Divided Austin: Will Austin play the same old song? —
August 12, 2020

Divided Austin: Will Austin play the same old song?

By Genovena Rodriguez & TODO Austin Staff

As Austin’s vaunted creative culture generously supports the arts, many will argue that it has historically fallen short in engaging and benefiting all communities in the city. Austin’s ethnic minority cultural arts groups are an untapped source of economic development for Austin, but some stakeholders feel they are underserved and do not receive the same opportunities as the dominant culture in the city. What must be done to ensure that the needs of our diverse local artists and arts organizations are met?

DÍa de los Muertos celebration at the ESB-Mexican American Cultural Center.

Harold McMillan, the founder/director of DiverseArts Culture Works, has experienced the trials of non-support. He argues that “demographics of the city have a lot to do with the disparity in funding cultural arts activity and organizations in Austin. Austin is a very Anglo town, but there is also a large Latino population here. African Americans, at this point, probably don’t comprise as much as nine-percent of Austin’s population.

“Having said that, I do believe that the City has a responsibility to apportion funding and resources in such a way that these major cultural communities are served at a significant level. A level that matches our contributions to the cultural life and identity of the city.”

One area where cultural disparity is evident is Austin’s largest and most renowned signature events—SXSW, ACL Fest, F1 Fan Fest, etc.—each of which essentially draw from one predominant ethnic audience. Though Austin has successfully raised its profile internationally through these events, none of which are minority-owned, their brand and reputation don’t reflect the city’s demographics.

Another telling truth that is rarely discussed in Austin’s entertainment industry is Austin’s overall lack of support for genres of music like urban/Hip Hop, jazz, Tejano, Rock en Español, Norteño, banda, Carnatic, Hindustani, other South Asian and Asian categories, and the list goes on. Examining decades of old periodicals at the Austin History Center, including the Austin American-Statesman and Austin Chronicle, there is a marked lack of coverage of these genres in the entertainment sections. If these records are accurate, the Latino and African American music communities have either existed in a vacuum or simply not been worth mentioning.

Likewise, the city’s largest performing arts institutions, from symphonic music to theatre to dance and opera, have difficulty finding proportional ethnic patronage. In the case of the city’s major performance halls, poor ticket sales, half-filled houses and in some cases, failed minority marketing strategies, are the norm for shows of color.

Apparently, in Austin, cultural diversity is an afterthought.

The City of Austin’s African American and Hispanic Quality of Life initiatives provide a sound foundation for the claims that, indeed, there has been a lack of progress for Hispanic and black cultural arts organizations. The groups, basically, still continue to face the burden of finding audiences, media support and affordable and permanent space to conduct artistic visions.

At the core of the 2009 Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative (HQLI) community forums on cultural arts was the issue of how Hispanic’s expectations have changed from wanting inalienable rights to wanting more resources to fund their projects, and for these resources to be distributed amongst the community.

The group behind the HQLI study identified an extreme necessity for the City of Austin to fund a department dedicated exclusively for assisting all forms of art non-profits that would enable them to go into public schools to assist in Hispanic/Latino arts history and cultural enrichment activities. Moreover, the group articulated that equal access to resources within the Hispanic community appears to be limited.

“Arts, culture, and creativity are essential keys to the city’s unique and distinctive identity and are valued as vital contributors to our community’s character, our approach to solving civic issues, our citizens’ social well-being, and our robust economy,” said Melissa Alvarado of the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department. “The numerous programs of the City’s EDD work to provide equal opportunities to all. Within these programs there are a myriad of ways the department supports, encourages, and invests in local creatives.”

Just as vital as the arts is to contributing to the evolution of the city and community, it’s important to not only have city departments that are focused on equal opportunity, but also city representatives and community leaders backing the charge, as well.

Austin Samba
Austin Samba

The City answered the HQLI’s call with a program that was developed to match groups with the quintessential showplace for Latino arts, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), thus creating opportunities for both Hispanic/Latino artists and generating additional income for the City. The MACC’s Latino Arts Residency Program, launched in 2013, presents the work of chosen local theatrical and dance groups in a positive light, encouraging patronage and market visibility.

