Arts organizations react to potential arts & culture budget cuts

Trial budget shows Dept. of Arts & Culture funding fall 33%; funding tied to dried-up Hotel Occupancy Tax

SAN ANTONIO – The City of San Antonio’s arts budget for fiscal 2021 is far from a pretty picture.

A trial budget presented to city council members on Thursday showed the Department of Arts & Culture’s budget could fall from the $11.5 million budgeted in FY 2020 to $7.7 million for FY 2021. Though it’s not clear how exactly that could affect the dozens of arts agencies and festivals the department helps fund through grants each year, it would certainly mean less money to go around.

I think we’re all scrambling. I think we’re all looking really, really carefully on alternative ways to earn the income,” said Riley Robinson, director of Artpace.

It’s the city’s own sources of income that are causing the problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on everything from airport revenues to sales tax. However, it’s the Hotel Occupancy Tax that is tied directly to the arts.

While the Department of Arts & Culture also oversees capital funds to be used for public art projects, the majority of its funding comes from the tax, which it uses to provide grants to events or festivals like Luminaria and nonprofit arts and culture agencies like Artpace or the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

“We mostly fund the operations, meaning the salaries of the basic staff that are there, their rent, their utilities, their services that they may have to pay for,” said the department’s director, Debbie Racca-Sittre.

Tax revenues, however, have taken a nosedive during the pandemic as travel dries up, and the expected shortfall for this fiscal year already caused the city to cancel nearly $1 million in payments to art agencies. H.O.T. revenues aren’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years, either, leaving arts agencies facing a lean future.

However, several city council members have signaled their support of the arts, and there has been talk of changing the funding structure - though nothing concrete yet.

The arts agencies that depend on the money are hopeful that will work out

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to make significant change, you know, and we’re glad that at least they’re seeing that now and that they’re considering the possibility,” said Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Cristina Balli.

The alternative, said Luminaria Executive Director Kathy Armstrong, is a “boring” city.

You know, if the arts are not funded, San Antonio loses a lot of its viability. It loses its outward culture. So really, it’s boring.”

The council has made attempts to help the arts community this year, as well, by including $2.6 million in a “recovery and resiliency” plan for grants to arts agencies. The grant program has not yet begun.

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