Planting the Seeds of the New Cactus

KUT reaches out for ideas on the new Cactus Cafe

KUT Associate General Manager Hawk Mendenhall says he's happy with community discussions about the future of the Cactus Cafe.
KUT Associate General Manager Hawk Mendenhall says he's happy with community discussions about the future of the Cactus Cafe. (Photo by John Anderson)

This week sees the midpoint in KUT Cactus Cafe Conversations, the latest round of public consultation about the future of the legendary University of Texas music venue and bar. Local author Spike Gillespie, one of the guests invited to take part in the discussions, said: "A change is taking place, a decision has been made, KUT is going to be running the Cactus, and that's a done deal. So I think what they're looking for is ideas to make that transition work."

The original plan was for five meetings, from July 8 to Aug. 26, each with representatives from different groups being consulted on a different topic. The invitation-only gatherings draw from staff, students, KUT personnel, musicians, and interested parties whom KUT Associate General Manager Hawk Men­den­hall described as "self-selecting" because of their advocacy. Mendenhall said he was "really delighted" with the meetings so far, and he's considering adding a sixth just for musicians. However, with so much feedback from interested parties, he added, "the challenge is not a lack of ideas. The challenge is what makes sense first."

Fellow attendee and Friends of the Cac­tus Cafe co-founder Wiley Koepp described the process as "KUT dipping their toes into the water of public sentiment." While e-mails exchanged between Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly and station General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt indicate that they were discussing the venue's future in late February, Koepp noted, "KUT has never really had a sounding board for what the community thinks."

Gillespie attended the July 15 meeting (called Artist and Audience Experience), and while she described the room as "heavy on middle-aged, middle-weight, middle-class white people," she also praised KUT for the breadth of expertise present. "There were musicians, there were representatives from Friends of the Cactus Cafe, a marketing firm [the Ampersand Agency] that might be doing some branding for them," as well as several members of KUT staff and management. As for the activist presence, she said, "I felt that [KUT staff] were trying to draw in some people who were stressed out about the change.

Some concern remains that one major group is being left out. Only five members of the student body have attended meetings, and only one member of the Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, Graduate Student Assem­bly representative Sam Scarpino, received an invite. Student Friends co-founder Hayley Gillespie said she was concerned about this exclusion since "graduate students are the student group that most frequent the Cactus Cafe." While Mendenhall said that he's been talking to students outside of the conversations, Spike Gillespie said one point of agreement in the meetings is that "there needs to be more student involvement."

The other big area of concern is the day-to-day operations of the Cactus, a topic invitees expect to be covered in greater depth in the next three meetings. Some core elements of the new business model have been confirmed, such as accepting credit cards for the first time, but there are still major issues on the division of responsibility, risk, and revenue between KUT and University Unions (which encompasses the Texas Union and Student Events Center), as well as employment (for more on the hiring of a new manager, see "Off the Record," Music). As it stands, Mendenhall said, "They'll run the bar, we'll run the music venue, and we're both working really hard to make sure that, anything that pops up, we can handle." Both sides are currently working with UT's lawyers, and, Men­den­hall said, "The idea is to have this all wrapped up by the first week in August."

Part of the logic for moving partial management of the Cactus to KUT is its fundraising experience. Yet the Friends of the Cactus Cafe is currently sitting on $20,000 in donations, plus another $100,000 in pledges over the next five years, all given to keep the Cactus open. Koepp said the group would not hand over any cash until it had assurances from KUT that the funds would be dedicated to the cafe instead of being folded into KUT's general funds; however, that wasn't the only prerequisite. "Everyone who gave money gave it to save a quality listening room," said Koepp. "So I don't think that can be determined by October 1." Instead, he plans to get feedback on the room from attendees when the cafe reopens in mid-August before making a final decision about what to do with the cash toward the end of the year.

For Spike Gillespie, that commitment to retaining the nature of the room must allow the cafe to evolve and expand student involvement. "The room can be many things," she said, "and there are seven days in a week and at least 28 days in a month." By taking advantage of this consultation exercise, she said, KUT can reinvigorate the Cactus Cafe's reputation for nurturing young talent. "I've done readings there, and to be on that stage is really great," she said. "So why would we not want the younger set to take advantage of that?

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Cactus Cafe, KUT, Spike Gillespie, Friends of the Cactus Cafe, University Unions

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