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Fine arts groups alter plans during SXSW

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

They're here for the music, the films and the latest in high-tech culture.

They're not really here for the fine arts.

Though the international crowds that descend on Austin every March for South by Southwest might be lured by the city's much-touted creative character, Austin's theater, visual arts and dance aren't the main attractions.

For some arts leaders, so be it.

"SXSW is part of what makes Austin, Austin. It's what gives the city its unique character," says Zach Theatre managing director Elisabeth Challener. "But it's almost impossible for us to get an audience. Everybody's attention is someplace else."

Though in years past the theater experimented with offering its own music-related shows, now Zach, which has a two-theater complex at Riverside Drive and South Lamar Boulevard, doesn't even try to compete. Its current productions close today and a new play — "The Laramie Project" — will open March 21, just a few days after SXSW is over.

"The footprint of SXSW has grown so large we have to take it into consideration when we're planning just as we would plan around another event in town or a regular holiday," says Challener . "It's a good time for us to be quietly preparing a new show."

Ditto at Ballet Austin.

Since moving into its downtown building on West Third Street across from the Austin Music Hall in 2007, Ballet Austin has had a front row seat to the SXSW madness.

Classes at the Ballet Austin Academy close. And company dancers are rehearsing, but not performing.

"It's spring break and it's not a time we would be expecting our audience anyway, even if we weren't right in the heart of the action," says Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin executive director.

Instead, the company leverages its AustinVentures Studio Theater and other available spaces for private SXSW-related functions.

Last year, MTV leased Ballet Austin's theater and other rooms to house production operations for the MTV Woodie Awards at the Austin Music Hall. This year, other SXSW-related groups have rented the Ballet Austin space for private functions.

Last year's festival was bigger than ever. SXSW 2011 pumped more than $167 million into Austin's economy, according to an industry report, a 47 percent increase over the $113 million generated by SXSW 2010.

And the same study, by Greyhill Advisors, revealed that SXSW-sanctioned events drew 286,000 people. Most were out-of-towners who booked 47,500 room nights at local hotels.

The silver lining of the crowded city, at least for the arts?

The City of Austin's cultural funding comes almost solely through the 9 percent hotel-motel occupancy tax, with cultural funding receiving about 1 percent of those occupancy tax dollars.

"It's an ecosystem, and we respect that," says Ballet Austin's Ruiz, about the relationship between Austin's municipal cultural funding and SXSW.

Plus, Ruiz added, SXSW just bolsters the buzz that Austin is a creative capital regardless if that creativity percolates around live music or the arts.

"When we travel around the country on our audition tours, everybody's heard of Austin and everyone wants to come here," says Ruiz. "And I think that's great."

The lure for nonprofit arts groups to get a little earned income out of SXSW hasn't always been met without controversy, though.

Last year, the then-called Arthouse had just opened its freshly renovated building on Congress Avenue and Seventh, an architectural stylish contemporary arts center that quickly became a fine arts destination.

But the organization faced controversy when it was revealed that its leaders had rented out an artist's installation during SXSW to Warner Music Group without seeking the artist's permission, a possible violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which grants artists the right to prevent modification to their work.

In the dustup, art insiders shuddered at the professional infraction, and several Arthouse board members, including prominent Texas artist Dario Robleto, resigned.

Arthouse has since merged with the Austin Museum of Art to become AMOA-Arthouse. But don't expect to see any exhibits at the institution's Congress Avenue facility, known as the Jones Center, during SXSW this year. Instead, the building will be devoid of any artwork, and both floors and the roof deck at the Jones Center will be rented out for the entire 10 days of SXSW for "#FEED," a privately sponsored event by Samsung Telecommunications America and billed as a Twitter-powered interactive showcase.

AMOA-Arthouse interim director Jack Nokes declined to say how much the organization will collect on rent during SXSW, but did report that income from all facility rentals this year — including the museum's 12-acre bucolic Laguna Gloria facility in West Austin — account for some $500,000 per year or one-seventh of the museum's current $3.5 million annual budget.

"Part of our strategy to be sustainable is to maximize our revenue," Nokes says.

"We've got three exhibits at Laguna Gloria that can serve our audience during SXSW or serve an audience that's looking for a (visual art) experience. With the way downtown gets so congested during (SXSW), it's hard for our core audience to even get to our downtown location."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699