Faster Than Sound: Could Austin Arts & Music Finally Get a Cultural Trust?

It's not here yet, but talks are intensifying. Also, bars and a few live music venues reopen.

The old firehouse on Guadalupe (Photo by John Anderson)

As the city of Austin continues to divvy COVID-19 relief, music advocates are making big moves. To rebuild the local live music economy, clubs must not only outlast the pandemic, but also survive Austin's notoriously high costs upon reopening. Per a Red River Cultural District recommendation, two resolutions passed last Thursday by the City Council push civic leaders to make good on long-promised efforts to save local music.

"We're not just dealing with the economic disaster related to COVID, we're also dealing with the disaster of affordability," explains RRCD Executive Director Cody Cowan. "We were already, as a music venue community, at that tipping point before all this happened. We can't just return to how things were in February."

Approved ideas include the long-sought formation of a cultural trust – basically a nonprofit to buy up venues, preserve them, and acquire new spaces. Creation of an economic development corporation (EDC) will help find speedy aid for arts and music spaces, with specific plans due by June 11. That same group will look into formation of a trust for long-term sustainability.

The trust could aid in a number of ways: purchase properties to offer long-term leases, or invest in venues' purchase of their own land; help fund new developments, like venues on the ground floor of residential or commercial buildings; convert city-owned properties into arts hubs.

"I think any of these three options are excellent," confirms Cowan.

Municipal Building on Eighth Street (Photo by John Anderson)

For cultural reuse, the resolutions named the art deco Municipal Building on Eighth Street, the shuttered firehouse on Guadalupe, and space in the city's Planning and Development Center near Highland Mall.

Even so, the concept of cultural preservation has kicked around Austin politics for decades. At the meeting, Council Member Kathie Tovo said city staff have already been instructed to plan a cultural trust and EDC on multiple occasions. Matthew Kwatinetz, a veteran of New York City's EDC, hired on to help form Austin's edition.

"Really, the intent of my putting [an EDC] in my resolution was to set some deadlines," said Tovo. "We have now directed the manager twice to create an EDC."

John Riedie, CEO of Austin Creative Alliance, helped push placement of a cultural trust in Mayor Steve Adler's arts Omnibus Resolution circa 2016. Like Cowan, he cites Memphis' Beale Street as an example of a city-owned music sector and the more recent model of San Francisco's successful Community Arts Stabilization Trust.

"Cultural trust is now an accepted, mainstream solution, and everyone's talking about it," says Riedie. "It's the only proven way to preserve cultural assets in the face of intense development."

A Swiss Army knife of economic stimulus for the RRCD also showed up in the resolutions, including already-approved sidewalk improvements, waiving of fees for tour bus parking and patio seating, and recommendation for state recognition as a cultural district. The items also directed city staff to apportion CARES Act funding specifically to music venues. Rebecca Reynolds of Music Venue Alliance Austin stressed pressing need for venues citywide.

"CARES funding for venues will help our business owners to make the decisions led by the safety of their workers, rather than fear of not being able to provide for their future livelihoods," added Reynolds.

Stubb's reopened last weekend with modified outdoor seating (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Bars Reopen, and a Few Venues Too

As bars and nightclubs began unlocking statewide last weekend, most major live music venues locally remained shuttered. Safety concerns and capacity restrictions of 25% hobble most clubs. Focusing on restaurant service, Red River mainstay Stubb's set up picnic tables in the outdoor amphitheatre with local acts on the mainstage.

South Austin dance hall and eatery the Broken Spoke is now open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Country acts Alvin Crow and Ben Rodgers played Friday. Owner James White says business is down without tourists and parties, but he's "just thrilled" to reopen.

"It'll get better," adds the 81-year-old. "People will miss getting out, making the rounds, meeting new people, and having good food and drinks."

On the topic of two-stepping, which Gov. Greg Abbott discourages, White adds, "There are so many couples that come to Broken Spoke – drive over together, live together – so why in the hell can't they dance together?"

Downtown's Parker Jazz Club reopened Friday and Saturday with performances by owner Kris Kimura's house band. To maintain six feet distance between tables, the club sold tickets to only 30 patrons – well below 25% of total capacity. Between each night's 90-minute shows, staff deep-cleaned the club.

"We did make some money, and that's the only reason we even opened," he reveals. "I've got a landlord that's going to evict me, but, the reality is, if we're only allowed 25 percent capacity, there's no way we're going to make it."

Plush (Photo by John Anderson)


Plush, underground DJ hub on Red River for 20 years, has permanently closed. On Saturday, general manager Ryan Cunningham posted: "The combination of ever-rising prices and new regulations has just been too much. Over the next few months we will be keeping our eyes open for a new location away from downtown Austin, with hopes of reopening at some point."

MusiCares, the Grammys' charitable arm, will oversee distribution of the $1.5 million Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund. The program will offer $1,000 grants to qualifying local musicians, with applications open June 8-12.

White Horse owner Denis O'Donnell has not yet reopened his Eastside honky-tonk (see "What Will Local Shows Look Like in the Future?" May 22) but was surprised to find Comal Street access barricaded under the city's new "Healthy Streets" initiative, which aims to ease trail crowds. He shared concern on Facebook that businesses weren't notified and received calls back from council members. He hopes for signs to replace the blockades, adding: "There can't be anything that jeopardizes a small business right now. It's a hurdle my customers have to get past in our hardest time of need."

Austin City Limits Music Festival and other mass gatherings like UT football are unlikely to happen this year, according Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. In a media briefing last week, he stated, "Looking through the end of December, we don't have any indication at this stage that we would be able to mitigate risk enough to be able to have large events, particularly ones that are over 2,500 [attendees]."

Sun Radio's charitable foundation offers $20,000 in grants to Central Texas musicians and national community radio stations to help cover electricity bills. In a press release, station founder Daryl O'Neal adds, "We're Solar powered. If we can provide a little sunshine to those who make music, and to those stations who are so brave to play it without help, we're going to." Apply or donate to the "Sun Radio Recharge" program online.

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COVID-19 2020, Kathie Tovo, John Riedie, Austin Creative Alliance, Red River Cultural District, Parker Jazz Club, Broken Spoke, Kris Kimura, James White, Plush, Sun Radio, White Horse, Musicares

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