Little Big Plan
The Austin Creative Alliance proves it can think big by thinking small
How do you go about building something bigger than anything that's ever been built here before?
This question has been at the forefront of David Sandal's mind for about a year and a half now. That's how long this professional program manager and entrepreneur has been serving on the board of directors of the Austin Creative Alliance, an agency that aspires to nothing less than serving every creative individual, business, and organization in the city – whether they're involved in music, film, visual arts, performing arts, digital media, design, or any other creative field you can name, whether they're amateur or professional, nonprofit or for-profit.
Now, putting together an entity that all-embracing is an undertaking of such monumental proportions, you might find it easier to construct a limestone Pyramid of Giza on Auditorium Shores. But back in 2007, when a few dozen of our culturally minded citizens were meeting and dreaming up the CreateAustin Cultural Master Plan, the notion of just such an organization kept surfacing in conversation after conversation, forum after forum. Independently, two task forces proposed a creative alliance in their reports to CreateAustin's leadership council, and forming an alliance ended up being one of the top three recommendations in the final plan. In the CreateAustin vision of a city that realizes all of its creative potential, an organization that would break through the traditional barriers of discipline and art form to connect and unite, to offer resources to, and advocate for the entire creative community seemed vital and necessary.
Of course, as nothing of that scope had been attempted in Austin before, there was the little matter of how to make it happen. Fortunately, the city already had a sort of embryonic version of the creative alliance in the Austin Circle of Theaters, a membership organization known chiefly for handing out the B. Iden Payne Theatre Awards for the past 37 years. But ACoT also provided other services to its members, and over the past decade, it had been steadily extending them beyond the mask-and-wig crowd to dancers, improvisers, visual artists, and musicians. It promoted their work on its NowPlayingAustin.com website and in its annual Get Your Art On PR campaign; provided sponsorship and advice to those seeking nonprofit status; offered them all access to affordable health, liability, and event insurance. Having ACoT serve as the basis for the proposed alliance seemed to make the most sense; like Steve Rogers before he gets the shot that makes him Captain America, it already possessed all the essential qualities that would make it the superassociation of CreateAustin's dreams.
When the Chronicle last checked in on this überagency a-borning, it was just before its christening (see "Plan, Be," Sept. 25, 2009). ACoT, having agreed to fill the role of this expansive new association, was a week from renaming itself the Greater Austin Creative Alliance (it later dropped the "greater") and was looking to expand its board with representatives from all corners of the creative community and the community at large. To assist the fledgling alliance in this, the CreateAustin action team that was working to implement the plan's recommendations appointed a task force – of which this writer was a member – and from that effort, Sandal was recruited and ultimately voted the board president.
Lacking any convenient supersoldier serum to bulk up the alliance instantaneously, the new board has had to take the old-fashioned route and build the organization in increments. Given the scale of the project and an economic climate even less charitably disposed to the arts and culture than usual – which in Austin is a case of going from bad to worse – one might reasonably expect the alliance to complete its transformation around the time that Captain Kirk takes command of the Enterprise.
And yet over the past six months, the alliance has shown that it isn't about to wait until it's fully formed to start serving the larger community, and the approach it's taking to its mission is right in line with its name: creative. When the arts scene was rocked by a series of leadership turnovers at the Austin Museum of Art, Austin Lyric Opera, Austin Theatre Alliance, and Blanton Museum of Art, as well as by Arthouse's controversial handling of two exhibits and the elimination of associate director and curator Elizabeth Dunbar's position, the alliance called for a community conversation about it all, and the title, Crisis & Opportunity, sent the message that this was not to be just another backstage bitchfest. Yes, things are messy, the title acknowledged, but let's see what about these crises might offer a chance for change in the community. As it turned out, the 100-plus people in attendance bypassed the opportunity to dish the dirt about specific organizations' actions and took advantage of the opportunity to talk frankly about the challenges they're facing in hard times and to share strategies for survival (see "Crisis & Opportunity: An Open, Structured Dialogue," June 17). When Eastside artists were at risk of dropping out of the East Austin Studio Tour because their home studios were not in compliance with city code, the alliance, working with the founders of EAST, established a fund from which artists could draw money to address health and safety concerns. The innovative kick: The fund provides microloans which the artists repay, thus keeping the fund self-sustaining.
These efforts prove that the alliance can think big by thinking small. Neither the community dialogue nor the microloan fund are resource intensive, sucking massive amounts of money or energy from the organization to serve their constituencies. They're deliberately targeted to specific, small-scale concerns: openly addressing the recent turbulence in the arts scene, providing financial aid to visual artists who need to upgrade their work spaces. But embedded in those low-impact designs are expansive concepts – opportunity out of crisis, self-sustainability – that augment the programs' effects. They seed change not only for the few today but also for the many tomorrow.
In this, the Creative Alliance is actually following in a long, rich tradition among Austin creatives. Working with what you have, turning weaknesses into strengths, and spinning hay into gold is how many of our hometown heroes have forged their signature successes; think Richard Linklater and Slacker, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears and Greater Tuna. The lack of resources spurs imagination, ingenuity, innovation – which helps not only the bottom line but also the quality and impact of the work.
Sandal feels that in these past six months, the Austin Creative Alliance has at last begun to show what it can do. "Now we're starting to get some traction," he says. He credits much of that to interim Executive Director Marcy Hoen, who jumped from the board to the staff following the retirement of Latifah Taormina in April. He said she brought to the alliance the same passion, enthusiasm, and big thought that she did to the board of the Fusebox Festival and to Austin Art Start, her own company connecting collectors and contemporary artists. That drive and ability to connect people makes her a worthy successor to Taormina and invaluable as the unifying force for so many different corners of the creative community. So far, attendance at Creative Alliance events has been heavily weighted toward the fine arts – and the performing arts at that. That may not be surprising since theatre was the core constituency of the alliance's former identity, ACoT, but it's not where Sandal wants the alliance to be. "In the long run, theatre should be seven to 10 percent of our grouping," he says. "When we get to that level, when everybody else is at the table, we're going to know that we've done what we need to do."
In the meantime, he, Hoen, and the alliance staff and board are building their overarching organization one small but substantive block at a time: hiring a grant writer here, a PR firm there; working with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts to provide services to members; hosting another Crisis & Opportunity session; talking to representatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts about bringing the Cultural Data Project, a sophisticated online system for coordinating and analyzing an arts organization's financial and operational data, to Texas; and a lot of conversations with every kind of creative in Austin about how they and the alliance can work together. For, as Sandal says, "One of the keys to moving forward is continuing to collaborate a lot."