Keeping Pace, Culturally

Proposition 4 calls for an investment in cultural facilities for the city, and Austin, it's time

MACC-in': The Mexican American Cultural Center is a potential beneficiary of Proposition 4.
MACC-in': The Mexican American Cultural Center is a potential beneficiary of Proposition 4.

There it is, nestled snugly in the middle of Austin's 2006 bond package, exactly halfway between the bids for transportation projects and upgrades in public safety and health facilities, its $31.5 million price tag looking almost modest beside those other six propositions, with their stickers stretching from $55 million to $145 million. The proposition for cultural and community facilities seems almost as if it's trying not to call attention to itself, as if it's huddling quietly in the shadow of its bigger and more municipally prominent neighbors in the hope that voters will just approve it, too, in their rush to assure Austin better roads, more green space, and a big new library.

Of course, that isn't the case, but Proposition 4's backers could hardly be blamed for being a little skittish given the rather spotty record that cultural projects have when it comes to city bonds. Way back in 1985, $20.3 million was approved for a new downtown art museum for Laguna Gloria Art Museum, as the Austin Museum of Art was known then; a new 400-seat theatre for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center; and a makeover for the State Theatre, which was to serve as a satellite space for the neighboring Paramount in its dream at the time of becoming a producing theatre. Only none of the three projects were realized quite how they were supposed to be. A debt-ridden Paramount abandoned its plans for acquiring the State, and the bond money fell into limbo until Live Oak Theatre moved into the State and persuaded the city to free the money up for its renovation of the space in 1997. The museum never raised its share of cash for the new building then, and while it could have accessed its bond money during its late-Nineties push for a new facility, AMOA prematurely relinquished its claim on the bond money, only to see the dot-com bubble burst forcing it to scuttle plans for a new museum again. The only bond project to be realized within a few years of the vote was Zach's theatre, and even that was scaled back to 130 seats to cut costs. The next time cultural projects showed up in a bond package – 1994's proposal for expanding the Carver Museum and Cultural Center and building a Mexican American Cultural Center – they were voted down, and it took another four years to get them back on the ballot and approved. The new 36,000-square-foot Carver with four galleries, a classroom, a dance studio, and a 134-seat theatre, opened in February 2005, but the MACC, which was slated to open around the same time, had construction delayed for a year, and its first phase is still creeping along in first gear. So, over the past 21 years, just five cultural projects have gotten a thumbs-up from Austin voters, and only three of them have been realized to any extent. Not the most inspiring of legacies.

However, if we're taking the historical view here, it's only fair to note that both times Austinites said "yes" to cultural projects were during boom times that were followed within a few years by busts. And private funding for the arts, which can be notoriously tough to secure in the best of times, all but evaporates when the economy goes south, making follow-through on a major cultural construction project about as easy as swimming across Town Lake with a baby grand strapped to your back. Which is to say, it isn't as if the troubled histories of these five projects reveal some common flaw in local arts institutions that makes city support of new facilities for them inherently inadvisable. On the contrary, the three success stories of Zach, the State, and the Carver show how some of our cultural stalwarts can see such projects through even when the economic odds are stacked against them. They may adjust and adapt, but they keep going. Even the MACC, which is still years from completion, is a study in perseverance; the dream of that center stretches back three decades, and its proponents have never allowed the flame of it to die.

When you look at the Austin arts organizations on board this year's bond package, you'll see cultural institutions that can be trusted to deliver on the promise of their proposals. At the top of the list are Zach, which is asking for $10 million toward the construction of a new $25 million theatre with 500 seats, and Austin Studios, which wants $5 million to make a couple of those old airplane hangars it converted into movie soundstages more like the real thing. (Full disclosure: My wife, Barbara Chisholm, works for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center and is active in the campaign for Prop. 4.) The fact that Austin Studios has managed to host some 30 feature-film productions in these buildings without adequate air conditioning or soundproofing speaks to the effectiveness of its operations. Likewise, in the 15 years since it completed its bond-funded arena theatre and administrative building, Zach has doubled its audience and expanded its budget fivefold to $3 million annually. Supporting these organizations' projects certainly isn't taking a gamble on some dicey flights of fancy. It's rewarding businesses that have proven their ability not only to manage their resources successfully but to do so in ways that benefit the entire city and draw national attention to Austin. It's giving them the seed money to build on their growth and continue to keep pace with the growth of our city and of their respective fields. Consider it venture capital for the creatively oriented, if that helps.

Of the projects that constitute the rest of Prop. 4, only one – Mexic-Arte's bid for $5 million toward construction of a new $25 million museum building, possibly on the site of the proposed Mexican American Cultural Center – comes from an institution with anything like the history or success shared by Austin Studios and Zach. The African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, the Asian American Resource Center, and the MACC are all entities that are essentially being developed along with the facilities being proposed for them. (For more details on these and all the Prop. 4 projects, see "Where the Money Goes.") That may make them seem more of a risk than the theatre and film projects, but it's a risk Austin needs to take. With all three of these projects and Mexic-Arte's new museum, the city is helping provide cultural resources for parts of our community that have traditionally received crumbs while the majority population ate cake. Where African-Americans and Mexican-Americans are concerned, our city is, sad to say, still playing catch-up, and if we learned nothing else from the Midtown Live fire, it's that's our city pays a painful price when we fail to address quality-of-life issues for all its citizens. These facilities offer Austin a timely opportunity to do that. Approving them now can help ensure that the coming generation of Austinites doesn't miss out on the brilliant array of colors that make up this city's cultural heritage.

The thing is, this may be our only shot for a generation. Look at how long it's taken us just to get to this point: 21 years for five projects, some of which we're still waiting to see realized. Kids who might have had their lives changed by exposure to these facilities have grown up and gone away without seeing them built. Think about the time lost in those four years after the MACC and the Carver were voted down the first time. Is that time we can afford to lose now, with the city growing as quickly as it is, diversifying as much as it is? Yes, there are risks. No one knows if there's a bust around the corner that might cause some or all of these projects to stall or fizzle out. Any of the organizations in Prop. 4 could encounter challenges that send their bond projects to the same fate as the ones of the Eighties. But for $4 a month, we may just be giving the Austin of the future the cultural facilities it deserves.

For more bond-related coverage, see "Austin Municipal Bonds: The 'CliffsNotes' Version."

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