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Building boom marks the 2000s art scene, but future may be in artists themselves

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Long Center for the Performing Arts: The facility gave a boost to Ballet Austin, which set attendance records with its first-ever 'Nutcracker' in the center last season. The Austin Symphony Orchestra has seen an 11 percent jump in its annual subscriptions since taking residency.

In the past decade, Austin made the leap from overgrown college town bursting with creativity and ambition to medium-sized metropolis with destination cultural institutions.

And despite starting and ending with economic downturns, the millennium's first decade is likely to be viewed as culturally epic, an era unlikely to be repeated for a generation.

As cities are measured by their buildings, Austin saw the arts contribute history-making landmarks to the civic landscape.

The aughts started with an economic bust when the high-tech market tumbled in 2000. And now, the decade is ending with an even more severe economic downtown, one that has not stopped ricocheting.

But in between, we built buildings. The $77 million Long Center for the Performing Arts now cuts a distinctive urban profile as it anchors the south shore of Lady Bird Lake. On the northern edge of downtown, the University of Texas' $83.5 million Blanton Museum of Art functions as a nexus, drawing national and international attention to Austin and in turn offering Central Texas national- and international-level exhibits and events.

And elsewhere in the city center, an important trio of medium-sized cultural facilities — the $16 million Mexican American Cultural Center, the $11.5 million Carver Museum & Cultural Center and Ballet Austin's $10.3 million Butler Dance Education Center — added major new addresses to Austin's arts map.

Urbanists and architects love to recall Winston Churchill's quote: "We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us."

Yet non-buildings were just as shape-shifting for the Austin arts landscape. A groundswell of spirited, independent yet focused activity upped the level of aesthetic sophistication and grabbed national and international attention to Austin's arts scene. Groups sent their exhibits and shows around the world. And Austin was the site of important premieres.

By 2008, a report commissioned by the city found that Austin's creative sector generated more than $2.2 billion in annual economic activity, $48 million in local tax revenue and more than $1 billion in economic impact from arts-related tourism.

Arts attendance steady

We were not alone. Countless cities around the globe went on a cultural building spree.

Toward the end of the 20th century, cultural observers coined the term "the Bilbao effect," after the sleepy, industrial city in northern Spain was catapulted to international arts destination status when the New York-based Guggenheim Museum opened a stunning art museum by architect Frank Gehry. Build a big flashy arts building and the cultural travelers — and most importantly, their money — will come, went the reasoning. If it could happen in Bilbao, it could happen anywhere.

Thus the decade popped with headlines of new arts buildings, each seemingly more adventurous in its architectural design than the previous.

But just as the decade started with the advent of "the Bilbao effect," so has a redefinition of that term recently emerged just in time for the decade's end. Those big new buildings? They all require big new budgets — and audiences — not in step with the current weakened economy.

And what about those crowds? Just 10 days ago, the National Endowment of the Arts released a study showing that after decades of growth, the number of adults in the United States that attend arts activities has begun to decline, down from 39 percent in 2002 to less than 35 percent in 2008.

Though dips have occurred at some individual events and performances, Austin has not quite yet seen the across-the-board drop in arts attendance reflected in the national numbers.

The opening of the Long Center less than two years ago, for example, actually resulted in news-making numbers: Ballet Austin set a record — 38,000 audience members — with its first ever "Nutcracker" in the center last season, and the Austin Symphony Orchestra saw an 11 percent jump in its annual subscriptions since taking residency there. Likewise, the Blanton's super-popular "Birth of the Cool" exhibit last spring attracted 4,000 visitors per week, twice the museum's average. And after an 18-month $14.5 million renovation, UT's Bass Concert Hall re-opened in January with an 180 percent increase in membership subscriptions.

Still, there are signs of possible trouble. Though a study found that the Long Center generates $20 million in direct local economic activity in its first fiscal year, the organization chopped its budget by 20 percent from $5 million to $4 million to meet the realities of recessionary fundraising.

As the next decade unfolds, other arts groups will have to grapple with supporting the expansion they saw in the 2000s.

Lagging philanthropy

If buildings define us, then by extension of Churchill's logic, so their absence shapes us, too.

Framing Austin's first decade of the new millennium? The two-time failure of the Austin Museum of Art to build its own downtown facility. Twice, the organization made ambitious plans to build something more than the historic West Austin estate that is its original home. Twice the lack of fundraising, fuzzy leadership and schemes ill-timed with the economy scuttled the museum's ambition.

Civic leaders for decades dreamed of both a city art museum and a performing arts center independent of UT. Yet Austin only managed to realize one: the Long Center for the Performing Arts. UT built, and funded, the Blanton, which is regarded as the city's flagship art museum.

And despite all of the bustle in the past 10 years, Austin started and ended the decade still culturally defined by and dependent on a major university.

Indeed Austin's single largest donation to the arts — $55 million from Sarah and Ernest Butler — went to UT for its School of Music and not to a civic arts institution. And two of the decade's' new facilities — the Carver Museum & Cultural Center and the Mexican American Cultural Center — are city-owned institutions whose new buildings were paid for by city bond money, not private donations.

