Lasting Commitments

The 2008 class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame

Some individuals make their contributions to a cultural scene in brief but intense bursts, flashes of creativity or of support for those whose creativity they value. They may be influential, may even transform the scene in deep and enduring ways, but for whatever reason, their involvement in the scene is limited. Then there are the ones whose contributions are sustained over many years, who seem ever-present on the cultural front, doing whatever work is necessary for the performing and visual arts to progress and prosper. The Austin Arts Hall of Fame honors this latter class of cultural heroes, and the seven individuals being inducted this year all belong. As artists, as educators, as patrons, and as advocates for culture, they have shown a steadfast commitment to the arts in our community, and whether their individual interests are comedy, music, architecture, theatre, or the visual arts, their devotion has been instrumental in developing the cultural scene that flourishes in Austin today. The Austin Critics Table, that loose affiliation of arts writers that recognizes outstanding creative work in our city every year, will welcome them into the Hall of Fame on Monday, June 2, in a ceremony at 7pm at the Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. Here is an introduction to the 2008 class and why we honor them.

Margie Coyle

Lasting Commitments
Photo by Bret Brookshire

"Dying is easy," goes the old chestnut; "comedy is hard." And few people in the city have as keen a sense of that as Margie Coyle, who has been witness to the struggle of stand-up artists to extract laughs from an audience pretty much nightly for more than 20 years. That's how long she's been on staff at the Research Boulevard nightspot once known as the Laff Stop and now called Cap City Comedy Club, which gives her an uncommonly deep insider's perspective on the challenges of making a career in comedy. Maybe that's why Coyle has done so much through the years to give comics a boost. As she's climbed the club ladder – from waitress to manager to co-owner (she and husband Alex are partners with two other couples, Rich Miller and Lisa Penland-Miller and Colleen McGarr and Duncan Strauss) – Coyle has worked to ensure that local comics have ample opportunity to hone their comedy chops and get exposure. That may be through gigs in the main showroom; the Funniest Person in Austin contest, which Coyle has run for more than half of its 23 years; or showcases for such major forces in the funny business as Montreal's Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival, HBO's U.S. Comedy Festival, CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman, NBC's Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central's Laugh Riots stand-up competition, and more. Coyle has befriended generations of stand-ups in Austin, and through her efforts, the city has become a place where the pros come looking for funny – and find it.

Stan Haas

Lasting Commitments
Photo by Bret Brookshire

Confronted with an older building that hasn't fared well with the passage of time, many architects simply scrap the whole structure and create a new one from scratch. That's not the Stan Haas way. Maybe it's his architectural X-ray vision, seeing through a faded facade to a building's still-solid bones; maybe it's his penchant for recycling, developed long before it was hip to be green; or maybe it's his soft spot for architecture of the mid-20th century, but the UT School of Architecture grad (class of '73) believes in saving the best of the old for the foundation for something new, and his philosophy of rescue and reuse has granted a second life to many an Austin building that might have been razed, like the 1950s-era office building at 1011 San Jacinto or an industrial Goodwill Store. His masterpiece in this regard is the Long Center for the Performing Arts, which preserves key elements of Palmer Auditorium but transforms them into functional components of a 21st century performing arts center. It was an approach that Haas began advocating back in 1995, and he earned his shot at implementing it fully when funding woes forced the Long Center board to abandon the ambitious designs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. He's given Austin a new civic landmark that pays tribute to its historic predecessor – and that stands beside the many buildings by TeamHaas (now part of Nelsen Partners Architects) that have been honored by the Austin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His dozen years on the Austin Downtown Commission, which he chairs, are further testament to Haas' commitment to Austin – past, present, and future.

Don Howell

Lasting Commitments

For many a fledgling theatre company, the difference between survival and oblivion is a Don Howell – that is, someone possessed of experience, expertise, and an interest in young artists, and who is willing to aid a group just starting out with encouragement, advice, and resources that will help to keep it alive. Since 1992, when he came to Austin, Howell has made a critical difference in the survival of a number of indispensable theatre companies – Vortex Repertory Company, Frontera Productions (now Hyde Park Theatre), Physical Plant Theater, the Public Domain – as well as a few, such as Troupe Texas and Deus Ex Machina, that disappeared all too quickly. His patronage was intensely personal: seeing shows, having long conversations with artists, and sharing theatrical goods – costumes, set pieces, props – from his own collection, gathered through his years of teaching in Alice, Texas. That career no doubt played a part in his desire to nurture young theatre-makers, but he was also influenced by the legendary artists who nurtured him, the troika of Texas theatre consisting of Margo Jones, Paul Baker, and Nina Vance, with whom he worked variously in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. Once in Austin, Howell did so much for so many – as a patron of young companies, as a volunteer for the Austin Circle of Theaters, as a producer, as an actor and dramaturge for the Austin Shakespeare Festival, as a panelist for the Texas Commission on the Arts and Austin Arts Commission, and as a participant in the national alternative-theatre movement called the RAT Conference – that one friend quipped, "Don Howell has his name in more programs than Samuel French."

