Shape of Things to Come

What will the arts in Austin look like in 10 years?

Shape of Things to Come
Illustration by Nick Derington

As with the weather, everyone talks about the future, but nobody does anything about it. At least, that's often how it feels in Austin, where folks seem to enjoy nothing so much as sitting around in meetings jawing about what the city (or county or region) ought to be like anywhere from five to 50 years down the line and then distilling and preserving their grand projections for that time in bound and printed long-range plans. Alas, said plans aren't always implemented with the fervor of their creation – sometimes they get shelved out of a lack of resources or the political will to realize them; sometimes they get superseded by another round of meetings to replan the future that was just planned – which means we frequently wind up with less action, more gab.

At first blush, CreateAustin might look to be yet one more example of locals indulging in their predilection for talking 'bout tomorrow. At the heart of this city-sponsored project are dozens upon dozens of citizens from all corners of the community gathering to chat about Austin's cultural landscape as they'd like to see it 10 years from now and to map out how we might reach that place. Cultural infrastructure, arts education, social support for individual artists, tourism, tax districts, cultural facilities, public art, philanthropy – all of it has been talked about, along with most everything else that might affect the cultural life of Austin in the coming decade, and the dialogue has been good and long: The process is currently in its 19th month.

And yet, even though this civic conversation has had all the earmarks of the classic long-range plan – identification of stakeholders, vision statements, task forces, strategy development, and, of course, plenty of lengthy, lengthy meetings – CreateAustin hasn't felt like just another exercise in talking about the future that won't ever go anywhere. Not only did the process generate an unusual level of interest that's been sustained over a year and a half, but rumbling under the discussions all that time has been a sort of restless energy to move beyond the oral stage, to seize on ideas sparked by the process and run with them. And some of that has already been happening. Even before City Council has been presented with the final draft of the Cultural Master Plan (which is slated to happen in the next month or so), teams of CreateAustin participants and newcomers to the project are already taking action on some of the plan recommendations.

Now, I can't pretend to be an unbiased observer here – I've been embedded in the process from day one, starting with an interview with consultant Bill Bulick of the Portland-based Metropolitan Group way back in September 2006. I then agreed to sit on CreateAustin's 70-member Leadership Council and to co-chair the task force on Support for Individual Creativity, one of the six task forces that developed the 33 recommendations in the final plan. And I'm currently involved in the Interim Action Initiative that's trying to take advantage of the momentum generated by the planning process and translate it into real change. That said, I've been witness to similar attempts at arts plans over the past 20-plus years, and not only do I see a difference in this plan, but other longtimers on the scene who are also veterans of these previous cultural planning processes have told me they see a difference, too. There's a sense that the ideas being proposed in this plan have a better chance of being implemented than just about any proposed in the past. Some of that is the process; some of it is the people involved; some of it is the timing – where Austin is a city and where its arts scene is.


Ripeness Is All

Earlier efforts to craft a big-picture plan for Austin arts and culture are instructive in the crucial roles that timing and implementation tactics play in a plan's success or failure. In 1985, when the city commissioned an extensive study of the arts scene from Opinion Research Associates (commonly referred to as the June Spencer report, after the consultant who authored it), it seemed like a good time to be establishing a new direction for the city's cultural policy; Austin was still flush from the real estate boom, and the voters had just approved bond money for a new Downtown museum, a renovation of the State Theatre, and a second theatre for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. What no one knew was that a real estate bust was waiting right around the corner, and when it hit shortly after, it effectively sank any new cultural initiatives just as it did the plans for the museum and the State. It also tightened up the money available to arts groups through the city's cultural contracts program, which rises and falls with the amount collected through the city's hotel/motel "bed tax." That, in turn, helped spark some of the most fiercely divisive struggles over funding that the arts community has ever seen.

The worst of the "art wars" had died down by the city's next try at plotting its cultural future, the Austin Comprehensive Arts Plan (1993), but disputes over the cultural contracts process continued throughout the Nineties and beyond. They proved to be an ongoing distraction for the Austin Arts Commission, which had been tasked with implementing a number of the recommendations of the ACAP. The failure of that plan was laid largely at the commission's feet in a 2002 audit of the program by the city auditor. "The Commission, though empowered by ordinance to implement the recommendations and strategies in the ACAP, has made minute progress," it noted, "because the Commission appears focused on short-term issues." Key committees were never created, so strategies for improving advocacy, public relations, arts education, and technical assistance were never developed.

That audit, inspired by a wave of particularly contentious cultural contract funding cycles, paved the way for a reform of the program, which coincided with other significant changes in the city's cultural policies, among them an economic impact study on the arts that prompted the city to move the Cultural Arts Division out of the Parks and Recreation Department into the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. That represented a seismic shift in attitude toward the arts, acknowledging that they weren't just for playtime but were, along with other creative industries such as film, live music, gaming and digital media, fashion, and design, part of the economic engine that kept the city humming.