Austin's median age measured at 29.6 years in 2005. We're a young, fast-growing, newly affluent city. But that means that Austin's youthful demographic, recently acquired wealth and relatively inexperienced philanthropic culture couldn't produce both a museum and a performing arts center.

The statistics told us as much mid-decade: A 2006 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington research group, found Austin the No. 2 city in the country when it comes to hosting nonprofit arts events and festivals. But the same study ranked Austin No. 51 of metropolitan areas with populations of a million or more when it came to arts philanthropy.

The take-away? Austin loves the arts, it just doesn't always like paying for them. And though in the 2000s the city morphed beyond being simply a college town, Austin still depends on UT to support and offer much of what defines its cultural profile.

Arts to the east

Though cultural landmarks sprouted up in Austin, not all achievements in the arts were related to the construction of major buildings.

Austin's creatives got very, very creative.

Artists staked out their own neighborhood and ventured into East Austin. First, theater groups transformed warehouses into venues. Then visual artists transformed storefronts into galleries. Started by artists mostly based in East Austin, the Texas Biennial now takes its exhibit statewide and also brought five public art projects to Austin that graced parks and trails and plazas for the better part of this year. Thousands now flock to the artist-run annual East Austin Studio Tour. And when national scene-spotters write about Austin, they inevitably describe East Austin as an Austin-styled Soho,

Ballet Austin, Tapestry Dance Company and indie theater collective the Rude Mechanicals were among those who took their shows on the road, to such prestigious places as the Kennedy Center, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and New York's Joyce Theatre. And Austin Lyric Opera grabbed national headlines when it was the only company in America to take on the premiere of Philip Glass' "Waiting for the Barbarians," the politically charged work by the nation's most famous living composer.

DIY momentum

Buildings might be what the aughts in Austin will be immediately remembered for. But while the challenge for Austin in the next decade will be to sustain the cultural edifices it built, what might propel the arts is the kind of independent, worldly, nimble creative energy that's been percolating just underneath this decade's building boom .

What's been snagging international buzz and press lately? Not our arts buildings, but our artists.

Most noticeably of late has been the visual arts collective Okay Mountain, one of the first of the East Austin pioneers. The collective's gallery, now almost 4 years old, regularly features not just the work of its 11 members but also the work of emerging artists from around the globe — the kind of smart, connected, world artists who wrestle with the aesthetic cutting-edge.

Earlier this month, Okay Mountain unveiled its "Corner Store" installation at PULSE Miami, part of the ultra-tony Miami arts event where every December much of the world art market descends. A commission from Austin's Arthouse, Okay Mountain's project netted two PULSE prizes and, more importantly, spawned worldwide attention on Austin as being in the forefront of adventurous art.

The same energy has also led to event-driven, buzz-making events such as the Fusebox Festival, which each spring draws edgy, international performing arts to Austin. And Arthouse has forsaken the grandiose building dreams of "the Bilbao effect" for a smart, modestly budgeted re-do of its historic downtown building — a signal, perhaps, of the way an arts institution in the new millennium should expand.

Artist-run initiatives like those sprouting up in East Austin will continue to lead the way by shirking large overhead for boundary-busting aesthetic adventure — and will continue to attract audiences and international attention.

In the future absence of monument-building, Austin is poised to glean its cultural energy and growth from the artists themselves.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

Austin arts in the aughts: a timeline of landmarks

February 2004. After spending more than $13 million, the Austin Museum of Art cancels plans for a 140,000-square-foot downtown building by Richard Gluckman.

February 2005. The city-owned and operated 36,000-square-foot, $11.5 million George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center open its new building in East Austin.

April 2006. The Blanton Museum of Art opens its new Michener Gallery Building, the primary of its two-building $83.5 million complex. During the opening week, more than 20,000 people attend various events with thousands lining up to wait hours through the night to get into a 24-hour celebration.

September 2007. Ballet Austin moves into its $10.3 million 34,000-square-foot Butler Dance Education Center, a multipurpose facility with rehearsal and classroom studios and a 287-seat theater.

September 2007. The $16 million city-owned and operated Mexican American Cultural Center, designed by renowned architect Teodoro González de León, opens on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake.

March 2008. The $77 million two-venue Long Center for the Performing Arts opens. Paid for entirely by private funds, the Long Center occupies city-owned property on the site of the former Palmer Auditorium.

March 2008. Austin philanthropists Ernest and Sarah Butler donate $55 million to the University of Texas' School of Music, which is named in their honor. It's the second-largest single gift to UT and the largest gift to the arts in Austin.

November 2008. The Blanton opens its Smith building with offices, a cafe and an auditorium completing its plans. With 180,000 square feet, the Blanton becomes the largest university art museum in the nation.

December 2008. Austin Museum of Art cancels its plans for a $23 million 40,000-square-foot building, the second time in the decade the museum scrubs plans to build downtown.

January 2009. After 18 months and a $14.5 million remodel, UT's Bass Concert Hall - once Austin's major arts venue - re-opens.

October 2009. Arthouse, the contemporary arts center, begins construction on a $6.6 million renovation of its historic Congress Avevue home by architects Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis.