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Theater group seeks city lease deal to stay in business

Thursday, February 9, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

A nonprofit theater group hopes to tap into the city of Austin’s recent focus on preserving creative spaces within the city and get a new home for experimental fine arts in the process.

Representatives of the Rude Mechanicals (or “Rude Mechs”) theater collective presented a request to the Music Commission on Monday, asking for that group’s help in lobbying the city for a short-term, below-market lease on idle city-owned property. The draft request explained that the group’s $4,000-per-month lease on its Off Center theater space in East Austin expires in May and rising rents are forcing it to look for a new home.

Alexandra Bassett, managing director for Rude Mechs, said spaces comparable to the current 10,000-square-foot facility will cost about $10,000 per month and are well beyond what Rude Mechs’ annual budget of $250,000 to $350,000 will allow.

That budget – which comes from a mix of cultural arts funding from the city; grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations; donors; and operational revenue – is spent on rent, production costs and compensation for artists with very little left over each year.

The group presented the same request to the city’s Arts Commission in January, but no action was taken.

At Monday’s meeting, music commissioners discussed adopting the language as submitted to forward on to City Council, but instead opted to add the issue as an agenda item to its March meeting and requested that the city’s Real Estate Office send a representative to the meeting to discuss possible options for Rude Mechs and other distressed nonprofits.

There appears to be no formal process for nonprofits that demonstrate substantial community value to engage the city for real estate aid. Bassett and Thomas Graves, an artistic director for the group, pointed to favorable land deals using city property for Skillpoint Alliance’s headquarters on Bolm Road and Airport Boulevard and the Yellow Bike Project’s Webberville Road location as examples they’d like to see replicated for their group.

The issue is also likely to receive plenty of discussion in late March when the Music and Arts commissions hold a joint meeting to discuss issues both groups can work together on.

Bassett and Graves said they’ve identified at least five city-owned properties that are either vacant industrial buildings or open land that could house another 10,000-square-foot facility but are open to any available options that will keep them operating.

If Rude Mechs is forced to scale back or go dark when its lease ends, it would be the second experimental theater company in a year forced out of existence by Austin’s rising land values. Last summer its east side neighbor, Salvage Vanguard Theater – another 10,000-square-foot production company – closed its doors after losing its lease.

“When the city loses these spaces and venues for emerging artists, then there are people who don’t have an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem. And if that goes on long enough, then all the art presented in the city will be coming in from outside,” Bassett said. “Our business model was OK until the rents started getting hiked, and any solution will require some creativity and sacrifice.”

Bassett said she and other Rude Mechs managers have started work with a theater construction consultant to look at the group’s options for different property scenarios and are in the early stages of determining what kind of capital campaign would be needed for construction or renovation of a new facility.

In 2016, the Off Center featured 121 independent productions by local artists in theater, dance and music. The property also provided studio space to local artists.

Fine-arts supporters in Austin have pointed to the loss of creative spaces as a symptom of the city’s explosive population growth.

Many have called for the city’s next land development code to include incentives and provisions that will entice developers to incorporate music venues, small theaters and other creative spaces into the ground-floor space of mixed-use developments. And, just yesterday, several Council members announced a plan to revamp the city’s economic incentive programs. That plan includes asking the city manager to explore options for “increased availability of affordable commercial space for local small businesses, including the creative arts sector.”

A previous version of this article said the Off Center hosted 121 programming days in 2016, when in fact they hosted 121 different independent theater, dance and music productions from local artists.

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