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In 2011, finances painted a gray picture for the Austin arts scene

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Tthings

Staff Writer
Austin 360

If the economy continued to slow in 2011, the slowdown nevertheless caused an acceleration of shape-shifting changes to Austin's arts landscape.

Why the problems, especially after Austin had the biggest cultural building boom in its history, adding more than $100 million in new arts facilities?

Last summer we gathered and analyzed information from the city's largest arts organizations that revealed some striking statistics.

Simply put, the annual price tag for the arts in Austin skyrocketed in the past decade, far outpacing the city's growth.

Budgets at 11 major Austin arts organizations, when totaled, jumped 63 percent since 2000. But Austin's population and average household income didn't keep pace. The population increased 20 percent while the median household income actually dropped eight percent.

What that means is that arts leaders must raise — and Austin donors must give — more money each year than ever before just to keep the doors open and the lights on at all the new and more costly arts facilities and for all the arts organizations that now produce vastly more programming.

And yet Austin arts donors have suffered their fair share of disappointment.

Perhaps Austin's current reality was no more apparent than with the merger of the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary arts center, announced in November.

Fiscally, Austin just wasn't capable of supporting two civic art museums. AMOA ended up in late 2010 with more than $20 million in hand and no hoped-for downtown building. Arthouse ended up with an architecturally sleek new downtown building but not enough money to pay for it. With similar missions, audiences and donors, merging seemed the best option, and financially the most prudent decision.

Along the way to the merger though, AMOA spent more than $16 million over the years in its many attempts to build downtown.

Major difficulties at Austin Lyric Opera also came to light in 2011.

In May, ALO leaders announced that executive director Kevin Patterson had left, and the organization, which has its 25th anniversary this season, was at least $2 million in debt. Months later the opera put its Barton Springs Road headquarters on the market, explaining it needed to cash from the sale to keep the organization in existence. The building's sale last week for $5.45 million moves the opera toward solvency.

Austin donors anted up $4.5 million for the construction of the ALO building, which opened in 2000 and included a community music school. It's hard on the city's still-emerging philanthropic community to see its efforts quashed.

To be sure, there were signs of new growth for the arts in 2011.

In February, Zach Theatre broke ground on the 430-seat, $22 million Topfer Theater, the third venue of its growing complex on South Lamar Boulevard.

But the Topfer theater launches with a significant boost from both money and real estate that is not given by donors, but by the city.

Some 45 percent, or $10 million, of the Topfer's $22 million project cost comes from voter-approved city bond money. Also the Topfer — as does Zach's other two theaters — sits on city-owned property. And as it has for a long time, Zach Theatre receives an annual subsidy from the city to cover the cost of utilities.

By comparison, the Long Center for the Performing Arts, while also on city property, was built entirely with more than $80 million of private, donated monies and receives no break from the city on its utilities.

Zach leaders report that in total, some $18.3 million (including the $10 million of city bond money) is currently in hand.

Austin may be getting a new theater this year, but it's leveraged by municipal money and made possible by the use of city real estate.

The maturation of Austin's arts philanthropy still continues.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699