Crisis & Opportunity: An Open, Structured Dialogue
Frank talk in troubled times
That last was especially important to the folks who sponsored Crisis & Opportunity: An Open, Structured Dialogue. Given the volatility of Austin's cultural scene in recent months and the strong feelings that accompanied some of the leadership and staffing changes at Arthouse, the Austin Museum of Art, the Blanton Museum of Art, the Austin Lyric Opera, and the Austin Theatre Alliance, the leaders of the Austin Creative Alliance, in partnership with the Wyatt Brand public relations firm and the city of Austin's Cultural Arts Division, had justifiable concerns that their attempt to generate constructive conversation in turbulent times might devolve into finger-pointing at specific organizations and bitter denunciations of their actions.
None of that appeared to be on the minds of the 100-plus individuals at the Mexican American Cultural Center on Tuesday, June 7. When Austin Creative Alliance interim Executive Director Marcy Hoen opened the forum to comments, attendees focused largely on their own issues and strategies for survival. ACA Business Manager Heather Barfield spoke of the frustrations of smaller arts groups that scream for aid but are frequently ignored. VSA Texas Executive Director Celia Hughes wondered about the future of the nonprofit, arguing that the current model is outdated and broken. Wyatt Brand principal David Wyatt proposed that organizations might have their own life cycles and shouldn't expect to survive indefinitely. Many of the issues raised have been bemoaned for years in Austin's creative community, such as the large number of local nonprofits fighting for the same dollars from a small pool of philanthropists and corporations.
But no matter how ingrained or intractable the problem, someone addressed it – often in refreshingly frank terms. Wine & Food Foundation of Texas Executive Director Marshall Jones urged groups to own their mistakes rather than hide them, to "rip off the Band-Aid and get on with it." Kevin Benz, editor-in-chief of the forthcoming digital magazine CultureMap Austin, told the crowd, "You guys suck at business," and encouraged arts organizations to bring on more business-savvy board members and supporters. Latifah Taormina, ACA's former executive director, suggested that they may be guilty of talking too much about money; art is about value in a broader sense – the personal, the emotional, the spiritual.
The conversation took a while to ramp up – a consequence, perhaps, of Hoen and crew trying to keep the dialogue too open – but once it did, the 90 minutes flew by. Fortunately, that wasn't the end to it. The ACA has put up a summary of the meeting at www.austincreativealliance.org and plans to post a few topics on the site for people to vote or comment on to determine where the next conversation will start. Yes, the conversation will continue in July with another meeting at the MACC. Details as they come in.