Doors are opening. A surprising number of them.
By which I mean, doors of new Austin arts venues. ReNew EAST. ColdTowne Conservatory. First Street Studio. Gallery 702. ATM Gallery. Center for Creative Action. Permanent.Collection. Ground Floor Theatre. Lower Left Gallery.
In the past seven months, all of the above spaces made their debuts, making for as concentrated a cluster of new venue openings as Austin's arts community has seen in many a year. And that isn't even the end of it. This week sees the grand opening of Bravo at Balance, a new 84-seat, black-box performance space in the 2-year-old Balance Dance Studios on South Lamar, and at some point in the next few months Co-Lab Projects will transition into its new, larger facilities and Blue Lapis Light will open its new aerial ballet studio.
That's refreshingly good news, considering that for the past six years we've been subjected to a steady drumbeat of venue closings: Gallery Lombardi, 4WFA, Art Palace, D Berman Gallery, L. Nowlin Gallery, Blue Theatre, Champion Contemporary, Okay Mountain, Birdhouse Gallery, Wardenclyffe Gallery, Domy Books, Red Space Gallery, Tiny Park Gallery (a list that is, by the by, hardly comprehensive). The losses since the numbing punch of the Great Recession have been considerable, not only because of the numbers but also because each entity that shut the blinds and turned out the lights for good left a critical gap in our community's cultural infrastructure – a space where a certain segment of artists had a home for their work. Even the ones that were on the scene for just a couple of years managed to develop into vibrant centers for creative activity, and when they went away there weren't other venues that could easily absorb what they had been doing. Their absences left us with gaping holes.
That isn't to ignore the cultural facilities that did come online during this turbulent period – three cheers for venues such as the New Movement, Institution Theater, Canopy, Art.Science.Gallery., Modern Rocks Gallery, the Thinkery, B. Hollyman Gallery, and Zach's Topfer Theatre, all of which opened their doors despite the downturn and have heroically managed to keep them open. However, these additions, as valuable as they have been and continue to be, couldn't by themselves offset the losses of so many other spaces, especially in terms of the particular constituencies they served.
So this recent surge of venue openings is encouraging. It suggests a shift in the economy – or at least in the creative community's sense of it. Local artists and arts entrepreneurs are seeing enough of a break in the economic winds buffeting them from both directions – skyrocketing real estate prices and cost-of-living increases on this side, stagnant wages and diminshed purchasing power on that one – that they're willing to risk building a room of their own, as it were. Now, even these 12 venues won't fill in all the gaps from the last half-dozen years, but they bring us substantially closer, and if this many have sprouted in less than a year, perhaps more will follow, in which case Austin may have a real chance of not just regaining all the ground it's lost, arts space-wise, but adding some more.
As we ponder this optimistic artscape, though, a few things are worth noting. One is that most of these new venues are being founded farther and farther from the central city core. Carving out space for art Downtown and even in most of the historic neighborhoods that ring Downtown is harder than it's ever been and may have passed forever out of reach for the small alt galleries and storefront stages that thrived there in decades past – unless the matter receives serious attention and support from the city and community powers-that-be. To have the arts spread all across Austin is certainly to the city's good, but it'll be a shame if new creative endeavors are locked out of the city's heart because of money or, rather, the lack of it.
And speaking of money, these new venues are not the multimillion-dollar initiatives of Austin's cultural makeover in the Nineties and Aughts. They aren't the work of large institutions funding them through five-figure gifts from corporations and captains of industry. They're by and large efforts by small nonprofits and businesses getting the money to launch a new venue from, well, you. Crowdsourcing plays a major role in funding this new generation of arts spaces, which means the people looking for your support in establishing these spaces are mostly folks like you, people who don't have deep pockets but who are taking this leap because they feel a need to, because they sense a real need in the community and believe they can help with it, because they're trying to make a difference. So keep in mind what a gamble they're making on the community's behalf and how vulnerable these endeavors are.
It's great having so many new venues where the arts can have a home, but if we truly want them around for long, we might want to start thinking about them as our homes, too.
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