Art Transplant

The Move Toward a Cultural Center in Downtown

by Brett Holloway-Reeves

You would think that the simple fact of having lasted

Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

-- James Merrill, "An Urban Convalescence"

The Downtown Austin Alliance's "First Tuesday" program didn't advertise a Battle of the Bands, but there it was, like something out of Eddie and the Cruisers. On the blistering sidewalks of Congress Avenue, three young men, with faces as clean and bright as their glossy instruments, playing experimental rock in front of the Little City Coffeehouse; and two doors down, under an awning for Boatmen's Bank, a group of middle-aged guys in a collection of tank tops, dude hats, and flowered shirts thumping out a Texas blues shuffle. It seemed at first that the superior ampage of the blues band would win out. The experimental boys gave up and shot sullen looks at their oppressors -- so much for flaming youth. And although a contingent of Alliance agents arrived, yellow badges swinging from their necks, and the parties worked out a two-song alternation, the image remains: a downtown entertainment district alive and kicking, but often at odds with itself.

Tension isn't surprising in an area that has to ally the ponytails-and-knee-shorts crowd at Ruta Maya with the suits-and-skirts at Franklin Federal, that has to accommodate commuters from Oak Hill and residents of the Penthouse Condos at Guadalupe and 13th. Downtown has long been an unkempt mess of law offices and lofts, coffeehouses and bars, baroque halls and miniscule performance spaces, with cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians jostling for room, and the dollar against us all. But these days both the sidewalks and the economy are expanding, and the dream of a centralized city is moving beyond Austin hippies whose last big thrill happened at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Downtown is becoming a place with a genuine sense of place, a physical center whose area can serve as a cultural meeting ground, where theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, in short, everything that stimulates the cultural life, thrives.

Consider the signs, both figurative and literal: A huge banner in front of 823 Congress proclaims it the new temporary home of the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA), a joint effort of the former Laguna Gloria Art Museum, the Mexican-American Cultural Center, and the George Washington Carver Museum. The future site for this grandiose cultural clearinghouse is to be designed by Robert Venturi's architecture firm and built along Guadalupe Street between Second and Third. The City of Austin has promised $11.7 million as long as Museum organizers can raise the additional $10 million needed to complete the project.

Either way, that puts three large-scale arts groups perched on the east bank of Congress, between Sixth and Eighth: the temporary AMOA, the Paramount, and Live Oak at the State Theatre. A fourth, the Texas Fine Arts Association, stands on the west bank at Seventh Street. In addition, the Mexic-Arte Museum still operates from its longtime home at Fifth and Congress; the Austin Circle of Theatres has just relocated its offices into 823 Congress; and La Peña, the 15-year-old Latino arts umbrella, is getting a new home up the block from Las Manitas at Third. Just off the Avenue, the Austin Children's Museum will be moving into a warehouse space at Second & Colorado. And a group of progressive educators has announced the Griffin School, a non-profit cooperative running small classes (usually for high school kids who for one reason or many don't fit into traditional schooling), with a liberal-arts, student-directed curriculum, beginning its first semester this fall at 205 W. Ninth St.

The not-so-subtle key to all this activity is money, and not everyone's rolling in it. Just a block up from the Paramount and the State is an upstairs loft that's home to The Public Domain theatre. Robi and Michelle Polgar have been downtown about a year, putting on shows for little or nothing, often with borrowed chairs and props, and lots of donated labor. Their budget is considerably smaller than their larger neighbors', and so is their offering, like the recent production of Shakespeare's Richard III, with a two-man cast handling all the parts. Just as AMOA is taking giant steps forward on one end of the Avenue, on the other end Mexic-Arte is trying to weather a decline in grant monies and a spotty visitorship to continue keeping their doors open. In fact, in the same block as the Austin Museum of Art's new temporary home, Hazel Savad's Gallery 807 became a companion to the many art galleries in the area, but the installment was tentative from the beginning and closed after the second "First Tuesday" event.

Trying to compete in a market economy, arts groups of all sizes find themselves, like endangered species, under threat. Slight alterations in the economic climate can send a theatre or gallery shuffling toward Jurassic Park. Evidently, the City feels some commitment to avert this fate: recent allocations from the municipal coffers include $25,000 to the Paramount and $15,000 to the Gethsemane Church near the visitors parking lot of the state capitol. There's also the ongoing renovation of the State Theatre, with most of the work paid for with funds from a $2 million bond issue passed in 1985. The State is home to Live Oak Theatre, which expects to finalize a purchase deal on the building in the next 30 days. Currently, work is underway to enlarge the building's lobby, with major renovations -- lowering the stage and floor into the current basement, and assembling dressing and office areas, among other things -- to begin in 1997. Live Oak hopes eventually to spread into the Reynolds-Penland building next door and arrange a partnership with a restaurant in the space. Officially, anyway, the arrangements between the theatre and the City are not set. Live Oak Artistic Director Don Toner says the City may buy the building and lease the space to Live Oak, or the theatre may make the purchase itself and work out an arrangement concerning tax abatements with the City.

