Art to the People: COSA increases access to arts funding 

In 2003, years before the pop-up craze swept the United States, Celia Mendoza created artWHERE, a series of installations by both local and visiting artists in vacant spaces in downtown San Antonio. She purchased insurance, the property owners paid utilities and she convinced restaurants and printers to donate services for receptions. Despite backing from local businesses, Mendoza says the City didn’t offer financial support: “What I got from the City is that I had to be a nonprofit, and I really didn’t want to be a nonprofit. I wanted to remain independent, so I did it all at my own expense.” After a little over a year, Mendoza moved on from artWHERE to focus on graduate school and family.

Starting this year, independent creative organizers like Mendoza will find they have several new opportunities for city support. The Department of Culture and Creative Development (DCCD) is revising its funding guidelines and plans to offer grant programs for individual artists and collectives for the first time. The new guidelines are currently being finalized with input from the Cultural Advisory Board (CAB) and should come before city council for approval in March or April. Applications for the new programs should be available in May and funds will be distributed starting in October.

According to Americans for the Arts, of the five most populous counties in Texas, Bexar County has the most money concentrated in the top four arts nonprofits—48.75 percent. This dynamic makes it difficult for smaller, more unorthodox arts organizations to get off the ground. Now, smaller groups will have City support to experiment and potentially grow into sustainable organizations.

One new program, StART Place, allows artists and community nonprofits (such as neighborhood associations) to receive funding for original art projects. “We are trying to encourage artists and artist collectives to do new things in unexpected places—to find new ways to engage audiences,” says Felix Padrón, executive director of DCCD. For this reason, the guidelines do not qualify the types of projects that may receive support, but do specify the creation of original work and accessibility requirements. Although DCCD reviewed policies in many cities while developing the new guidelines, Padrón says StART Place is fairly unique in its neighborhood focus.

Festivals will also receive their own category of funding under the proposal. According to Padrón, DCCD has seen an increase in requests to support festivals, especially “culturally-specific festivals” like Diwali San Antonio, an Indian cultural event that draws more than 15,000 people each year. “The San Antonio vernacular is so ingrained in the festival genre,” says Padrón, who has talked with people in San Antonio’s Greek and Nigerian communities about a desire to start their own festivals. This category will also be open to more general artistic festivals, such as the International Accordion Festival and Contemporary Art Month.

CAB member Karen Mahaffy thinks San Antonio will reap the benefits of increased access to funding. “Someone does not necessarily need to be part of an organization to create an effective project. Putting some funds into the hands of individual artists will always benefit a community in the long run.”

In addition to lowering the barrier to entry for artists and groups without 501(c)(3) status, the new guidelines will increase accountability for larger organizations, using tax forms as part of the budget review process and asking nonprofits to help the City quantify the impact of their activities. Overall, Padrón says, DCCD is trying to “shift the focus to audiences and what we can offer the cultural and artistic consumer.”

* Art funding levels were raised to 15% of the Hotel Occupancy Tax in 2007, and have remained at that level since. Variations in funding depend on the amount of tax collected.

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