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Students, fans, UT administrators debate fate of Cactus Cafe

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz


When the University of Texas announced late last month that it would close the Cactus Cafe, a storied music venue in the student union, musicians and their fans began a campaign to save it.

But what, exactly, would constitute saving the cafe? And what constitutes closing it?

Those questions have emerged in recent days as student leaders, university administrators and leaders of a group called Save the Cactus Cafe debate the future of the venue.

Liam O'Rourke , president of UT's Student Government, said Monday that he and other student leaders want to retain the cafe's name and some of its traditional offerings, which are heavy on singer-songwriter fare. A student committee would manage the space under a proposal that student leaders plan to submit to UT officials later this month.

"I think the initial press release was very misleading," O'Rourke said, referring to the university's use of the word "close" to describe the fate of the cafe in its Jan. 29 announcement. "We're changing the Cactus Cafe's management. We're opening it up for a more diverse set of acts that are more relevant to students. But that doesn't exclude acts that perform there today."

UT administrators also seemed to distance themselves from the notion that the cafe would close.

"The cafe will continue to exist. But it's going to be different, because it'll have student oversight," said Juan Gonz?lez , vice president for student affairs. "There's an end to the prior chapter of how it existed and the beginning of a new chapter more defined by current students and students' wishes."

Reid Nelson , a lawyer in Austin and a leader of Save the Cactus Cafe, had this reaction: "What constitutes keeping the Cactus Cafe open is an issue here. What we want is continuity of programming and the ability to add onto that.

"If keeping the Cactus Cafe open and turning it into a hip-hop room is what they're talking about, that's not keeping the Cactus open," Nelson said, adding that he considers hip-hop music a perfectly acceptable genre.

Dale Rempert , treasurer of the Austin Friends of Traditional Music, said the music offerings at the Cactus are in large part the result of the contacts and experience of its longtime manager, Griff Luneberg . To think that his skills could be replaced by students running the venue part time "is ludicrous — it won't be the Cactus," Rempert said.

A plan put together by Save the Cactus Cafe calls for broadening the current operating model by giving students a wider role in managing the cafe and performing in it. The group also wants to shore up the finances of the cafe, which UT officials say loses $66,000 a year.

There is currently no mechanism for the cafe to accept donations, said Andy Smith, executive director of university unions. But Gonz?lez said he didn't see any reason why an arrangement couldn't be made for donations that would create an endowment to underwrite musical offerings of the type favored by Save the Cactus Cafe.

As for the plan to phase out the Cactus Cafe in its current form in August, Gonz?lez said he had approved that and would be surprised if it didn't go forward.

"Students are well down the road in preparing future plans" for managing and using the space for musical and other entertainment, he said. Talks with the Ex-Students' Association to house the cafe at its alumni center on campus haven't gone very far, Gonz?lez said.

"The students are expressing a desire to work with the community," he said. "I believe if they work together, the product will be enhanced."; 445-3604