Other similarly important shifts were reshaping the cultural landscape in the years since the drafting of the ACAP – mainly, a whole lot of building going on: the Blanton Museum of Art, the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the Mexican American Cultural Center, the Long Center. Cultural facilities that had been dreamed of, fought for, and sweated over for years – in some cases, decades – were actually being constructed. Though progress on the projects sometimes seemed painfully slow or moved in fits and starts, it signaled that Austin's arts dreams could be realized. And with several more cultural facilities earning approval from the voters in a 2006 city bond election, it confirmed a willingness on the part of the city – lowercase "c" – to support cultural projects.

So when the CreateAustin planning process comes along in the fall of '06, you have a cultural scene that is no longer fighting many of the same old battles that it did in the Eighties and Nineties. It has grown and become more diverse. It's not so much at odds with itself. And it's being taken much more seriously than it ever was before. All that combines to make for a creative community that's able to look toward the future with perhaps more confidence and less self-interest, that's more open to the possibilities of change and new dreams.


Who's Driving the Bus?

If the timing was right for a new round of long-range planning, there was still that old bugaboo of implementation. Would Austin get any closer to seeing its vision of a better tomorrow this go-round if it followed the same strategies for implementing them that it did in the past? Doesn't seem likely. That's why one of the most encouraging aspects of CreateAustin is that it isn't relying on the old model, which was, in a nutshell, "Let the city do it."

"Prior city- or chamber-sponsored art and culture plans addressed key dilemmas that were urgent in our community at the time – and the resulting actions were very much city-government driven," notes Deborah Edward, consultant with Greenlights for NonProfit Success, which has been engaged by the city to facilitate the planning process. "This time around, there's a different context: We're building on strengths and trying to align our interests and issues with the various groups looking at the city infrastructure as a whole. The CreateAustin ideas are being incorporated into other city plans, which means more likelihood that the ideas will be acted on. But perhaps most important, there's been a call for community leadership, and there is reference to many potential actions that rely on collaborations across community-business-government."

The city may have sponsored CreateAustin, but it was made clear from the outset that the process would really be driven by all of us who call Austin home. We would decide what was important to us, what we wanted our cultural future to look like. We would figure out what it would take to make it a reality. We would design the steps to get there, and we would put them in place. This would be our plan. In September 2006, CreateAustin consultant Bill Bulick and staff in the Cultural Arts Division began recruiting participants: the 70-member Leadership Council, composed of artists, administrators, activists, attorneys, educators, businesspeople, and others; a 13-member Working Group of cultural professionals; and an Arts & Culture Round Table with more than 70 individuals in the arts and creative industries. They would do the most talking over the next 10 months, but they weren't the only ones. Bulick also conducted interviews with a few dozen more civic and cultural leaders and presided over four open community forums around town at which anyone could offer up his or her views on what Austin's cultural scene ought to look like in the future. Everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak up.

With so many voices in the mix, you might expect those futuristic visions to run the gamut from Buck Rogers to Blade Runner, but what was interesting was how much of the talk overlapped, covering similar issues: affordable living and work spaces for artists; technical assistance and professional development for artists, arts organizations, and businesses; partnerships between universities and artists and artists and businesses; an alliance to provide support services to artists and creative individuals across all disciplines; arts education on all levels; accessibility to cultural events; a public relations campaign touting the city's "culture of creativity." The commonality of these concerns helped determine the nature of the six task forces that met in late spring of 2007 to generate the actual ideas, recommendations, and strategies for the final plan: support for individual creativity, learning and creativity, communication and collaborative ventures, the built environment, financial resources, and cultural infrastructure. And even though these task forces met separately over six weeks, their independent recommendations included numerous overlapping ideas.

The shared concerns were another sign that this long-range planning process caught Austin at a propitious moment, when individuals from different corners of the community were on the same page about what needed to be addressed and how. Deborah Edward summed it up this way: "The consensus vision that I see emerging is about making Austin a dynamic, friendly, diverse incubator and presenter of arts. But in some ways, this is less a consensus vision than a collection of visions that are complementary. We're all talking about stronger community leadership that can transcend the silos of arts institutions or mediums, and we're all excited about building participation at many levels – artists, audiences, arts businesses, students, and so on."

As Bulick worked to summarize and synthesize the original 120 pages of recommendations into a draft document that could be more readily digested, he was able to tie together a number of the concepts from the various reports into what he called the "10 Big Ideas" of CreateAustin. Some are specific (establishing a city Department of Cultural Affairs; creating a cultural alliance; launching a "culture of creativity" PR campaign), while others are general, but all reflect a sense of the values prized by the participants in the process – and by extension, the community – as we move forward through the next decade. (See "The 10 Big Ideas," below. To read the full draft of the CreateAustin Cultural Master Plan, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/culturalplan/plan.htm.)

