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Alliance strives to get arts groups talking, working together

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Talking is the first step, Marcy Hoen believes.

Hoen is in the business of getting arts groups to talk — to one another, to their audiences, to funders, to the greater community.

To encourage that talk, Hoen, who is interim director of the Austin Creative Alliance, initiated a series of public discussions in June called "Crisis and Opportunity." Two of the open forums have been held so far. The series will continue next month.

After a tumultuous time of leadership changes at the Austin Museum of Art, the Blanton Museum of Art and the Austin Lyric Opera, along with revelations of debt and financial difficulty, Hoen thought a little direct communication within the Austin arts community was in order.

"I got frustrated with organizations not proactively talking about what was going on," she said. "I understand that it's hard (for an arts group) to communicate its vulnerabilities, but some mistakes are just not being talked about at all. Transparency is a must if you want people to support you."

Among other episodes, Hoen was irked that board and staff leaders at Arthouse remained silent and failed to address the broader issues that emerged after news broke that the Congress Avenue contemporary art venue had rented out an artist's installation during the South by Southwest Music Festival to Warner Music Group without seeking the artist's permission. Arthouse's action potentially violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which grants artists the right to prevent alteration of their work. Arthouse leaders said they apologized to London-based artist Graham Hudson, within whose installation Warner Music set up merchandise sales tables.

But many in the arts community began to question Arthouse's artistic integrity and wondered whether its leadership and board had the sophistication to manage the greater scrutiny the organization has received since it opened its newly remodeled facility at Seventh Street and Congress Avenue last fall.

Hoen hoped that representatives of Arthouse and other organizations would use the first "Crisis and Opportunity" forum in June to speak more directly about their recent news, but that wasn't the case, even though some board members attended.

Instead, the arts groups that attended focused on strategies for survival in the current tough economy.

Helping artists strategize is what the Austin Creative Alliance does.

The alliance grew out of the Austin Circle of Theaters, a service and advocacy organization for the performing arts community that started in 1974. In 2009, after the city-originated Create Austin Cultural community plan identified the need for a service group to work on behalf of the entire arts community, leaders at Austin Circle of Theaters stepped forward. The organization re-branded itself and expanded its reach.

Now, it serves almost 500 arts groups and individual artists, offering access to health and liability insurance, professional and organizational development opportunities, technical assistance, ticketing services and joint marketing efforts. Its annual budget is $600,000.

Hoen, who served on the board of the organization, took the helm as interim executive director in April when Latifah Taormina retired after a decade at the post.

Among the questions raised at the June meeting was whether there's such a thing as a natural life cycle for arts nonprofits. Is there too much duplication of effort among Austin's many cultural nonprofits? And is the nonprofit model even still the best at serving artistic culture?

Hoen suggests that perhaps the nonprofit model is not always optimum and that arts groups need to think more competitively.

"We need to be in the business of building artistic entrepreneurs," she said of the alliance's efforts.

"Change doesn't mean just doing more of what you did before," she said. "It's about being aware of the reality right now and understanding how you can adapt and what you do to fit that new reality."

"I know it's rough for arts groups right now, but this is the time to be even more creative and innovative with how they reach out to people."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699