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UT to close Cactus Cafe, end informal classes

Move to save about $120,000 a year comes amid plans for budget cuts.

Tony Plohetski
Davíd Garza, playing requests for an overflow crowd outside the Cactus Cafe before a sold-out show in 2004, was one of many artists who began their careers at the beloved venue.

In a move that has stunned Austin's music scene, University of Texas officials announced plans to shutter the popular Cactus Cafe, the landmark campus venue where Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and others spawned their careers.

UT officials also have decided to nix their decades-long program of informal classes, in which, for a nominal fee, thousands of area residents have learned a variety of skills and subjects, from golf to sewing to languages.

The Cactus Cafe and the classes will cease operations in August, officials said.

The announcement comes amid efforts to save cash and use money more effectively for students enrolled in regular UT classes, officials said Saturday.

"These programs have been going on, reasonably speaking, about 30 years, more or less," said Andy Smith, executive director of the University Unions, which runs the informal classes and the Texas Union, home of the Cactus Cafe. "There are people in the community (who have enjoyed both), and to those people, this will be like any other thing that stops happening in Austin. That's regretful."

Austin singer and songwriter Sara Hickman was upset Saturday night to hear that the Cactus Cafe will close.

"I don't know how anybody in their right mind would want to take away that treasure," she said. "It's a national monument. It's a part of Texas. And it's part of this world of sharing our gifts and our talents."

In a town known for music venues, the Cactus Cafe is often singled out because it's a true listening room where a hushed audience — it holds about 150 chairs — can hear singer-songwriters from Austin and around the world.

The cuts will save about $122,000 a year, Smith said. The programs had an operating cost of about $1.3 million, he said. UT officials said the Cactus Cafe and informal classes generally draw people who are not full-time students; about 10,000 people attended informal classes last year.

In recent years, both programs have required additional money from the university's budget, even though they were intended to be self-sufficient, said Juan Gonzalez, vice president of student affairs. "They haven't been for a number of years," he said.

Smith said, "If they would have been making a profit, we wouldn't have done away with them, because they would have been contributors for us."

Attempts to reach Griff Luneburg, the Cactus Cafe's manager, were unsuccessful.

UT officials said they will offer other positions to full-time staffers affected by the closures at their current salaries.

The decision was made Friday after a meeting of a board consisting mostly of students that oversees the Texas Union. Gonzalez said the decision "was painful."

"We examined it very closely, and while the students understand the loss, they also understand there are higher priorities, and to direct services to students, I think, is the higher calling," he said.

The move comes amid a plan by UT to cut 5 percent, or $29 million, from the state-funded portion of its two-year budget. This month, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus instructed state agencies, including higher education institutions, to submit budget reduction plans by Feb. 15.

The prospect of budget cutting has come at a difficult time for the university.

Its overall budget, including legislative appropriations, federal research grants, tuition, gifts and other items, rose 2.8 percent, to $2.1 billion, for the fiscal year that began Sept. 1. But after covering higher health insurance charges, increased student financial aid and other costs, UT had just $6.7 million more than the previous fiscal year for academic purposes.

In recent months, UT President William Powers Jr. has overseen an effort to free up millions of dollars to retain and recruit top faculty members. Some staff members have been dismissed, and more layoffs could be in the works.

The Texas Union has a budget of about $4.5 million, Smith said. That money is used to provide programs for students that include an annual film festival, concerts and events for diverse communities.

On Saturday night, word that the Cactus Cafe, which opened in 1979, will close tore through Austin's music community.

Other musicians who have performed there include Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, the Dixie Chicks and the legendary Townes Van Zandt, who appeared more than 100 times, Luneburg once said.

Country music singer and songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard said the announcement "is some of the most depressing news I've heard in a while. The Cactus really helped validate me and many more people as a songwriter."

"It's unthinkable," said Davíd Garza, whose career also started there. "I'm in shock. I can't imagine Austin without the Cactus."; 445-3605

Additional material from staff writers Brad Buchholz and Ralph K.M. Haurwitz.