In October, Bulick shared his final draft in a meeting of the Leadership Council and in a public forum. Ordinarily, that might be where the process stalls out until the City Council has its say, but this process generated something more than a set of recommendations; it generated an enthusiasm for these visions of the future that people didn't want to abandon. So, with the presentation of the plan to council not expected until March at the earliest, an Interim Action component of CreateAustin was launched. Anyone who wanted to help keep the ball moving forward could join in one of several projects: developing an inventory of cultural venues and arts spaces, conducting a survey of arts education programs, researching and discussing how to structure and focus a Creative Alliance to serve artists and arts organizations, and identifying people and models to lead the community-based implementation of the cultural arts plan.

Cultural Arts Program Manager Vincent Kitch is encouraged by this activity. "People in the community are taking on issues and working on projects before the plan has even been finalized, which is a great sign the community will embrace the ideas and help make them a reality," he says. "Key to implementation is the idea of this as a public/private collaboration. It is not a plan for how the city of Austin can support arts, culture, and creativity, but how the whole community can get involved. With the traction we have already, I am optimistic that we will see a lot of positive results from CreateAustin."

Deborah Edward, who has been spearheading the Interim Action efforts, agrees. "People are continuing to get to know one another – and it's exciting to see that the players in the work go beyond the community of artists and arts organizations. We've gotten the attention of civic builders at many levels. As some of the Interim Action players have said, 'The train has left the station.'"

Next stop: the future we're going to make.  


THE 10 BIG IDEAS


1) Establish a CreateAustin Leadership Task Force.

This group, to be drawn from individuals who have already participated in CreateAustin along with other stakeholders in the community, will assist in the implementation of the plan and make regular reports on its progress to the City Council and the community. It will also provide mechanisms for continuing advocacy, problem solving, leadership, and action.


2) Create a City Department of Arts and Culture.

All arts, culture, music, and film activities overseen by different agencies in the city government would be consolidated into a single department, providing a unified vision of initiatives and activities related to culture and creativity, improved coordination of such activities and opportunities for leveraging city resources, and increased importance of these issues within the city organization.


3) Form a community-based Creative Alliance.

A large-scale, grassroots membership and advocacy organization would be formed that would be open to all creative individuals, organizations, and businesses. It would offer a central clearinghouse of information about resources for creatives (e.g., professional development, networking, and marketing opportunities), broker for services such as health care and insurance, and be a vehicle for advocacy.


4) Launch a focused public-will-building/awareness campaign.

With information drawn from qualitative and quantitative research into community values and attitudes about the arts, culture, and creativity, a focused public-will-building campaign would be created to develop communitywide awareness of and support for the vision, values, and recommendations of Austin's "culture of creativity," and enhance audience development and cultural tourism marketing.


5) Forge new partnerships between area universities and the creative community.

After taking an inventory of existing partnerships between Central Texas academic institutions and the creative sector, the most effective and productive ones in terms of education, training, and professional development will be used as models for maximizing and expanding collaborations and cultural resources throughout the community.


6) Increase private sector support for creative activities.

New methods and programs will be explored to boost financial support of Austin's arts and creative activities and develop a culture of giving at all financial levels, across geographic area, age, economic status, ethnicity, and race, among them educational programs and networking mechanisms regarding philanthropy, development of an incentive-based matching fund, and workplace giving.


7) Increase business development and technical assistance services.

Efforts will be made to give artists, creative individuals, organizations, and businesses greater access to resources that will strengthen their business management, marketing, professional development, and other skills so as to help ensure their long-term survival and productivity.


8) Encourage neighborhood-based cultural development and activity.

"Ground up" development of cultural and heritage community/neighborhood districts will be supported and promoted as part of the diverse, dynamic, attractive, and innovative mix of cultural amenities and destinations in Austin's community fabric.


9) Develop affordable and accessible cultural space of all types.

An inventory of existing public and private cultural spaces – studios, live/work, performance, exhibition, instruction, storage, offices, etc. – will be created, with mechanisms to keep the list up to date and efforts to encourage affordable access to these spaces. The development of new spaces throughout the city and even outside it (including large, multiuse facilities) will also be explored.


10) Develop a Creativity Teaching and Learning Project.

An inventory of current programs involving cultural and creative education will be used as the basis for designing systemic improvement, including integrated curriculum and professional development for teachers and creative individuals who provide arts education opportunities. This will improve access to creative and cultural education programs across ages, arts disciplines, geography, and class.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

CreateAustin, city planning, Deborah Edwards, Vincent Kitch

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