End of an Arts Era

A prosperous period in Austin's cultural history came to a painful close in 2003

If a history of the Austin arts scene is ever written, 2003 will be remembered in it as the end of an era. It was during this year that the economic bust which began hammering at our cultural community two years ago landed the hardest blows, finishing off the flush time begun in the 1990s. Austin Lyric Opera, suffering from budgetary woes, fired seven staffers and eliminated its Young Artist Program. The State Theater Company axed most of its staff and half its season, leaving the company on its last legs. Other theatre groups canceled shows, and a few folded. Several art galleries, seeing fewer of the high-income patrons that got them thriving in the tech boom, closed their doors. Even UT felt the crunch, releasing early music specialist Daniel Johnson after 17 years and pulling the plug on its props rental program. The Long Center for the Performing Arts, paralyzed by fundraising difficulties, was downsized, its grand four-venue design pared back to two with fewer amenities.

The poster child for all this loss was Austin Musical Theatre, which arrived on the scene in 1996 with big dreams of Broadway-caliber productions created locally and used the prosperity of the boom to make them real. But when that prosperity faded, so did AMT. After a last-ditch spectacular this fall -- The Wizard of Oz, produced with Charles H. Duggan under the name Broadway Texas -- AMT's board, looking at $300,000 in debt, turned out the lights.

The casualties on the creative scene were numerous: Star Costumes, theatre company iron belly muses, improv comedy troupe Well Hung Jury, Gallery 1313, Austin Spirit Gallery, and Spirit Echoes Gallery, to name a few. Added to those losses were the departures of several key figures in the cultural community: Neil Barclay from the UT Performing Arts Center; Martha Peters from the Art in Public Places program; Paul Beutel from the Paramount Theatre. And while there are deaths every year, more than a few of the ones in 2003 were of artists who had left a lasting mark on the arts in Austin: Tré Arenz, Kent Kennan, Mickey Mayfield, Martha Deatherage.

Of course, every ending means a new beginning, and the year also saw the arrival of Richard Buckley as artistic director for Austin Lyric Opera and Vincent Kitch as the city's cultural arts program manager, as well as the opening of spaces such as the Fresh Up Club and Arts on Real, not to mention numerous companies and artists contributing creativity to the city for the first time. Their legacy will be written in future years, however. For this year, they mostly just found a spot to land among the wreckage.

As hard as the year was, it produced a wealth of art, and the Chronicle Arts team saw a lot of it. Not surprisingly, they found much to celebrate, and on the following pages they provide a few lists of achievements worth recalling from the end of an era. end story

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Austin arts, Austin Lyric Opera, State Theater Company, Daniel Johnson, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin Musical Theatre, The Wizard of Oz, Charles H. Duggan, Broadway Texas, Star Costumes, Gallery 1313, Austin Spirit Gallery, Spirit Echoes Gallery, Neil Barclay, UT Performing Arts Center, Martha Peters, Art in Public Places, Paul Beutel, Paramount Theatre, Tré Arenz

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