The Austin Chronicle

The Game-Changers

The 2009 class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame

By Robert Faires, May 29, 2009, Arts

That Austin's creative scene is among the liveliest and most watched in the nation may feel like a natural aspect of life here, like live oaks or Barton Springs, but all that flourishing activity in the visual and performing arts today can be traced back to individuals who worked to establish a cultural scene here: artists, educators, patrons, and advocates for culture who made work, created opportunities for artists to develop their talents, and founded institutions and supported their growth. Their innovations and steadfast commitment have altered the ways we express ourselves, regard our heritage, and respond to art. Each of the seven people being inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame this year in some way changed the game for Austin, culturally speaking. The Austin Critics Table, the loose affiliation of arts writers that recognizes outstanding creative work in our city every year, will honor them on Monday, June 1, in a ceremony at 7pm at the Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. Here is an introduction to these cultural heroes and why we honor them.

Bonnie Cullum

When theatre artists working outside the mainstream had no place to tell their stories, Bonnie Cullum gave them one. And for more than 20 years, she has maintained her theatre as a home for artists who challenge norms, even in the face of criticism and dismissive attitudes. Much of Cullum's perseverance has to do with her abiding belief in theatre's power to change lives, whether by addressing current social issues or tapping ancient myths. Both have been driving forces in the work of her own Vortex Repertory Company, which she co-founded in 1988, and in the work of the many artists whose work she has presented and championed, from the internationally known Annie Sprinkle, Tim Miller, and Karen Finley to locals Zell Miller III, Rob Nash, and Chad Salvata (to whom Cullum is married). It's telling that both spaces she has run – the Vortex Performance Cafe on Ben White Boulevard and the current Vortex on Manor Road – were established on the Eastside before it became a regular home for performance venues and that she has produced or directed more original drama than anyone presently working in Austin. Cullum is always on that edge of the outside and the new. That's where change happens.

Mary Margaret Farabee

The list of projects in which Mary Margaret Farabee has played a significant role tells the tale: the restoration of the Paramount Theatre, the installation of the Philosophers' Rock statue at Barton Springs Pool, the conversion of Charles Moore's home into a nonprofit center for architects, and, of course, the chairmanship of the Texas Book Festival. Here is a woman who doesn't care about the cultural scene on some abstract level; she understands it specifically in terms of Austin, in terms of the people and structures that matter here and the place of primacy culture has for our citizens. For decades, she and her husband, former state Sen. Ray Farabee, have thrown their considerable philanthropic weight and activism behind dozens of causes, for service organizations as well as those in the arts. You could exhaust yourself just listing them: the Heritage Society of Austin, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Austin Museum of Art, KUT, KLRU, the People's Community Clinic .... But Mary Margaret never seems to be exhausted. She keeps contributing all across the community, and the city is the better for it.

Daniel Johnson

In many places, the oldest music you can hear comes from the likes of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. But in our town, we're regularly treated to the pleasures of Monteverdi, Buxtehude, Palestrina, and their peers, as well as chants, motets, madrigals, and songs of the troubadours from Scotland to Spain. And for much of that joy, we have Daniel Johnson to thank. From the minute he hit the city limits in 1979, Johnson has been playing and promoting the European music that came before classical – in the storied early-music band Clearlight Waites, as director of the Early Music Ensemble in UT's School of Music, and as founder and artistic director of the Texas Early Music Project. The Big Spring native's 17 years with the Early Music Ensemble earned him Early Music America's Thomas Binkley Award and established him as an early-music specialist of international renown, performing all over the globe. Locally, he has been and remains the foremost cultivator of our taste in the music of the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods, and in both drawing together and sending out into the world musicians of exceptional skill at playing early music, he has ensured that it will be heard and treasured for generations.

Alexandra Nadal and Eugene Slavin

Making the leap from an amateur organization to a professional one, with all its fiscal responsibilities and profound change in mindset, requires vision, nerves, discipline, and skill – abilities that also happen to be necessary for great ballet dancers. Perhaps that's why Eugene Slavin and Alexandra Nadal were well positioned to help the Austin Civic Ballet make the leap to Ballet Austin in the early 1980s. They had training and professional experience – she with the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Opera Ballet, he with Teatro Colon and Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and both with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Royal Winnipeg Ballet – that gave them a strong sense of a ballet company's potential. They joined Austin Civic Ballet as co-artistic directors in 1973 and, over the next decade, laid the foundation for the next stage in the company's and Austin's life, with moves such as bringing Mikhail Baryshnikov to town in Le Corsaire in 1981 and hiring the first 14 company dancers. Upon leaving Ballet Austin, they founded the Slavin Nadal School of Ballet and for two decades have passed along a love of classical dance and its traditions to thousands of Central Texans.

Sylvia Orozco

In the early Eighties, Austin didn't have a home for Latino culture or even a place where Latino visual artists could display their work. So Sylvia Orozco, artist Pio Pulido (to whom Orozco was married then), and artist Sam Coronado opened their own in a 300-square-foot studio in the Arts Warehouse on Third and San Antonio streets. Three years later, when Orozco saw that the abandoned Barker's Office Furniture building at Fifth and Congress was for rent, that became their new home. In the two decades since, Orozco has turned that space – now Mexic-Arte Museum – into one of the premier showplaces of Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art in the state. In fact, it's been proclaimed the Official Mexican and Mexican American Fine Art Museum of Texas, and for her work with Mexico's National Council for Culture and Arts to bring that nation's cultural treasures to Central Texas, she was given the Ohtli Award from the Mexican government. Along the way, the Cuero native may have sacrificed her own artistic ambitions, but she's ensured that others have had the opportunity to realize theirs, through the annual Young Latino Artists exhibition and afterschool art programs that reach hundreds of area youth.

Damian Priour

Limestone and water – those two elements that represent the essence of Central Texas' natural beauty have served as the inspiration for Damian Priour's elegant glass-and-limestone sculptures for more than three decades. And when you see, say, his Waller Creek Shelves at the Austin Convention Center; his altar, pulpit, and baptismal font for the Emmaus Church at Lakeway; or his AquaPoint fountain at the Austin Museum of Art – Laguna Gloria, you feel his deep connection to this area. His works have earned Priour praise and a place in collections from Corpus Christi to Chicago, yet he remains an Austin artist. With fellow artists Kelly Fearing, David Deming, Melissa Miller, Bill Wiman, and Susan Whyne, he helped found the Austin Visual Arts Association 32 years ago. He's served on the boards of AMOA, Ballet Austin, and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, where he and his wife, Paula, have underwritten the Umlauf Prize, given annually to an outstanding grad student sculptor at UT. And his Texas Chair Project, for which he created 100 small chairs that he sent to 100 Texas artists, asking them to make a small chair in return, has bolstered the city's reputation as a center for creative interaction and generosity.

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