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Guitar society teaches how to expand wisely

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Our front-page story Sunday on the current state of the Austin arts economy bears some good news and some startling news.

Austin's top arts organizations, when measured by operational budgets, have exploded in size, up more than 60 percent in the past decade. But that bigger wallet is challenging arts groups to think more sharply about their audiences.

More monies than ever before are needed to keep Austin's cultural climate going, and growing. And those monies can only come from an audience that's interested in what you have to offer.

Though it doesn't rank among the largest Austin arts organizations, the Austin Classical Guitar Society serves as a remarkable example of the growth of the city's cultural character.

A decade ago, the society was an all-volunteer organization with a budget of $38,399. Now it's set to finish its current fiscal year with a professional staff and a budget of $515,000 — a whopping 1,241 percent growth rate financially. In terms of budget, the Austin group is now the largest classical guitar society in the country. And it's a fiscally sound organization, its leaders report, running in the black.

Practically — and artistically — it means that in one decade, the classical guitar society and its energetic director, Matthew Hinsley, have tapped into something Austin audiences want.

A couple of weekends ago at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, the group presented two sold-out shows by the Bandini Chiacchiaretta Duo from Italy. So sold-out were the shows, in fact, that a hopeful concertgoer paced in front of the venue bearing a sign that read, "Forgot to plan ahead. Anybody have extra tickets?" (He managed to score tickets, we are told.)

"It's about figuring out how to meet audiences where they are," Hinsley explained over coffee recently.

In many respects it makes sense that the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" would have a hunger for classical guitar music. As an instrument, guitar is a natural bridge between the classical and pop music worlds, after all.

But it doesn't seem that Hinsley and company take the guitar's familiarity for granted.

This year, the society launched a casual concert series at the storied Cactus Cafe. Cover charge is just $5. A younger crowd regularly filled up the venue, and folks had to be turned away at the last concert in May. (The Cactus series will resume Aug. 11.) Another new series staged intimate concerts in historical Austin homes — shows that also sold out. This summer's string of concerts have showcased Latino music and/or musicians.

Chat with Hinsley for just a few moments, though, and he is more likely to steer the conversation towards the group's educational programs.

What began in 2001 with one school (McCallum) and 15 kids has since grown to serve 800 students in the past year.

For next year, Austin Independent School District has asked the society to double its efforts and head to 22 middle and high schools, potentially enlisting 2,000 students in classical guitar classes. Some 80 percent of the schools to be served are Title I schools — schools that receive special federal funding because of the number of low-income students they serve. Instruments, teacher training, class instruction, individual lessons for economically disadvantaged students and free tickets for the students come with the society's efforts.

Many arts groups in town have important educational components to their missions, all much-needed efforts that help develop arts audiences for the future.

Austin has seen two dramatic economic cycles in the past decade — first the high-tech tumble in 2001, then the recessionary downslide beginning in 2008. Those ups and downs have thrown all arts leaders many challenges, as today's front-page story points out.

It's heartening to hear the guitar, at least, has garnered new fans.

Rock on.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699