Another prevalent issue raised in the HQLI findings was funding for the Hispanic cultural arts community. Over the years, the City has revamped the cultural arts funding process with good intentions of fair and equitable distribution; however, local Hispanic and Latino artists state that access to equitable funding remains a challenge.

Andrew Ramirez, founder of Bellas Artes Alliance, which produces Pan Americana Fest, said, “The disparity in the allocations of resources in the cultural arts, as well as most other City of Austin resources, have traditionally been dispersed disproportionately since time immemorial. Whether you look at parks, libraries, or the arts, that has always been the case.”

The unfortunate realization here is that some community members are not aware of, educated, or have plain given up on fighting the fight to benefit from some of our City’s best assets. Perhaps, the City has promoted and prioritized city growth over community or cultural growth.

“I do not know how the City of Austin apportions out the funding and resources, but the focus does seem to appear to be on the economic impact it brings to the city, first and foremost, and then the cultural value,” said Liz Lopez, a music promoter who is heavily involved with the Austin Latino Music Association. “The community keeps changing and drawing people in from other parts of the country who do not seem to respect the history and the culture of the current residents and do not hesitate to change it to satisfy their own taste. Unfortunately, intentional or not, the funding appears to be provided as something for the organizations to ‘hang in there’ with instead of being vitally supported by the greater community.”

It seems that the focus of city representatives would be on empowering the diverse culture of the city and support them in their growth. That would be a step in the right direction to becoming the city that is constantly commended across the nation as being a leading market for music, business, real estate and social diversity. One way for this reputation to become a reality is by stakeholders working together to influence the City to take more responsibility for uplifting all of its citizens and their cultural assets.

“Culturally and historically, Latinos and African Americans play a very significant role in defining what the ‘soul’ of Austin is all about,” said McMillan. “And, because of decreasing numbers and the lack of balanced representation over decades, we are sidled with doing as much preservation of cultural traditions as celebrating contemporary cultural output.”

1001 Nights Orchestra and Ravaan Persian Dancers perform at the Dougherty Arts Center. Brad Emmons photo.

Harish Kotecha produces some of the largest Hindu-related events in Austin and is founder of Hindu Charities for America. “Speaking for the Indian community, in cultural arts, our activities have significantly grown with concerts and music/dance schools ranging from Bollywood to semi-classical to classical,” said Kotecha. “The specific action we would like to see is outreach explaining what is available. It would also be a good idea to have some form of ethnic community quotas so that everyone benefits, give venue fee waivers when reputable cultural events or related fundraisers take place in facilities owned and operated by the city.”

The City of Austin’s 30-year municipal comprehensive plan, “Imagine Austin,” covers quality of life issues including Austin’s creative economy. The plan has been put in place in the attempt to accomplish equal opportunity in the city in accordance with the dignity and quality that all communities deserve.

“Imagine Austin includes a section called ‘Tackling the Ethnic Divide.’ This section points out the past injustices inflicted upon African-Americans and Hispanics. It also points to the work of the African-American Quality of Life Initiative and Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative, both of which identify arts and culture as focus areas,” said Sylvia Arzola, of the City’s Planning and Development Review Department. “It concludes with a connection between these initiatives and the various priority program teams established by Imagine Austin.  Finally it states, ‘This plan should serve as a platform to ensure everyone in Austin is part of one or more of the city’s vibrant communities.’”

In speaking of the ethnic divide, it is sometimes only directly associated with ethnicity or religious groups. In reality, it strides across all kinds of lines, especially socio-economic.

Leonard Davila, lead singer of Street People and a founding member of the Austin Tejano Music Coalition and Crossroads Events, shared his perspective. “What I have come to terms with is that the only thing that rules is the guy with the most money. The guy that has the money and wants things their way can be from India, China, Mexico or East Austin. In my lifetime, it just depends who’s got the green.’”

