Guest article by Alicia Santiago
“Convening is what we can and should be doing,” Shea Little declared as he kicked off an interactive summit about turning Austin’s boom into opportunities for arts, culture and society on April 19, 2016.
Little is co-founder of Big Medium and East Austin Studio Tour, and Board Chair of Austin Creative Alliance, which hosted the event at KLRU Studios. Throughout the evening, approximately 200 community leaders and creatives heard from Austin artists and organizations about specific issues they are facing as a result of the economic boom and rapid population increase in the Texas capital.
Austin Creative Alliance Emphasizes Creative Vibe
A commentary by Shea Little and John Reidie, Chief Executive Officer of Austin Creative Alliance, reveals that “Austin’s creative sector contributes [over $4 billion]…to Central Texas’ prosperity and economy by providing a rich cultural life.” This cultural life and creative vibe are party of what contributed to the city’s rapid growth in the first place.
Austin Creative Alliance is determined to remind Austinites and transplants about the importance of the creative vibe and cultural sector in one of the fastest growing cities in the country. As Reidie said, “People come to cities to get an authentic feeling of that place.” Austin artists and organizations are making changes to strengthen the cultural sector and maintain Austin’s authenticity.
Inclusion in the Arts
Last week’s summit also wrestled with the importance of inclusion. Oftentimes, arts disciplines are separated from each other, creating silos such as visual arts, theater, music, etc. Breaking down these barriers creates an environment of inclusiveness and togetherness, which is essential to solve the problems Austin artists share.
In this case, the issue at hand is affordability. Affordability means and looks different to everyone. As Little put it, “no one size fits all.” Continual and ongoing conversations that include all artists across disciplines are necessary to tackle the issue of affordability and shape the future of the arts in Austin.
Affordability in the Creative Sector
For artists, affordability issues threaten their living situation, working conditions and where they display or perform their craft. Jenny Larson, Artistic Director of Salvage Vanguard Theater, says it’s bittersweet how the Austin arts scene is changing. Sweet because the city is a vibrant, inclusive and diverse hub. Bitter because affordability in Austin is plummeting from the rapid growth. The theater is feeling the pressure of affordability after losing their lease this summer on Manor Road. Larson illustrates the need for long-term solutions, saying we can’t keep “Band-Aiding” these problems.
— Salvage Vanguard (@salvagevanguard) April 14, 2016
Just a couple of blocks away, Imagine Art is working toward securing long-term affordability by creating an arts district called SmARTown at Austin State Supported Living Center. The area will provide affordable live and work spaces where artists lead the way to establish a community that solves the problem of segregation of people with disabilities in Texas.
Salvage Vanguard Theater and SmARTown exemplify the need for long-term solutions to the affordability crisis and accessibility to the arts. For its part, Austin Creative Alliance is determined to stay at the table for as long as it takes to come up with real solutions to these issues.
The On-Going Conversation
Representatives from Austin Chamber of Music Center and Austin Classical Guitar spoke about the lack of a mid-sized performance facility in Austin. These two organizations, along with Conspirare, are collaborating to create an accessible, financially sustainable mid-sized performance facility and arts education center. With such a space, Austin can maintain its cultural identity through intimate performances and exciting world-class fine arts programming.
Dr. Michelle Schuman, Artistic Director of Austin Chamber of Music Center, echoed the earlier sentiment for continual, on-going conversations in the arts sector. When a new building or space opens up, there is excitement upfront that often recedes after the grand opening. Dr. Schuman advocated that when entities open up, community involvement shouldn’t stop there. The spaces Austin is building now are for future generations, and they rely on continuous involvement and on-going conversations around the arts sector to be successful. This statement struck a chord with event attendees, as they applauded and cheered enthusiastically.
Austin locals can become weary of growth because of the top-down system in which city and private developers determine what is best for the community. Fusebox Festival and thinkEAST are reversing this model, building a 24-acre creative urban district that prioritizes affordability, health, education, open space and parkland, arts, and culture.
Managing Director of Fusebox Festival, Brad Carlin, said they thought it was profound that festivals come out of nothing, create great experiences and then disappear for a year. He posed the question: “What if there’s something left behind from a festival that has real, lasting impact?”
To define what that means for Austin, Fusebox Festival and thinkEAST have hosted over 300 community meetings. They went directly to community members and asked them what they envisioned for the space. Everything that ended up in the master plan for the district came from these community conversations.
— FuseboxFestival (@FuseboxFestival) April 18, 2016
In 2015, Fusebox Festival built a pop-up village modeling their ideas and took even more recommendations. At the Austin Creative Alliance event, Ron Berry (Fusebox Executive and Artistic Director) explained, “We are not experts by any means, but we’re good listeners.” Berry and Carlin epitomize the community-driven process that is happening throughout the art sector in Austin, displaying openness, enthusiasm and a willingness to listen.
What Are the Next Steps?
John Reidie said, “At some point we need to stop planning and start doing.” You can start by joining the Austin Creative Alliance to stay informed and engaged on current issues. Join the alliance to find out about events, share your thinking and collaborate with others on solutions. Austin Creative Alliance will inform you when a new proposition is coming up, the perfect time to reach out to your district council member.
Get involved! Share your time, talent, and treasure and invest in the arts. This could mean finding a project or arts organization that you volunteer with. Or it could simply mean seeing a play, live music or gallery exhibition. Every investment today contributes to a brighter and stronger future for the authentic creative vibe of Austin.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What is something you love about Austin that you don’t want the city to lose?
Alicia Santiago is a nonprofit professional for work and a record store clerk for fun. You can follow her on Twitter here.