Monumental Shift

Major personnel changes across the Austin arts scene in 2007 signal the start of a new era

When the history of Austin is written, 2007 will be remembered as the year the skyline erupted. After years of pretty much holding steady with a cluster of buildings in the 20- to 25-story range, Downtown Austin saw a dozen new construction projects initiated that will eventually give the cityscape spires of 30, 45, 55 stories. Once they are all realized, the face of the city will be substantially altered, such that anyone coming to Austin for the first time in 2009 will see a very different city than someone who was here in 2006.

Something similar has been going on in the Austin arts community this past year. In 2007, an unusual number of personnel changes took place in leadership positions in the city's cultural organizations. More than a half-dozen artistic leaders left or announced their departure from major companies or institutions, including Austin Lyric Opera, Austin Shakespeare Festival, and Salvage Vanguard Theater. An equal number of top administrators did the same. That's more than is typically seen in three or four years, but what's striking is not only the number of leaders leaving but the number who have affiliations of longstanding with their respective organizations: More than half have been in the top spot for at least five years; three have been leading their organizations for 15 years. And in the world of the arts, which consumes energy and time at about four times the rate of normal human life, that's two generations; you might as well be talking about half a century.

In other words, that's a helluva lot of blood, sweat, and institutional memory. Especially when you consider that several of these folks were engaged in major efforts to take their organizations to the next level: Jessie Otto Hite getting the new Blanton Museum of Art facilities built, Richard Buckley bringing Philip Glass' opera Waiting for the Barbarians to Austin for its U.S. premiere, Ann Ciccolella working for passage of Proposition 4 with $10 million in bond funding for Zachary Scott Theatre Center's new theatre, Jason Neulander getting Salvage Vanguard Theater both a home and one of its signature productions touring nationally. It's a bit stunning to see arts advocates and art makers this deeply involved in the local scene, along with such mainstays as Mary Moody Northen Theatre business manager Annie Suite (nine years), UT Performing Arts Center Director Pebbles Wadsworth (15 years), and Texas Commission on the Arts Executive Director Rick Hernandez (30 years with the agency), taking their leave within the same year. It may seem too easy to say that it's the end of an era, but considered in light of the profound changes that many of these cultural agencies are undergoing – building facilities, expanding programming, achieving a national and even international presence – there's truth in the cliché. These are people who played major roles in developing and sustaining Austin's cultural scene during the reinvigoration and expansion of the Nineties and the first years of the 21st century. Their departure is one sign of that period giving way to another.

Of course, the flip side is that these shifts are bringing much new blood into these organizations and into the scene as a whole. Previously in these pages, we've discussed the changes being wrought by the addition of new cultural facilities, but the individuals who will manage those facilities and create the work in them have just as much potential to affect the city's cultural identity. Kevin Patterson's experiences with professional opera in Pittsburgh and across the country have the potential to take Austin Lyric Opera in new directions and, by extension, influence Austin's feeling about opera in general. Elisbeth Challener's deep background in capital campaigns will no doubt have an impact on the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's efforts to raise funds for its proposed $20 million theatre facility. Elizabeth Dunbar takes on the curatorial mantle at Arthouse with a strong grounding in contemporary work that could make the Texas association even more of a national force in identifying and exhibiting new directions in art.

Couple all of this with the changes under way with the arts infrastructure – the recent openings of Salvage Vanguard Theater, Ballet Austin's Butler Dance Education Center, and the Mexican American Cultural Center; this fall's makeover for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center; and the openings of the Long Center and the Blanton Museum's Smith Building next year – and the upshot here is the same as with the skyline: Anyone coming to Austin for the first time in 2009 will see a different city than someone who was here in 2006. What that looks like may not be as visible as a clutch of 50-story skyscrapers, but if the Austin arts scene's past history is any indication, it stands to be just as dramatic.

The Changes in 2007

The following list charts most of the major changes in personnel in Austin's cultural organizations this year. In some instances, successors have not yet been hired for the departing leaders.


Leaving: adjunct curator Regine Basha (three years)

Joining: curator Elizabeth Dunbar

Austin Lyric Opera

Leaving: managing director Tammy Hale, Artistic Director Richard Buckley (four years)

Joining: General Manager Kevin Patterson

Austin Shakespeare Festival

Leaving: Artistic Director Guy Roberts (five years)

Joining: Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella

Austin Script Works

Leaving: Artistic Director C. Denby Swanson (three years)

Joining: Executive Director Christina Moore

Austin Singers

Leaving: music director Ara Carapetyan (two years)

Joining: music director Dwight Bigler

Blanton Museum of Art

Leaving: Director Jessie Otto Hite (15 years plus 14 more years on staff)

Leaving: curator of Latin American art Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro


Joining: Executive Director Erich Vollmer

Mexican American Cultural Center

Joining: program manager Amparo Garcia-Crow

Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's

Leaving: business manager Annie Suite (nine years)

Joining: managing director Michelle Polgar

UT Performing Arts Center

Leaving: Director Pebbles Wadsworth (15 years)

Salvage Vanguard Theater

Leaving: Artistic Director Jason Neulander (15 years)

Texas Commission on the Arts

Leaving: Executive Director Rick Hernandez (five years as executive director plus 25 more on staff)

Joining: Executive Director Gary Gibbs

Zachary Scott Theatre Center

Leaving: managing director Ann Ciccolella (eight years)

Joining: managing director Elisbeth Challener

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