Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Cactus Cafe to stay open

Music venue to be run by radio station, Texas Union; plan to address financial losses yet to be developed

Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
rhaurwitz@statesman.com

The backpedaling is complete. Nearly four months after announcing that the Cactus Cafe would close, University of Texas administrators said Wednesday that the venerable music venue and bar would remain open, with the university's FM radio station and student union teaming up to run it.

As for the $66,000 in annual losses that prompted the plan to close the Cactus Cafe? The bottom line no longer seems to be the bottom line. A detailed business plan has yet to be assembled.

"We have a long-term commitment to making this work," said Stewart Vanderwilt , director and general manager of KUT-FM, a unit of UT's College of Communication. "I'm actually not that concerned about the bottom line of it right now, because we have so much to bring to the table."

Juan González, UT's vice president for student affairs, said he was confident KUT would develop a self-sustaining business model that would eliminate the need for a subsidy from students' tuition.

"With KUT's marketing and fundraising ability, the Cactus Cafe will have a stronger financial foundation," González said in an e-mail to the UT community. "KUT's live music experience and relationships with local artists and volunteers will enhance the already strong appeal of the venue. More importantly, KUT already works with students to produce live music. This arrangement will be a great way to increase student involvement and learning opportunities."

Under the partnership, to take effect around Sept. 1, KUT will hire a full-time manager to oversee the music side of the venue, and Texas Union will run daytime operations and the bar. The bar is part of the cafe's culture, González said, but KUT officials were not interested in running it. Cactus employees are being offered positions elsewhere in the union operation, he said.

The KUT-Texas Union model emerged as the most likely of two options for the cafe nearly a month ago. Some student organizations wanted the Cactus to continue operating under the Texas Union management, as it has for 31 years . But leaders of the Texas Union's advisory board and of Student Government favored KUT's involvement, and that carried considerable weight, González said.

González acknowledged that the university had come a long way from its announcement in January that the cafe would close. Within a day of that announcement, musicians, their fans and other supporters were howling in protest.

UT soon switched to a mode where the operative question was not whether to save the Cactus Cafe but how. González predicted Wednesday that the involvement of KUT would extend the Cactus Cafe experience, characterized by singer-songwriter fare in an intimate setting, to broader audiences through broadcast programs and online features.

The university's decision disappointed the Friends of the Cactus Cafe and the Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, which had jointly offered a 25-page business plan built largely on the current operating model. The plan said fundraising, an annual benefit concert and improved marketing could yield an annual profit of more than $38,000.

The Friends of the Cactus Cafe subsequently said it received, in one week, more than $32,000 in pledges to support the cafe in the coming year and more than $98,000 in commitments for the next five years. Vanderwilt said he hopes to work with the group.

Hayley Gillespie , a leader of the Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, said she is pleased on the one hand that the Cactus Cafe isn't shutting down.

"I'm not convinced yet that this plan saves the essence of the Cactus Cafe," she said. "Yeah, the doors aren't going to be closed. Whether we can still call it the Cactus Cafe is not clear. There's simply no business plan to comment on."

Cash Edwards, a music publicist and former booking agent, said she is disappointed the cafe could lose the talents of longtime employees, such as its manager, Griff Luneburg , who she said has a special knack for spotting raw talent. She lined up more than 70 musicians who have performed at the cafe to sign a petition supporting the current model and management.

"Hopefully KUT will realize they can't do it without" Luneburg, Edwards said. "I think everything will be fine in the long run, but I also really worry that Austin is losing its ability to be an incubator of great music."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604