Austin's Artspace Crisis and Microvenues

Are home art galleries and mini-performance venues the answer to the space crunch?

Illustration by Robert Faires

This Saturday night, when Pump Project Art Complex closes its exhibition "The Door by the Garden," it will also bring to a close 13 years of hosting art shows and artists on Shady Lane in East Austin. As a result of its landlord not renewing the nonprofit's lease, two dozen studios are going away, displacing more than 40 artists who have been using the space to make paintings, prints, ceramics, glass, jewelry, mixed media, and other kinds of art.

This Sunday night, when Studio Series Show presents the dance laurel and kirstan have a show, it will be hosting what is only the third program in its home venue on Toomey Road south of Lady Bird Lake. At most, 20 people will get to see this collaboration by Kirstan Clifford and Laurel Atwell, and not all of them will have chairs to sit in. That's because the performance space is actually a room in the apartment where one of the choreographers lives.

In one weekend, two events encompass the most pressing crisis in Austin's arts scene and what's become the most common response. Artists and arts groups are being priced out of venues, so artists are creating new spaces that are increasingly small, sometimes in their own homes.

The crisis you likely know about, since this media outlet and others have been regularly playing "Taps" for local arts spaces for a decade or more. The city's explosive growth and lethal rent hikes have done to our contemporary cultural venues what the St. Valentine's Day Massacre did to some bootlegging mobsters in Capone's Chicago. Only you'd need every one of your fingers and toes plus the digits of your best bud to count all the casualties in Austin's arts community since the Great Recession. The past two years have been especially harsh as the victims have included spaces with long, rich histories – Salvage Vanguard Theater, nine years; Big Medium at Bolm Studios, 16 years; the Off Center, 18 years – and also complexes like Pump Project with spaces for multiple artists and arts businesses. For the 19 years that Flatbed Press has made its home on MLK, it's made room in the facility for other arts-related entities. Which means that with Flatbed getting forced out next year, Gallery Shoal Creek, Recspec Gallery, CAMIBAart, and the Austin Book Arts Center are also out on the street.

Remarkably, several arts groups without homes have lined up new facilities that they expect to occupy before 2018 ends: Tapestry Dance Studios, which had to give up its South Austin home three years ago and has been housing with Balance Dance Studios, will move into new digs on Pleasant Valley Road near Riverside; Pump Project will soon ink a lease on a new location in the same neighborhood; ICOSA Collective, which was part of Pump Project's complex, is joining the Canopy complex on Springdale; Art.Science.Gallery., which had been at Canopy for five years, has jumped the river to a South Austin spot near Manchaca and Stassney; and HOPE Outdoor Gallery is taking its ever evolving graffiti-coated walls from the abandoned condo project on Baylor Street to the wide-open ranges of Carson Creek Ranch. (And while Sky Candy was never homeless, it's worth noting here that the aerial arts company is moving to a new, larger facility in the Springdale General development this summer.)

The microvenue explosion suggests a pushback against 21st century pressures in our megalopolis on the rise. If landlords and developers won’t make space for artists in the New Austin, then artists will carve it out in any small way they can.

More interesting, however, from a trending perspective is the proliferation of small exhibition and performance spaces – and by "small," I mean the kind that could handle a sofa and coffee table but would feel tight if you added a wingback chair and an ottoman. Galleries inside homes and apartments have accounted for more than half of the visual arts spaces to pop up locally in the past decade, and the five performance venues to come online most recently all seat fewer than 50 people – a notable downsizing from the warehouse/storefront stages of earlier eras, when venues such as the Vortex, the Off Center, Hyde Park Theatre, and Salvage averaged 75-100 seats. While modest arts spaces are nothing new in the capital city – hell, the Mother of Us All, Elisabet Ney, made her home/studio on 44th Street a cultural hive back in the 1890s – the recent explosion of microvenues suggests a specific pushback against 21st century pressures in our megalopolis on the rise. If landlords and developers won't make space for artists in the New Austin, then artists will carve it out in any small way they can.

And small – or in this case, very small – has a lot going for it. An arts space the size of an apartment or a single room offers an intense level of immediacy and intimacy; everything is up close and personal. And that can benefit artists who show in them; while the spaces are tiny, the impact can be big. The costs of building out such a space is a fraction of what a full-size venue would run; the Hideout was able to convert its rehearsal studio into a 40-seat theatre for $10,000. And once built, the costs to run the venue typically piggyback onto the costs for the space the venue is in, whether home or other business, meaning less effort to pay to keep the institution alive. Microvenues also offer greater potential for geographic diversity; like tiny animals, they can burrow into areas where large or midsize arts facilities no longer fit; they've made lairs in North Loop, French Place, MLK/183, Bouldin Creek, and Kyle, among other places.

