Graduating, With Honors

Local awards are nice, but Austin artists are being recognized nationally all the time now

Magna cum Laude: New Doris Duke Artist Deborah Hay in <i>No Time To Fly</i> (2010)
Magna cum Laude: New Doris Duke Artist Deborah Hay in No Time To Fly (2010) (Courtesy of Rino Pizzi)

As I contemplate the Austin Critics Table Awards hitting the 20-year mark – a useful exercise for making myself feel ancient and like I'm staring down the barrel of mortality – I can't help but reflect on how the city's cultural scene has not only grown but matured over these past two decades. Back in 1993, Austin's stages and galleries were abuzz with activity, much of it surging with the same restlessly exploratory energy we know today and already more than any one human could reasonably take in. Relatively little art made here, though, had broken free of our town's gravitational field and found its way to some cultural capital that could appraise its worthiness from a national perspective. When, say, Melissa Miller was included in the Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennale or Big State Productions' homegrown theatrical hit In the West was picked to play the Kennedy Center, or A Tuna Christmas landed on Broadway, those were rare recognitions that Austin talent could stand with the best in the country.

Nowadays, scarcely a week passes without a notification of some local painter, local playwright, local poet, local choreographer, local composer, local what-you-will on the creative front receiving a major honor or grant from a prominent national source. Just look at a handful of the significant awards extended to Austin arts-makers this spring alone:

Choreographer and dancer Deborah Hay was among the first 21 artists in the country to benefit from a new Doris Duke Charitable Foundation initiative in which she'll receive $225,000 in unrestricted funds, plus as much as $50,000 more in targeted support for retirement savings and audience development. This spring, Hay was also one of 14 recipients of a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

Visual artist Jeff Williams has been named the 2012 recipient of the Texas Prize, the triennial regional art award administered by the AMOA-Arthouse. He's only the third Lone Star artist to win the $30,000 prize and the first from Austin.

The Rude Mechanicals received a $27,000 grant from the MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to develop a new work titled Field Guide. The grant was one of only 12 awarded to theatre projects this year. This is on top of Kirk Lynn, co-producing artistic director and resident playwright of the Rudes, being named one of the 50 United States Artists Fellows in 2011, an honor that comes with a $50,000 cash award.

Composer Dan Welcher was one of four composers to receive a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music, honoring outstanding artistic achievement and composers who have arrived at their own voice. Each composer receives a $7,500 award, plus $7,500 to be used toward the recording of one work.

Filmmaker/performer/visual artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji was one of 13 film and video artists to be named a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow for 2012. With a foundation grant, Ogunji plans to travel to Lagos, Nigeria, and create a new series of performance videos building on her work exploring connections between Africa and the Americas via black female bodies.

Arts education nonprofit Theatre Action Project is one of 50 finalists for the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, chosen by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award would come with a $10,000 grant and recognition in a ceremony at the White House.

These are signs that Austin's arts community has graduated, has – like so many thousands of capped and gowned figures in our city in recent weeks – crossed the stage, diploma in hand, to stand with those who make the work that makes a difference. Oh, we'll always have artists who are studying and learning here, but the idea that Austin's arts scene is still just listening to the lessons of New York's or L.A.'s is history. When our little drinking society started handing out awards 20 years ago, it was a way of recognizing valuable creative work made here that wasn't being honored anywhere else. That isn't the case anymore. Austin's art and music and theatre and comedy and dance are known coast to coast. And even if that makes our 20-year-old honors a little less necessary, I'll drink to that.

(And won't you swing by the Cap City Comedy Club and raise a glass with us on Monday, June 4? We'll induct the five new members of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame starting at 7pm [see "Seeds of Inspiration"], then give out all the awards just after. The Invisible Czars are playing, and it's all free.)

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Austin artists, Deborah Hay, Jeff Williams, Rude Mechanicals, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Dan Welcher, Theater Action Project, Melissa Miller, In the West, A Tuna Christmas

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