To further exemplify missed opportunities, a group of minority cultural arts promoters (including Indian, Asian, Hispanic, African American and Anglo) came together in the spring of 2012 when the first Formula One Fan Fest was announced. They attempted to put together an intercultural festival on E. 11th Street and approached the City for support.

Kotecha was among the group. “We tried to put an intercultural festival together on the East Side and found it difficult working with the City. While we saw a lot of head nodding in support when meeting with City officials, no significant funding or venues were provided to encourage minority participation. It seemed the City wasn’t interested in supporting diversity. The City can and should allocate representation of cultures in such events by minority stakeholders.”

Alvarado’s understanding from the City’s Economic Development Department, was, “EDD worked with a group of minority music groups (some were education-based Cultural Funding Program recipients), and together produced a stage on Congress Ave. as part of the three-day ‘Formula One Fan Fest.’ They were a culturally diverse group that featured musicians and entertainers showcasing Austin’s cultural talent to an international audience. The goal was to highlight the cultural diversity of Austin through music and dance performances, visual art installations, and art-making activities. This was an unfunded initiative paid by the Cultural Arts Division. In 2013, there was an open call for proposals and performers were selected from proposals received and vetted through Circuit of the Americas. EDD contracted with several performers to perform on different stages organized by Circuit of the Americas.”

Though the diverse arts communities have support from EDD and other City departments, the unfortunate reality is that many among them have long been jaded and no longer trust the motives or sincere efforts of the City.

Davila, another of the promoters, recalls what he termed the “Formula One fiasco.” “I don’t believe it’s the City that is at fault, it’s the people that are in positions of influence that are at fault. Look at the people on the Austin Music Commission—not all—that are industry ‘insiders’ who use their influence on the Commission for self-gain. It’s not what you know or what you do, it’s who you know. All I can do is support the people that I feel or hope will be fair and impartial and hope that the money doesn’t ruin them.”

Geeti Shirazi Mahajan, Artistic Director of Ravaan Persian Dancers. Brad Emmons photo.

There is a middle ground yet to be reached in regards to planning and coordination of major events but it is one which can only truly and authentically be reached if the community finds a common goal. The City and the community must work together while the stakeholders, amongst themselves, must stay united and build trust. Government can set the example. Perhaps, the answer lies in the new City Council that will be determined this coming November.

“I am hopeful that the new single member district form of government will help change things and a more rational and proportional distribution of resources will begin to take place,” Ramirez said. “But, certainly bringing attention to this issue will help citizens look at the disparity and hopefully unite citizens to demand a fair distribution of City resources.”

There are unresolved issues but there is hope and new-found belief and trust that things will change and that the City will show support. As McMillan explained, “For those African American organizations who do seek funding, that actually means that we have a more significant role to play—more work to do— in order to address the cultural programming needs of our constituencies. The amount of support that comes from the City comes very short of reaching the level that is needed to effectively serve our communities. In the community that my organization serves, the African American Cultural Heritage District, the demographic change of the neighbors and business nodes promises that over time this neighborhood will bare scant resemblance to the African American community that founded it.”

So, will the city ever see a signature minority cultural event on the scale of SXSW or ACL Fest, in Austin?  “If the residents of Austin had wanted to have the minority cultures thrive and prosper, they would have voted for our cultural centers to have been built decades earlier and events could have grown, too,” said Lopez. “Had the residents of Austin embraced and respected the culture earlier in its history, the minority creative community could have had the same level of support from the city to develop large scale cultural events that draws tourists to the community.”

The cultural arts question will be on each new council member’s desk after the 2014 elections. The communities of color will continue to speculate and present a united front. For now, it’s a start; but the question remains – where do we go from here?

About Merideth Cox 239 Articles
Merideth is a music writer who has covered bands from her hometown in Colorado to London to Bangkok to Shanghai and finally back to Austin. Led Zeppelin changed her life. So did Dolly Parton. You can read her music reviews at smackmadness.com.