Austin Creative Alliance

A well-earned rest for Queen Latifah

Latifah Taormina
Latifah Taormina (Photo by John Anderson)

Latifah Taormina answered the ad thinking the post she was applying for would be "a nice part-time job and a good way to get connected to the local theatre community." She was certainly right on the second score, but as for the first? Well, running the former Austin Circle of Theaters wasn't anywhere close to being just part-time work. Ever since the night in September 2000 when she was introduced at ACoT's B. Iden Payne Awards ceremony as the arts umbrella's new executive director, the job has pretty much consumed her life. Taormina has given herself over to countless phone calls, emails, grant applications, committee meetings, commission meetings, board meetings, task force meetings, planning sessions, conferences, workshops, and awards ceremonies – whatever it took to help better serve Austin's arts community. But after 10½ years, Taormina is about to get her life back. As of April 30, she's retiring as head of the Austin Creative Alliance, the organization that, under Taormina's stewardship, grew out of ACoT.

That expansion of the organization's mission is Taormina's legacy. In 2002, she attended her first conference of the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations, where a speech by Ben Cameron – then executive director of Theatre Communications Group – struck a chord with her. Cameron's call for arts groups to operate not in isolation but as part of larger, united communities brought Taormina back to the capital city wondering, "What if we were to move to a more collaborative cultural alliance among the various arts service organizations in Austin?" She worked to extend ACoT services to dance and classical music groups, then found ways to connect with visual artists, too. As ACoT developed new promotional tools – the events listing website, the weekly "Austin Arts Minute" on the Your News Now cable channel, the Get Your Art On cultural campaign – Taormina took pains to include comedy, film, and live music along with the traditional fine arts. As citizens envisioned the city's creative future in the CreateAustin cultural master plan, Taormina was among the voices calling for an überorganization that could serve all sectors of Austin's creative community: fine arts, music, film, digital, culinary arts, gaming, you name it. Owing to Taormina's efforts to move ACoT in that direction, her organization seemed the strongest candidate to build a creative alliance for Austin, and she's been able to help lead the organization through that transition to the alliance.

The energy that Taormina's sustained through her time with ACoT/ACA has been nothing short of phenomenal – most people half her age would have flagged years ago. The ebullience that served her well as an improviser with Second City and the Committee (see "Improvising Every Second," March 10, 2006) and an actor in films (The Graduate) and on TV (The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Happy Days, credited as Jessica Myerson) has not only helped her persevere through years of economic busts, arts funding cuts, bureaucratic bogs, and the perennial hardships of nonprofit life, but also kept her an enthusiastic, convivial presence at the head of her organization. That same Ben Cameron who inspired Taormina captured her spirit and place in Austin's creative community when praising her involvement in launching Theatre Communications Group's "Free Night of Theater" audience-development initiative by saying, "Her energy, her dedication, her keen sense of the Austin community's needs, and her creativity all were important factors in the shaping and execution of this pilot program."

The Austin Creative Alliance will hold a public celebration of Taormina (plans weren't complete at press time), but don't expect her to fade away after passing the baton to interim Executive Director Marcy Hoen. Taormina still has too much energy and too many new ideas for that. You'll see a lot of Latifah; she'll just be improvising a new scene.

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Austin Creative Alliance, Latifah Taormina, Jessica Myerson, Austin Circle of Theaters, B. Iden Payne Awards, Get Your Art On,, Marcy Hoen

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