Community outreach in danger

Houston arts groups face the Rick Perry slash: What the TCA's demise would mean

Houston arts groups face the Rick Perry slash: What the TCA's demise would mean

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Rick Perry has suggested slashing the TCA.
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Are Texas arts in danger?
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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director, Bill Arning Photo by Jenny Antill
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Wendy Watriss, co-founder and co-creative director of FotoFest Photo by Clifford Pugh
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Sarah Loudermilk, executive director of Da Camera Courtesy of Gittings HEX
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Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, executive director of Spacetaker Courtesy of Photo courtesy of Nova Arts Project
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Janette Cosley, executive director of The Ensemble Theatre Photo by Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup.com
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Word that Governor Rick Perry may dissolve the Texas Commission on the Arts came as a heavy blow to directors of local arts organizations, many of whom had feared budget cuts, but not the entire loss of the TCA. While the measure would affect arts programming statewide, the impact would be felt greatly in the Houston area, where the TCA currently provides more than $1 million annually in grants to 70-plus arts organizations.

With a sharp decrease in corporate sponsorships coming in the wake of the recession, TCA grants have functioned as a crucial contributor to these groups' budgets. But Perry wants to eliminate the TCA and three other state agencies in the wake of Texas' projected $15 billion budget shortfall. 

CultureMap spoke with local arts professionals to gain insight on how the cut will damage their organizations. A theme that emerged was anxiety over slashing community outreach programs.

"TCA funding really allows Houston museums to reach out to the general public," Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning says. "Many more folks from diverse communities are making the museum part of their lives because of state support. Without the TCA, museums become a really small, club-like atmosphere."

TCA funding to music non-profit Da Camera allows the organization to target populations that don't necessarily provide income for the organization. For example, Da Camera implemented a residency project at the Monarch School, in which an artist entered the school for five days to share music. Currently, the organization has a similar proposal pending to bring artists to the Boys and Girls Harbor in Morgan's Point. With the dissolution of the TCA, programs like these would vanish.

"It's an opportunity to take music directly into smaller environments, hands on and one on one," Sarah Loudermilk, Da Camera's director, says. "Originally a decreased TCA budget was the worst case scenario — now it's the best."

Communities city-wide will feel the pain of a missing TCA. Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, director of Spacetaker, suggests that the new ARTernative Festival in Sugar Land would be slashed, and Aurora Picture Show director Delicia Harvey says that some of Aurora's youth programming, which turned students at Wilson Montessori School into tiny filmmakers, would vanish.

The TCA also was a channel for funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is facing budget cuts as well.

"Because of the TCA," says Sixto Wagan, co-executive director of DiverseWorks, "local artists are able to get NEA money. The disbanding of TCA is going to affect our ability to support artists who already live on the margins of society."

General programming will be reigned in, whether it's a shorter season at the Ensemble Theatre, a diminished Winter Holiday Art Market at Spacetaker or a slimmer edition of the Gulf Coast literary and arts journal. But TCA is also unique for providing money for general operating costs, unlike smaller grant-giving entities that provide funds for special projects.

"Since not having TCA funding would hurt our general operating budget, we wouldn't be able to do as many free screenings of films at parks," Aurora's Harvey says.

Regardless of actually money in the bank received from the TCA, the state funding is a crucial step when organizations apply for other grants.

"The fact that we receive funding from the state of Texas, it gives us credibility," Janette Cosley, executive director of the Ensemble Theatre, says. "When we go to other funders, they see it as a sign of approval. There's a lot of red tape, but it's apparent that we can pass all of those hurdles."

The organization directors were in consensus about the negative impact on the state as a whole. Loudermilk noted that Texas is already at the lower end of state support for the arts, ranking 48th out of the 50 states in arts funding.

"We have a very vital and important arts community in the state of Texas," she says. "We have a rich tradition, and we need to be supporting it."

FotoFest artistic director Wendy Watriss points to how the cut could impact the role of the state's mounting immigrant community. "As Texas becomes more and more diverse, things really need to be done to create allegiances, and the arts are one of the best ways to do that, to make people feel like they are contributing members of a culture," she says.

Arts organization professionals fear that once the TCA is dissolved, state funding for the arts will never resurface.

"At least, if they were to reduce the TCA budget, it could be expanded later. But otherwise, I don't think the TCA would ever come back." Watriss says. "To suspend indefinitely the functioning of an agency, you lose your experienced, knowledgeable people. To reconstruct it, it's much more expensive. It's a shortcut look."

In many respects, the dissolution would be counterintuitive. Arts funding creates jobs and revitalizes cities, argues Spacetaker's Stephenson. Watriss notes that the FotoFest Biennial generates $1.5 million for the city of Houston, as well as a significant amount of national and international publicity.

"It's a sophomoric approach to dealing with the state deficit," she laments. "In a sense, many people think the arts might be marginal and worth cutting out completely without understanding the social and technical values to the state — the arts are really building skills that have repercussions in other parts of the economy."

Nevertheless, currents of optimism are stirring in the local arts community.

"I was talking to some other arts administrators recently," Stephenson says, "and we realized that if we have to take the blunt of the budget crisis, let it be us because we have the creativity and wherewithal to find solutions.

"Social services don't have the flexibility that we do. We can and we will prevail."