So does that make microvenues the solution to Austin's arts space crunch? Well, they come with cons as well as pros. Obviously, as the name spells out, microvenues can't accommodate large groups of people, which makes it tough to establish a sizable audience. That issue is exacerbated when exhibition or performance runs are shorter than for traditional venues – some shows go up for only one night, so do the math. And without traditional venue infrastructure (parking lots, restrooms, ADA accessibility, etc.), microvenue patrons may be at the mercy of neighborhood amenities in getting to and using the space. And heaven forbid the neighbors around the space aren't keen on having the culturati tramping around or artists pumping up the volume in performance. That can affect the venue's success. Which may be one reason microvenues tend not to last as long as larger venues – two to four years is the standard for recent spaces. Of course, some closures have also been spurred by rent increases, which puts them in the same boat as the larger venues.

But Austinites clearly find microvenues valuable, since they keep making them. Like site-specific works that have been popping up around the city more often of late, microvenues are one more way that local artists are taking the limited resources they have and innovating with them – giving us something big by going small.

The Art Drought

Is Downtown Austin becoming a cultural desert? Since the marquees for the Paramount and Stateside theatres still light up the Ave­nue every night, and the Contemporary Austin across the street adds to the illumination with its rooftop artwork With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress), you may not have thought that Downtown Austin had any worries, culturally speaking. Two landmark theatres and a major art museum anchoring the main street of the city, with Mexic-Arte Museum, La Peña Gallery, and the Hideout Theatre just a few blocks toward Lady Bird Lake – that suggests a lot of art in the heart of Austin, right?

Photo by Sandy Carson

Well, that depends on how you define "a lot," and what you think a city that proudly touts itself as a capital of the creative class ought to have in its Downtown. If you look at the area between I-35 on the east and Lamar Boulevard on the west, Lady Bird Lake on the south and MLK on the north, back in the days before the Warehouse District revival took off, you find about two dozen performance and visual arts spaces: seven in which local companies produced theatre (including the Paramount and what was then the State); two comedy hot spots, Esther's Pool and the Velveeta Room; two art museums, Mexic-Arte and Austin Museum of Art – Downtown (one of the Contemporary's predecessors); and 12 or so art galleries.

Flash forward to today and, even after all of Downtown's phenomenal growth, the area boasts only about the same number of cultural venues. A few major entities have been added – the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Ballet Austin's headquarters, the Bullock Texas State His­tory Museum – and the Hideout and the Fallout Theater have emerged, reflecting the surge in improv over the past two decades, but the number of spaces where local theatre gets produced is down to three, and the number of galleries has dropped to nine. Worse, once-vibrant cultural pockets of Down­town have dried up: the Warehouse District, onetime home to Gallery Lombardi, Capitol City Play­house, Live Oak Theatre, Flatbed Press, and Francois Photography, is down to one full-time gallery, Lora Reynolds, and one part-time gallery, the DEN. The Uptown District at one point consisted of the Scottish Rite Theatre, Women & Their Work Gallery, and LyonsMatrix on Lavaca, and in the same block on Guada­lupe, Galeria Sin Fronteras (and later, in the same space, D. Berman Gallery), and the ArtPlex (also the Arts on Guadalupe), a complex hosting the ACA Gallery, Pro-Jex Gallery, Eeka Beeka, and Ellos Gallery, plus numerous artist studios. All that's left now are Scottish Rite and Women & Their Work, but the landlord isn't renewing the lease for W&TW, so in two years, it will be gone, too.

A handful of visual arts spaces have popped up Downtown in just the past year: ART.WORK AUSTIN, OLA Gallery, Submerge Art Gallery, Twyla Gallery. But their arrival doesn't quite balance the news of cultural spaces going away – Women & Their Work, Co-Lab Projects' DEMO Gallery, the Austin Community College Rio Grande campus – and the fact that there's been a steady trend toward a loss of venues, a creeping drought. The important arts venues ringing the Down­town area – the Blanton Museum of Art, the Long Center, Zach Theatre, the Dougherty Arts Center, the West End galleries on Sixth Street – offer some consolation, but does their presence mean we shouldn't be preserving the cultural spaces inside that border? Or making more? What does it say about this creative, innovative city that we can't support even 20 arts venues in the center of Austin?

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Pump Project, affordability, Studio Series Show, Flatbed Press, Gallery Shoal Creek, Recspec Gallery, Austin Book Arts Center, CAMIBAart, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Big Medium, Bolm Studios, The Off Center, ICOSA Collective, Tapestry Dance Company, Art.Science.Gallery., Elisabet Ney, HOPE Outdoor Gallery, Sky Candy

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