Artists and arts supporters packed the Off Center Tuesday night at a specially-called meeting of the city of Austin’s arts commission.
Well over 100 people filled the East Austin theater anxious to hear public discussion of the recently released Music and Creative Ecosystem Stabilization Recommendations.
The recommendations, developed by city staff and released last month, are the result of Mayor Steve Adler’s Music & Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, an array of resolutions to address affordability and other issues threatening Austin’s music and arts communities.
The lack of affordable space topped the issues among those who addressed the commission Tuesday night.
Madge Darlington, a co-producer of the theater ensemble the Rude Mechs, spoke movingly about how the group is being forced out of the Off Center next year facing a rent increase of 340%. The Rudes, as the group known, converted the warehouse off East Seventh Street in 1999, one of the earlier indie arts venues in East Austin.
Darlington pointed to places on the Off Center stage where memorable moments had happened for the troupe.
“We can’t pay market rent in Austin,” she said. “We need below market rent in order for most theater companies to even afford a space.”
Commissioner Matt Stillwell of District 6 introduced a recommendation that the commission send to council a proposal for a $350,000 emergency venue assistance program to be established immediately.
“None of the omnibus recommendations we’re prioritizing here have dollar figures attached to them and we need something now,” said Stillwell.
Stillwell said he suggested $350,000 because it was “one one-hundredth of one percent of the proposed $3.5 billion city budget.”
Difficulty with the city’s often cumbersome permitting and code issues were the concern of some.
Josh Green of the Pump Project complex of studios and gallery spaces in East Austin talked about the struggles his organization has had recently with satisfying building code requirements as they remodel.
“As a non-profit it’s difficult if not impossible for us to get a loan,” he said. “And without a loan we can’t make improvements to our building.”
Discussion from the public and by commissioners also focused on finding ways to make city-owned cultural properties that already have stages and gallery space — such as the Dougherty Arts Center, the Mexican American Cultural Center and the Carver Museum — more available and affordable to arts groups.
To rent the 134-seat Vance Theatre at the Carver Museum, for example, an arts group is responsible for paying for the city staff needed to keep the building open past 6 p.m., the museum’s current closing time.
“The city has to make its own cultural spaces more available,” said commission chair Lulu Flores.
Independent theater director Derek Kolluri received the evening’s most robust response with people applauding and cheering his comments regarding Zach Theater.
“I honestly don’t know where I’m going to be able to produce my next play. But Zach is on city-owned property and is being protected for the benefit of one brand,” said Kolluri. “The most money a single arts organization has gotten from the city is all to promote one brand.”
Much of Zach Theatre’s complex is on city-owned parkland and its $22 million Topfer Theatre, built in 2012, was funded in part by $10.8 million from two voter-approved municipal bond packages. Only Zach-produced shows are presented on the theater’s three stages.
The commission agreed to draft a resolution to city council that prioritized several of the 10 recommendations proposed in the staff report including affordable space, improving regulatory processes for arts and music enterprises and refining land development code to facilitate development of affordable live/work space for the creative sector.
The commission noted that many of its priority issues are the same with those identified by the music community.
“The arts community and music community face many of the same problems,” said commission vice chair Michelle Polgar.
The music commission has already held a series of meetings to review the report and solicit music community feedback, much of which has focused on issues such as event permitting and land use code.