Craig Hella Johnson

Lasting Commitments
Photo by Bret Brookshire

"To breathe together" might not sound like much of an aesthetic, but for Craig Hella Johnson, it is the foundation on which he's developed one of the most successful arts organizations in the city and one of the most respected choirs in the country, if not the world. As a conductor, Johnson uses the idea to unify his singers, to get them sharing pitch, dynamic, and musical intention, so as to meld their voices in a seamless, extraordinarily pure and lush sound. But he extends the notion to the audience as well, to get them sharing breath with the choir in a communal experience that binds singers and listeners as one. Johnson's simple yet profound approach has earned him and his choral ensemble, Conspirare – Latin for, yes, "to breathe together" – not only a supremely appreciative audience, as devoted as any you will find in Austin, but also recognition on the national and international scene: Chorus America's prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for Choral Excellence; two Grammy nominations for its second CD, Requiem – We Are So Lightly Here; a deal with the distinguished classical label Harmonia Mundi to release its third CD; an invitation to perform at the eighth World Symposium on Choral Music in Copenhagen, Denmark (Conspirare is the only American choir to go). In addition to leading this ensemble that he founded for 17 years, this gifted singer, composer, arranger, pianist, and conductor has served as director of choral activities at the University of Texas and artistic director of the Victoria Bach Festival.

Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long

Lasting Commitments
Photo by Bret Brookshire

The historic $20 million lead gift that launched the transformation of Palmer Auditorium into the performing arts center that bears the names of Joe and Teresa Lozano Long may be the single cultural contribution for which the pair is best known, but it is far from the only one that either member of this esteemed power couple has made. Over the 50 years that the Longs have called Austin home, they has been deeply involved with numerous organizations. Austin Lyric Opera? The two were founding members when the company launched 20 years ago. Ballet Austin? Teresa sits on the board. The Austin Symphony? Joe is president of the board. The Blanton Museum of Art? They provided a seven-figure gift for the new gallery building. The Austin Museum of Art? They support the museum's endowment for education and outreach. The two are among the most active philanthropists in the city, with interests that range across the disciplines, and as generous with their time as with their money. Much of their support for cultural activities is driven by a shared belief in education and the benefits that the arts can bring to the young – not surprising since Teresa has a doctorate in education and Joe was a teacher before turning to more lucrative careers in law and banking. But they also believe that culture is an essential part of a community, and they are committed to seeing it thrive in the city they love. Austin has given them so much, they say; they're just giving back.

Tina Marsh

Lasting Commitments
Photo by Bret Brookshire

When Tina Marsh arrived in Austin some three decades back, the city was more interested in progressive country and punk than avant-garde jazz. But that didn't stop this dynamic vocalist from founding the Creative Opportunity Orchestra, a groundbreaking assemblage of musicians – sometimes 20, sometimes more – exploring free-form music and improvisation. And though Austin has expressed only marginal interest in such music since, it hasn't stopped Marsh from keeping the boundary-pushing big band going for 28 years and counting, even when she has had to act as manager, booking agent, grant writer, and publicity flack, as well as artistic director, composer, and lead singer. She believes in the music, and it inspires something intense and passionate in her, something that can be heard in her expansive, expressive, elemental voice that soars and burns and flows and keeps her going. In truth, very little stops Marsh, including cancer, which tried to take her down in 1994 but couldn't. She persevered and kept singing, kept writing, kept creating: starting CO2's annual New Jazz Series, spotlighting local jazz musicians and national artists side by side; serving as Becker Elementary's Artist-in-Education; creating Circle of Light, a multicultural, multidisciplinary family program celebrating traditions of Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan; lending her voice to her dear friend Sally Jacques' site-specific dance productions, singing everything from Puccini to Leonard Cohen; composing works like Courage of the Butterfly, written through a prestigious commission from the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Jazz Commissioning Program. This last work, inspired by a Garcia Lorca poem, celebrates that beautiful insect's ability to fly thousands of miles and never rest. This tireless artist and activist might have been writing about herself.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Arts Hall of Fame, Austin Critics Table, Margie Coyle, Stan Haas, Don Howell, Craig Hella Johnson, Joe and Teresa Lozano Long, Tina Marsh

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