Cash from CACHH

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

The money that Gockley and his group are asking be tagged specifically for them amounts to more than half of what CACHH handed out in financial assistant grants in the 1996 fiscal year. This year, CACHH funded 34 percent of the eligible applications for general operating assistance, granting $2.7 million of $8 million in requests.

Marcia Noebels, the outgoing president of CACHH, says she has no problem with the performing arts groups' concern about stabilizing their income. But she is concerned about accountability.

"We've always felt it was critical to spend public dollars in a public manner," Noebels says. "There are published criteria [for grants], and they were not created out of the heads of bureaucrats. They were created by the arts groups. That's called fairness."

Alice Valdez, director of the nearly 20-year-old Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA), is organizing a response from the smaller arts groups. She says the peer review panels have helped pressure the major organizations to do more community outreach.

"The majors don't want to go through the same process as the small minority groups have to do through," Valdez said. "I can't understand the city wanting to go back to that elitist system. They won't have to be accountable for community outreach .... It's like going back to the good old boy system. Its really sad. I thought Houston had more of an international system."

But according to Gockley, "The peer review process is a non-issue." The Theater District, he says, will conduct its own accountability review that will cost the city nothing.

Jordy Tollet, director of the Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department for the city, which administers the hotel tax and supervises the Arts Council's contract with the city, has indicated he'll support Gockley and the Theater District's drive to get a guaranteed cut of the tax revenue. It could even, he says, help CACHH. "By not having to worry about the majors," says Tollet, " you cut red tape and cut the overhead of CACHH."

Of course, Tollet and the city have not shown a reluctance to cut into CACHH's review process. Though CACHH distributed only $2.7 million to arts organizations in fiscal '96, its income from the hotel tax was closer to $5 million; the extra $2.3 million went in part to overhead (about $900,000) and in part to non-competitive grants. A little more than three-quarters of a million dollars went to Miller Outdoor Theatre to help pay for free public performances, while another $30,000 went to other parks and $160,000 went to something called the Mayor's Initiative Fund. That fund was established in 1993 by Mayor Bob Lanier and has been used to funnel money to groups such as Funday in the Park ($60,000) and to help pay for, among other things, Christmas tree lighting ceremonies ($5,000). It's also been used in emergencies. For instance, the Houston International Festival was recently given money from the Initiative Fund to house an African dance troupe that had been scheduled at the last minute.

The mayor's fund, though, is small change compared to what the Theater District is after. And some CACHH supporters are worried that if the opera, ballet, symphony, Alley, TUTS, SPA and Da Camera get what they're after, the museums -- the MFA, Menil and others -- won't be far behind in asking for their guaranteed slice.

If that happens, then all but a small percentage of the money that CACHH now administers will be placed into non-competitive set-asides, effectively gutting much of the organization's power. That may not make everyone unhappy; there appears to be some resentment that CACHH is no longer a "pass-through" organization that gives money to groups and has, instead, become an entrepreneurial organization in its own right, with 18 employees and a wide range of activities in public art and arts promotion. In encouraging small arts organizations to grow, it has diluted the resources available to the larger groups.

Clearly, CACHH is facing a test for its future. If the Theater District is successful in chipping away their chunk, then ten years of sometimes confrontational but often cooperative grantsmanship between Houston's big arts groups and small arts groups will be gone, and the organizations will be divided again between those who have a done deal with the city, and those who must prove themselves in competitive reviews again and again.

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