Shaken, Not Deterred
Despite the many upheavals in 2011, Austin's arts scene perseveres
Maybe you thought Oklahoma was the only place rattled by record quakes in 2011. Alas, for Austin's arts scene, the year was also full of shock waves, an unprecedented number that left our cultural landscape significantly changed by 2011's end. Where the city previously had two contemporary art museums, it has one. That annual arts celebration that drew more than 100,000 people Downtown on New Year's Eve? Gone. The opera company headquarters that helped usher in Austin's current cultural makeover? Sold. There were turnovers in leadership at more than a half-dozen major cultural institutions*, plus departures by several arts stalwarts from groups with which they'd long been associated**. Never has the city's arts community experienced so many profound shifts in a single year.
You can blame some of this seismic activity on the downturn, sure. But as bad as the economy was (and is), it's not the only fault line at fault here. In many of the cases where finances were an issue, organizational challenges and management struggles were contributing factors. And sometimes time played a major role, with artists feeling they'd logged enough of it in one place and choosing to move on.
Still, as notable as the upheavals themselves were the responses by the city's creatives. The dissolution of First Night Austin was the rare instance of an organization calling it quits. More common was the extraordinary effort to keep one going, whatever it took, as with the merger of Arthouse and the Austin Museum of Art, as well as the sale of Austin Lyric Opera's Heller Opera Center. And our artists typically exhibited the ingenuity that has earned them national attention. When East Austin Studio Tour artists caught heat from the city over home studios that weren't code compliant, the Austin Creative Alliance sponsored sessions to educate artists about code issues and established the Frameworks EAST Fund, a microloan program to help artists upgrade their live/work spaces. The Hidden Room Theatre took part in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe while staying at home via a Skype-based theatrical project that connected Texas and Scotland. With a creative mindset that can use new tech and social media to leapfrog oceans, Austin's arts scene proved that it has what it takes to handle a few quakes.
* In case you need a reminder: Dana Friis-Hansen from the Austin Museum of Art; Ned Rifkin, Blanton Museum of Art; Ken Stein, Austin Theatre Alliance; Latifah Taormina, Austin Creative Alliance; Kevin Patterson, Austin Lyric Opera; Sue Graze, Arthouse; Vincent Kitch, city of Austin Cultural Affairs Division.
** Among them, curator Jonathan Bober from the Blanton, designer and former department chair Robert Schmidt from the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance, violinist Sandy Yamamoto from the Miró Quartet, and comedian Kerry Awn from Esther's Follies.