Apr 23, 2024

Arts Education Groups Are Struggling. Austin Is Looking for Ways to Help.

Reporting Texas

Arts education groups have struggled with the COVID shutdown and limited funding in recent years. Now the city of Austin’s Arts Commission is looking for new ways to help fund them.

In late 2023, 19 Austin arts education organizations were able to receive some funding thanks to the Arts Education Relief Grant, Austin’s first arts education grant program. It was spearheaded by Austin’s cultural fundings senior specialist, Anne-Marie McKaskle Davis, who reached out to the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Austin’s $475,000 grant through the $350 billion federal American Rescue Plan Act gave local nonprofits the opportunity to apply and receive $25,000 for arts education.

“The reason why we wrote this grant, particularly for arts education organizations or to serve those groups, is that the hotel occupancy tax has some limitations in which we were limited in funding arts education directly,” McKaskle Davis said. 

Austin’s hotel occupancy tax, which is intended to promote tourism and the hotel industry, is an 11% charge on the hotel bills paid by guests staying in Austin. The city collected $6,327,721 in hotel occupancy tax, in 2023, which was given through grants to arts programs that directly promote tourism, but arts education groups don’t qualify for the hotel tax funding because they do not directly promote tourism.

With a lack of access to hotel occupancy tax funds and with the Arts Education Relief Grants only being given out one time, arts education organizations are looking elsewhere for funding.

“It was the first grant that I had seen that was explicitly focused on educating,” said Faiza Kracheni, the education and programs director for the Motion Media Arts Center, which received an Arts Education Relief Grant.

Her nonprofit focuses on film and media education, equipment and filmmaking workshops for children and adults. Like other educational groups, the Motion Media Arts Center has been unable to tap into the hotel taxes.

“To tell an organization: ‘We want to support you, but we want you to support visitors coming here,’ is kind of backward to me,” Kracheni said. “You’re always going to have a deficit with your arts community if the only way that you’re funding them or investing in them is based on the tourism economy.”  

Another organization that received an Arts Education Relief Grant was All Rhythms, a nonprofit that provides enrichment music programs around Austin. 

“It’s helped us immensely,” said All Rhythms executive director Ian Fry. “The overhead (administrative costs) has increased so much that it’s really nice to get support for the administrative costs, which you don’t usually get for grants.”  

Fry said that grants usually cover program costs, such as teaching, but “it’s hard to find (grants) that cover the administrative costs,” Fry said. “Or even funds that cover all the necessary things for an organization like marketing and insurance costs.”

The Austin Arts Commission advises the Austin City Council on art-related matters in the city. Commissioners Heidi Schmalbach and Celina Zisman said that support for arts education and nonprofits can come from several sources.

“We’re working on and continue to work on identifying other possible sources that fall outside of (the hotel occupancy tax) to fill in those gaps,” Schmalbach said.

“One thing that we’ve been saying year after year after year is that HOT isn’t enough,” Zisman added.

To fund arts education groups, the commission is considering corporate sponsorships, accessing a portion of sales tax revenue and fees added to short-term rentals in the city.

“If you’re moving your company here or establishing a new headquarters, there is an expectation as part of the civic investment that you make into this new city,” Schmalbach said. “Since you’re inhabiting (Austin) and probably getting a significant amount of tax incentive to do so, we expect you to give and to contribute, and I think that’s like the kind of like big-picture strategy that is missing.” 

Another solution would be to place a temporary sales tax where a penny or a fraction of a penny can go to arts education and service nonprofits. This would need to be approved by voters during elections.

Commissioners have also discussed fees on short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. A so-called cultural sustainability fee could potentially be voluntary for renters, owners or both.

“There’s money and opportunity, but it’s going to take a whole infrastructure rebuild, and an ownership of recognition that the city’s not doing all that it could to really retain and support and amplify its arts and culture contributors,”  Zisman said.

There has also been the question of whether the use of the hotel occupancy tax could change in order to include arts education nonprofits. Schmalbach changing it wouldn’t be sufficient. 

“It would take years of state-level negotiations that would probably go nowhere and might result in having it taken away,” Schmalbach said. “Expanding eligibility wouldn’t help the problem either; it would just make it more competitive because there’s already not enough coming from hotel occupancy tax to support even the majority.”

The commissioners said Austin is known for being a city with creative roots and arts education organizations are an important part of the city. However, due to Austin’s affordability issue, lack of support has made people in arts and culture leave the city, they added.

“(We are) relaying that not enough is being done and there needs to be deeper recognition as to retain our culture contributors,” Zisman said. 

“I think if we were able to speak with more of a unified voice as a cultural arts community to really advocate for something like that, that could be a huge benefit,” Schmalbach said.