supports the program, but still has questions. For example, if the city funds improvements for a venue, can it ensure that the property owner won’t simply flip the space and turn it over to another tenant? She also questioned which groups would qualify as “artists” under the program.

City staff now say they'll ask for a postponement on the item until next month as they work to answer these questions.