Managing the busy new Mexican American Cultural Center is inspiring work for Amparo Garcia-Crow
Although it isn't officially open, there has been no shortage of activity at the Mexican American Cultural Center. Perched like a bright-white origami figure on the north side of Lady Bird Lake, the MACC was recently the site for a tribute to Austin-based poet Raúl Salinas, a media workshop for girls organized by Latinitas, a Native American storytelling workshop for children hosted by La Peña, the venue for the Latino Comedy Project show AlienNation, the setting for an ongoing Sunday morning movement class, and many, many community meetings. Two more phases of construction remain before the MACC is officially complete. In the meantime, the MACC buzzes with activity as the staff and volunteers prepare for its grand opening the weekend of Sept. 15. There's only one problem. No one thought to put in a revolving door to Amparo Garcia-Crow's office. Garcia-Crow is the MACC's new project manager, and, by all indications, a revolving door would be useful. That and a pile of Super Sticky Post-it Notes. Over the course of an hour one recent afternoon, her door did not stop swinging open with someone dropping in for one reason or another.
"See what I mean? It never stops," Garcia-Crow says, as another visitor leaves her office while she scribbles on a Post-it Note and sticks it to her blouse. "This is where I put things I absolutely have to do," she explains. In this case, it's a reminder to call one of the arts groups performing for the grand opening. "Someone will inevitably ask, 'Do you know you have a note stuck to your chest?' and that's my reminder."
While the unending activity and interruptions might rattle another person, Garcia-Crow takes it in stride. The MACC falls under the auspices of the Cultural Affairs Division of the Parks and Recreation Department. "The city has a strong commitment to customer service, and I take that very seriously." For Garcia-Crow and her staff, that means showing the building to the many visitors who drop in daily. Some want to see the new building and make note of its amenities and dimensions for future reference. Others want to talk. A woman who brought her grandchildren by one afternoon burst into tears as she recounted her role in making the MACC a reality. Many more come with a humble offer of their time and talent. Whether it's an Iraq war veteran, a graduate student new to Austin, or a group of women who have volunteered to make Mexican-style, handmade paper flowers for the MACC's grand opening, the desire to have a hands-on relationship with the MACC is sincere, requiring a certain amount of finesse from Garcia-Crow to make all feel welcome yet keep the wave of enthusiasm manageable. That's the way it should be, she says, even if it means constant interruptions, long hours, and seven-day workweeks.
"I discovered early that the way this center works best is by following its own natural flow. If I spent a lot of time doing things by prescription, things wouldn't have happened the way they did," she says, recounting how an original grand-opening event fell through, but because of a drop-in meeting, a culturally richer event was allowed to take its place – in this case, an exhibit of Navajo rugs along with the film "Weaving Worlds," by Native American filmmaker Bennie Klain. For Garcia-Crow, these are the good days at work, when creative solutions emerge from setbacks. Setbacks are a very real possibility when overseeing a new 22,500-plus-square-foot facility, 10 full-time staffers, and more than 100 volunteers and artists who have come together to prepare the MACC for its official grand opening. But Garcia-Crow tries to view setbacks with potential, not consternation. "Receiving and expressing inspiration come from the same place," she says.
If Garcia-Crow doesn't seem like a conventional city bureaucrat, there's a good reason for that. She's not. She's a multidisciplinary artist who has enjoyed national as well as local recognition for her work. Over the years, she has been a filmmaker, an actress, a writer, a director, a singer-songwriter, the mother of two, and now the MACC's first program manager.
