Cash from CACHH

As arts funding shrinks, the downtown powers rush to make sure they get theirs

For the last decade, Houston's arts organizations, big and small, have engaged in a polite -- if sometimes strained -- agreement over how they would split the money available to them from the city. Revenue received from the arts' cut of the hotel occupancy tax would go to the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County (CACHH), which would then receive grant applications, put them through a review process and come to a decision about who got what. Though it was rare that anybody got everything they asked for, the field, at least, was thought to be level. Nobody got special treatment; everybody had to compete for what they wanted.

This month, though, that promises to change. When City Council reviews CACHH's annual contract to manage the city's arts grants, it will hear a new refrain from the major downtown performing arts groups, who want to end their uncertain annual struggle with smaller arts groups for funding and receive a guaranteed slice off the top. Led by David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera, the Theater District Association will be asking that close to 50 percent of CACHH's financial assistance program be set aside for the exclusive use of HGO, the Houston Ballet, the Houston Symphony, the Alley Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars, the Society for Performing Arts and Da Camera. Then everyone else can scramble for the remaining 50 percent.

The argument, Gockley says, is simple. The 1977 legislation that set aside a percentage of the city's hotel occupancy tax for the arts said that the tax "may be used only to promote tourism and the convention and hotel industry ...." And it's the downtown arts groups, he insists, who draw the tourists, not the smaller neighborhood organizations. "We consider ourselves a major asset of the city to the extent that the arts and entertainment industry generates tourism and goodwill for the city," he says. Gockley also notes that, although CACHH's hotel tax receipts have nearly doubled during the last ten years, grants to the major performing arts groups have dropped while grants to smaller groups, many of them concerned with educational and social purposes, have risen.

As far as most of the smaller arts groups are concerned, that's the way it should be. Despite the boilerplate about encouraging tourism, they argue, the legislation that established CACHH was clearly a way to get public money to arts groups that helped the Houston public. And while CACHH has long made grants decisions using standards such as artistic merit, community service and administrative competence, the promotion of tourism and conventions has not been in its list of funding criteria. Indeed, if such a requirement were strictly applied, the city's topless dancers might be due some major grants.

In the mid-'80s, Houston's major arts groups, including the Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Theater District Association's performing arts groups, received 75 percent of the available hotel tax revenues, with the remaining 25 percent being divided among small groups who competed for awards of a few thousand dollars that could be a matter of life and death for their organizations. But minority arts groups questioned why the majors, who had far greater resources for raising money, should get such a large guaranteed chunk, especially when they weren't held accountable for serving a community that was increasingly made up of minorities.

It was a question of equity, they argued. Tax money would be better spent on arts education that kept kids off the streets than on subsidizing the ballet, opera and symphony tickets of well-heeled, white, middle-class citizens. They wanted a bigger slice of the pie, and wanted all grants to be awarded through a competitive review process. Council agreed, and the majors bowed to the pressure.

At the time, they could afford to; federal and other arts grants were easier to come by, and what the large arts organizations lost from the city they felt they could make up elsewhere. Now, though, that outside funding is drying up, and newly legalistic views of the purpose of the hotel tax such as Gockley's stem from self-preservation. Like many other major performing arts groups around the country, Houston Grand Opera faces financial uncertainty. Last year it received $300,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. This year it got only $140,000, and "we don't know if the [NEA] will be in existence beyond next year," Gockley says.

As a result, local funding has become more important. And Gockley complains that over the last decade, CACHH funding to the Theater District has declined both in real terms and as a percentage of the organizations' budgets. In 1985, CACHH grants to theater district organizations peaked at $1.13 million, or 3.68 percent of their total budgets. CACHH grants dropped to a low of $660,000 in 1989 and then climbed back to $1.08 million this year. But that now amounts to only 1.82 percent of the majors' total budget.

What Gockley and the Theater District propose to do is stabilize their hotel tax receipts by being guaranteed 5 percent of the city's share of the hotel tax, which amounts to about $1.4 million. The performing arts groups would divide 90 percent of that money according to the size of their various budgets, while 5 percent would go to promoting the Theater District and another 5 percent would be set aside as a subsidy to help smaller groups afford to rent the city-owned downtown theaters for special performances.

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