Besides those big-ticket projects, municipal government also funds the Cultural Arts Commission (CAC), mainly using a percentage of the hotel-motel bed tax and the City's construction budget. Last year, the CAC administered more than $2 million in grants (for facilities and projects) to various groups and individual artists. That's not as impressive as it sounds when you realize that the money was divvied among 149 groups, and CAC Director Jack Anderson says there's still a need for advocacy. "I would like to see the City be able to act as a guarantor for arts groups to get and retain facilities," he says, pointing out that an expanding economy can be a double-edged sword for housing and the arts. "When the economy's low, landlords don't want an empty building, so they rent it out cheap to an arts group. Then when things turn around, they want to make the money with everybody else, and the arts can't pay the steeper rent." No one feels the weight of this wisdom more than Capitol City Playhouse (CCP). After an 18-year arrangement that practically functioned as patronage, the landlord informed the theatre last week that he is raising the building rent from just over $3,000 to $6,000 a month. CCP Artistic Director Michel Jaroschy says that Cap City has always been strapped for cash and is hard-pressed to find the extra dollars. "Most of what's interesting [in theatre] is being done by poor people," he says. "The best you can hope for, even with the bigger shows, is to break even," and this means the hits don't cover the losses a small theatre can take when they put on six weeks of new plays, as CCP has been doing this summer. Jaroschy wonders if maybe they've taken chances on new works, and with semi-controversial works like Manuel Zarate's political drama Kuka, when they should have played it safe. He sounds sincere when he says part of the fault may be a lack of managerial vision on his part.

Ironically enough, Jaroschy speculates that the parking problems, noise, and high traffic of his booming block of Fourth Street -- home to Ruta Maya, Cedar Street, Oil Can Harry's, and the new Soma Coffeehouse -- may discourage some people who just want a nice evening at the theatre. The remark echoes a recent Chronicle "Postmark" in which Richard Aleksander, who owns a gallery on East Sixth, opined that "successful downtowns have a diversity of uses." He was hacked off that the street in front of his building was being closed too often for special events, part of a general emphasis on music venues and "tattoo parlors" killing his attempt to make a living from the arts in the heart of the city.

Rain falls on the just and the unjust. While City money flows into the State and the Paramount, Capitol City has petitioned for emergency funds to no avail. Festival street closings shut off the Aleksander gallery; a club-and-coffeehouse scene doesn't quite jibe with the theatre crowd. Think about this year's crisis with the Cultural Arts grants: The Black Arts Alliance, which had functioned as a clearinghouse for channeling grant money to many Eastside groups, was dissolved in the wake of financial misappropriations. The CAC drew up a new list of specifically African-American artists to receive the reallocated money, but even this move hit a snag when Eric Mitchell at the City Council announced his own list of recipients, which differed significantly from the CAC's. Suddenly, diversity becomes disruption, and the odds against making-do start rising when groups are placed at odds. Does all of this matter? Are the arts really deserving of a helping hand in the midst of all this downtown development? Yes, insists Jack Anderson. Theatres and galleries and poetry readings are worth it because they make citizens "aesthetically fit." A former swami in the Canadian wilderness who eventually emerged to work in festivals and arts planning for the Vancouver province, this man is a far cry from the bureaucratic stereotype. His big-throated laugh can take you aback, and he preaches aesthetic fitness like a true believer: The arts will make us better and stronger, will draw tourists and make us richer, will cut down crime, and remold our children.

In an era when Jesse Helms gets more press than the "Mostly Mozart Festival," the loudest "amen" to Anderson's homily comes from a surprising corner: downtown businesses. The Downtown Austin Alliance is a consortium funded by area owners who levied a tax against themselves (10 cents for every $100 in value) for the purposes of promoting a centralized arts-and-entertainment district. Besides "First Tuesday" (see sidebar), the Alliance sponsors actions like street cleanup and the "Noontime Concerts" series at Regents Plaza. Businesses have good reason to support an alliance with the arts. They aren't throwing three-quarters of a million dollars at the so-called Public Improvement District just because it's a nice thing to do. Consciously or not, they recognize that a downtown powered by the arts as well as by petroleum and light brings diversity and development more firmly in our grasp.

Only, though, if we -- the real people, not the fictional corporate bodies -- do the shaping ourselves. While construction crews gouge highways through our neighborhoods and technology puts us further into cubicles, we can at least shape an entertainment district that does more than entertain. It can house our best impulses. But slogans and good intentions don't pay the bills, and art takes money and time, most of it going everywhere but to the arts. Readers usually recognize James Merrill's name because his father founded Merrill-Lynch, not because "The Changing Light at Sandhover" moved their soul. Austinites, like me for example, grin through cocktail hour and declare, "I wish I went to the theatre more often." We end up living in a Seinfeld joke, an absurdist rendering of who we think we are. When it comes to the fine arts, Austin audiences (a) don't quite make it to the show; (b) opt more often than not for the safe bet--Purlie instead of Dark Rapture; and (c) expect the artists to work for nothing, or for little more than pocket change.

Karl Marx, who knew more about art than he's given credit for, described the dilemma this way: All that is solid melts into air. He was thinking about culture and modern life in the broadest sense, with experience defined not by institutions but by a continual shift from one mode of living to another. Deploying money as the ultimate artform -- it is, after all, a symbol, and worthless in itself -- industrial societies tumble unceasingly in a cycle of producing and consuming. Marshall Berman took Marx's declaration as the title for a book on cultural change, outlining a "modernism" that encompasses the different ways people try "to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it."

Boatmen's Bank may not be ready for a Marxist makeover, but they're tacitly agreeing with Berman and Jack Anderson that the arts are our best chance to accomplish the task of modernity. By making ourselves aesthetically fit, we develop the conceptual strength to shape our experience, instead of lying prone while the engines and lights do their work upon ourselves. n Brett Holloway-Reeves is a freelance writer about to celebrate his seventh anniversary of residing in Austin.

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