"I think of her as a creative curandera," says actress, writer, and longtime friend C.K. McFarland. McFarland collaborated with Garcia-Crow in one of Austin's theatrical crown jewels, In the West (1985-1990), a locally developed production that went on to garner national attention, first on stage at the Texas Festival at the Kennedy Center and later as a feature film (One From the Heart). Inspired by a Richard Avedon photo exhibit, In the West continues to be produced across the nation. Garcia-Crow's long list of personal credits includes multiple recognitions for her theatre work (acting, directing, writing) by the Austin Circle of Theaters and several fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Directors Fellowship in 1991 and a Michener Center for Writers Fellowship from 1993-1996. Earlier this year, several of her scripts were recognized by distinguished organizations, including the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, and the Walt Disney Studio's Talent Development Program. (For details, see "Amparo Garcia-Crow: Write this way," Feb. 23.) And that is just her writing. In addition to teaching acting and directing workshops, she still performs and has a featured role in Friday Night Lights this fall ("I deliver the coach's baby").
"As an artist, I see her as one of those rare people who has the willingness to be seen in her heart," McFarland says. "She has such vision. ... I think this is a great opportunity for her to serve her community, a community that has worked hard for and deserves [the MACC] and, I hope, will allow her to make space for herself."
But why would a successful working artist want to become an administrator? Part of the answer is the desire for the stability a regular "9 to 5" offers, something she values with a young daughter still at home.
"It's been a long time since I had a regular job. I don't count the times I was teaching, because I felt like I was learning so much myself," she says, speaking of her most recent professorship teaching acting and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT-Austin. "This job has three very distinct paths: the administrative, the bureaucratic, and the artistic. Each is very demanding. This job doesn't care if I don't have time to eat lunch. But it's been a direct line to deepening my spiritual process." By this, she means getting up extra early for yoga and other exercise and remembering to make a healthy lunch she will most likely eat at her desk.
Part of what makes the job enjoyable is the direct interaction she has with the public and keeping her artistic eye out for how to bring the traditional together with the contemporary. In addition to the conventional performances and presentations one might expect at a grand opening, Garcia-Crow is working with Special Events Coordinator Melba Martinez (also a longtime theatre director and actress) in co-directing a performance work titled "16 Historical Characters: Where Imagination Knows No Borders." The performance, occurring several times over the three-day, grand-opening weekend, features actors as 16 historical figures from Mexican, Mexican-American, and Native American history. Through a deliberate performance style based on the Suzuki technique, the various actors will come into "relief," not in a traditional, spoken-word theatrical presentation but impressionistically.
"We're celebrating the creation of the MACC," Garcia-Crow explains, "but we're also remembering those who came before and live in this space through their inspiration, determination, and courage." Some of the figures are well-known (César Chávez), others more obscure (the Honduran indigenous leader Lempira), but all are important figures whose existence impacts the present. This fusion of the modern with the traditional, the present with history, the American with the indigenous, is an ongoing theme in MACC activities. This is particularly evident in the Artful Living programs under development. The first of these is a Sunday morning movement class that blends the meditative elements of yoga with the whimsy of improvisational dance. It requires that Garcia-Crow return to the center on Sunday morning to open the building, but she is also one of its most enthusiastic participants. Being the MACC project manager is demanding, but it has its perks.
"Her artistic integrity is excellent, and I think we're lucky to have her there," says visual artist Carlos Pineda of Garcia-Crow. A retrospective of his work will be featured in the first official exhibit in the MACC gallery as part of the center's grand opening (see "Carlos Pineda and the YLA Exhibit"). Now a retired city of Austin employee, Pineda once supervised several city-run cultural arts projects, including the O. Henry Museum, the Elisabet Ney Museum, the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, and the Dougherty Arts Center, among others. He was also the city employee assigned to the MACC project back in the 1980s. "Her style is much more free. I would be beating people over the head to get them to do what I want them to do," Pineda laughs. "Her way is more organic."
It seems to go against logic that an artist can thrive in a bureaucracy. Yet the MACC is not just another center. Born of 30 years of determination and strife – in and out of Austin's Mexican-American community – it is ultimately the product of indomitable pride. Garcia-Crow's workdays would exhaust a typical clock-watcher, but as long as inspiration trumps exhaustion; the artistic, administrative, and bureaucratic demands are kept in balance; and a large stack of Post-it Notes are at hand, Garcia-Crow remains inspired.
"I will follow my heart. I might be here two years; I might be here 20. I can only do this job until I can't," she says.