Breaking Threads: Weaving the Changing State of the Austin Art Scene 

As art and technology accelerate Austin’s growth, the city’s large number of artists as well as its under-represented communities have struggled to match pace.

by Nathan Adam Spear

The surplus of creative events in the city paired with the increasing presence of several large tech company headquarters like Dell (1984), Apple (2019), and most recently Tesla (2021) has made the once quiet capital’s cost of living increase, displacing the historical communities and the artists that make it attractive.

Celina Zisman, the chair of the City of Austin’s Commission for the Arts, says that the commission has been facing this increasing loss of culture with the implementation of an equity lens on its funding model inspired by the strategic direction that city council adopted in March of 2018. 

In June of this year, the arts commission along with the city’s cultural arts division released their review process, which details how the city will support the preservation of its culture with three new funding programs. 

The newly applied equity lens on these funding programs places the commission’s funding priorities on local artists and creative organizations that take action to accommodate and uplift under-represented communities.

Zisman has been involved with the arts commission since 2019. The organization, composed entirely of volunteers, faced its share of funding difficulties after the year’s pandemic.

Austin’s arts and culture funding, which is sourced from a fraction of the city’s hotel occupancy tax, dropped significantly after traveling restrictions during the pandemic caused hotel revenue to drop. The city was met with a long period of no events, and the artist’s struggle worsened.

“I’m honestly just proud we were able to keep our s**t together,” said Zisman, who moved to Austin from the Bay Area in 2008 and has since been closely involved with the city’s developed creative community. Like many local artists, Zisman remembers having her start renting space on Austin’s previously more affordable east side.

“I had a few friends who lived over there, but I didn’t really have any guides or context when I moved,” says Zisman about her experience moving to Austin as a low-income artist. “It was just the affordable place to live.”

The low costs of the neighborhood, before it garnered its more recent attention, was in large part due to Austin’s history of segregation. In 1928, the segregation plan that the city adopted aimed to relocate the African American community to the homes and neighborhoods east of I-35.

For years the neighborhood developed as a prominent African American community, the highway physically separating the under-represented Austinites on the east side from the more expensive and white parts of the city. 

When artists wanting to live in the culturally vibrant urban area discovered the large number of affordable homes and renting options to the east, the historically segregated neighborhood’s reputation as a creative hotbed began to form and the originally segregated communities faced displacement again.

“Do artists play a role in gentrification? Hard stop yes. Artists are notorious for being brave and living where other people might not want to,” said Zisman, elaborating on the trend of artistic communities transforming the low-income areas they settle in and displacing the neighborhood’s preceding residents as more attraction for the once-undesirable location is created.

The population in the city has continued to grow rapidly, even reaching as high as 2.2 million in the latest report from the 2021 United States Census Bureau, a 22% increase in the last decade alone. The white, non-Hispanic population leads this charge contributing nearly 40% of the population’s total growth according to the same report.

The American Growth project, led by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, listed Austin as 2022’s second fastest growing U.S city. The project points out how the city developments that were made in response to the area’s growing popularity continue to increase expenses as well, reporting that the average rent for multifamily housing has increased around 10% every year. 

The notoriously low-income artists, especially those on the east side, are facing the consequences as well after the influx of attention and development. The east side, after years of neglect, is seeing the presence of rapid high-income focused development like Waterloo Central – which boasts 39,000 square feet of Class A office space – outpaces the city’s opportunities for artists. 

Pump Project Art Complex, previously located on 20,000 square feet of Shady Lane, was a longtime participant in the East Austin Studio tour and an active creative space for 13 years in this location. Now, after the building’s owner put the space on the market for $2.4 million, Pump Project lacks a physical shop and hosts pop-ups under the name ArtUs at the Arboretum in Northwest Austin.

“It was organically grown with all these little incubator spaces, and it became this thing that grew, and we kind of gentrified ourselves,” said Joshua Green, the co-founder of Pump Project, to Texas Monthly in 2021.

Pump Project was one of the city’s many art hubs that felt pressure as inflation increased. In the Economic Development Department’s (EDD) 2017 Creative Spaces survey, 51% of the participants had even admitted to considering leaving Austin for another city or state.

In the most recent Austin Studio Tour, previously known as the East Austin Studio Tour before joining the western side with a name change in 2021, the concentration of artists that once occupied the east side has largely dispersed.

Hoping to unite the efforts of artists trying to live sustainably and the city wanting to keep its culture, the arts commission worked with EDD’s Cultural Arts Division to prioritize funding with an equity lens that looks at an organization/individual artist’s diversity and potential impact.

In June of 2022, the Cultural Arts division released their cultural funding review process, detailing the new programs in place after reaching out to the needs of the arts community and evaluating the equity of previous funding programs.

“You may not be a person of color but does the work you’re doing serve communities of color?” explaining the priorities of some of the new programs, “If you’re a non-profit, does your board represent a spectrum of the community?”

The division’s entry-level funding or Nexus Program has the lowest award amount of $5,000 and the easiest application process. Nexus focuses on the support of new talent in and out of the city.

The Thrive program, which has the highest grant amounts, intends to correct the city’s past participation in gentrification and its history of funding biases by focusing support on non-profit organizations that are reflective of Austin’s culture by, for example, possessing a 5-year or more history with the city. Looking primarily for non-institutions as well, the Thrive program has award amounts going as high as $80-150k a year.

Despite the development of these new programs and the recovery of funds from the hotel occupancy tax, the artistic community still struggles as inflation rises. According to a 2022 survey by the EDD, only 30% of respondents have access to an affordable creative space.

Finding awareness of these opportunities and a lack of business experience to be recurring problems for the creative community, Zisman or as they like to be known, The Craft Advocate, offers insight and financial advice to local creatives.

Zisman finds the preservation of what’s left of the Austin culture through direct collaboration with artists, generating more local creative opportunities and placing a high priority on a more affordable renting market for artists.

“I mean we got to have some spice, we got to have flavor and I think without our creatives feeding this culture, we’re just another spot on the map.”