Off the Record
Forsaking the Song, Part 9
"The Cactus Cafe lives on," trumpeted Vice President for Student Affairs Juan González repeatedly at the open forum on the University of Texas campus last Wednesday. "The hottest, most sought-after tickets in town ought to be the Cactus Cafe."
That's quite a change in tune, considering that González approved University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith's decision in early December to close or repurpose the campus landmark without any student or faculty input, then spent the next two months tweaking the Jan. 29 announcement. "Dr. J," as he referred to himself, added that UT wouldn't allow a third-party contractor to manage the venue or bar operations: "Given the listening that I have done, it's just not viable."
Hold your applause.
The Union has already allotted 10% of its space to outside vendors, the maximum allowed under IRS rules governing public bond-issuing entities, so the third-party option was never a viable one. According to González, the two remaining "good options" must be "self-sustaining, sound business models" that incorporate "student involvement, student participation, student access."
The first option is a partnership with KUT, wherein the local radio station would manage the venue full-time instead of handling "an annual set of dates outside the main academic calendar (approximately 150 nights)," as first proposed in the vision draft. Station Manager Stewart Vanderwilt said that KUT would hire a general manager to oversee the operations and enhance its existing student internships to support the venue, yet admitted that the station hasn't developed a business plan beyond wanting the venue to be sustainable through ticket sales and fundraising. "I don't see KUT getting into the bar business – that's not a part of our mission," stresses Vanderwilt. "We're going to just have to find another way."
It's unclear who would retain any profits under such an agreement, but one thing's certain: KUT can't take on any additional revenue shortfalls. The public station, which cut back the shifts of longtime disc jockeys Paul Ray and Larry Monroe last year in part due to budgetary concerns, needs to raise $5.5 million for its new two-story, 20,000-square-foot home in the College of Communications' Belo Center for New Media. The building will include a 70-person capacity studio room, and Vanderbilt readily acknowledges, "We would need [the Cactus] to be sustainable pretty quickly."
The second option, as outlined by González, is to "have the Texas Union management run the operation," which doesn't necessarily mean "business as usual." While the Cactus has generated a $5,000 profit since the Jan. 29 announcement, as reported in the April 23 issue of The Daily Texan, the model doesn't specifically state that current Cactus management would be retained. In fact, the proposal fails to incorporate any of the ideas introduced by the three proposals originally brought to the Texas Union board for review consideration, such as the addition of paid student internships and artist-in-residence programs, an enhanced relationship with the Student Events Center, and financial assistance from the nonprofit Friends of the Cactus Cafe. That's not due to a lack of effort from the Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, either (see "Rush to Judgment on Cactus?").
"At this time, personnel decisions are confidential," states Senior Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Soncia Reagins-Lilly. Pressed on the management issue as integral in determining the sustainability of the plan – Casey Monahan of the governor's Texas Music Office and the Center for Texas Music History both sent letters to UT President Bill Powers in support of keeping current Cactus booker Griff Luneburg at the club – Reagins-Lilly added, "I'm certain that Dr. González will accept all business models before him, and that definitely will probably be a component of the model."
González didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.
Another logical alternative yet to be broached would be to move the Cactus operations under UT's Texas Performing Arts, which currently oversees the use of six different venues on campus and relies on community and corporate support to cover more than 30% of its budget. That solution would create a built-in financial support network, along with new internships and educational programs that would connect esteemed Cactus performers with students and faculty through lectures and workshops. After all, Bass Concert Hall favorite Lyle Lovett caught an early break at the Cactus.
"I suppose in a perfect world you could look at the Cactus as falling under our particular umbrella, but I think it would be dwarfed by the amount of work we are designed to do by the department," responds TPA Director Kathleen Panoff. "The bottom line is that you can't rely on tickets alone to subsidize your operation. It just doesn't work."
Due to a death in the family, González will not attend the Texas Union board meeting this Friday, April 30, and will continue to receive feedback about the two proposals until May 7. That's a blessing in disguise, given that González admitted at the forum that he hasn't taken a detailed look at the venue's financial records, and accounts beyond annual summaries have yet to be turned over to the public.
"How often does a single university administrator get to create a public relations nightmare for the university and get to keep their position?" asked UT graduate student John Dark near the end of the forum, addressing the $138,000 per year salaried elephant in the room. "We're trying to solve a problem based solely on the lack of vision and shortsightedness of the management of Andy Smith."
In The Simpsons' 200th episode, the entire city of Springfield is relocated a few miles down the road. That's the same idea behind the new Backyard, which moved around the corner from the Shops at the Galleria off Highway 620. Re-creating the natural mystique of the original facility, which closed October 2008, Direct Events hauled over the artist village and even a 75-year-old oak tree from the former site, though parking is still no picnic for the 7,500-capacity amphitheatre. On Sunday, OTR had to park a half-mile down the road from where ZZ Top laid down a synchronized Texas two-step of sharp-dressed, roadside boogie, with only the moon lighting the way. Marquette Armond of Directs Events said that only half of the available parking was used for the event, and the remainder will be open, along with a second entrance off Highway 71, in time for Gipsy Kings' flamenco fiesta on Thursday, May 6. Billy Gibbons, meanwhile, closed out the evening at the Continental Club Gallery, where, according to chauffeur Andy Langer, he sat in with the Mike Flanigan Trio for a blues instrumental on Derek O'Brien's guitar.
Just in time for Latino Music Month, the Austin Tejano Music Coalition has started a new membership campaign, Austin Tejano Power. Get the complete details at www.austintejanomusic.org.
The third annual Corporate Battle of the Bands last Tuesday at Antone's netted more than $20,000 for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, the local nonprofit that provides low-cost medical and mental-health services to local musicians.
Roky Erickson and Will Sheff host a Tour of Psychedelic Austin as part of a four-part video series exclusive to the Chronicle: austinchronicle.com/earache.