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Parks department mired in drama over cultural center access program

Friday, January 12, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board voted Wednesday night to ask for the indefinite suspension of a new program that would keep the city’s various cultural arts centers open in the late-night hours.

The move came after three performance groups raised their concerns about the Artists Access Program and its associated contract that would replace their existing agreements with the city.

Luis Gutiérrez, executive director of Proyecto Teatro, told the Austin Monitor that his group signed its original three-year contract in 2016 but was told on Dec. 22 that it would expire in the new year. After the Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the centers, granted an extension for signing the new agreements, Gutiérrez is facing a Jan. 19 deadline.

“We’re at this crisis where we have eight days to sign to this contract that has not been vetted by city legal, and if we don’t sign, we lose access to the center,” Gutiérrez claimed.

Laura Esparza with PARD explained that the new program was originally conceived as part of the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution that City Council passed in June 2016. Staff had been developing the program since then and began gearing up for the formal launch after Council approved the $240,000 price tag at its Dec. 14, 2017, meeting. That money is coming from Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues.

The program would extend the operating hours of the Asian American Resource Center; the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center; the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center; and the Dougherty Arts Center to 11 p.m. on weekdays.

Artists who successfully apply to the program would have access to the centers to conduct rehearsals, classes and performances.

Esparza said that groups such as Proyecto Teatro that have existing residencies at any of the centers would be grandfathered into the new access program. However, even though those groups would not have to reapply, they still have to sign new contracts, something that Gutiérrez characterized as a breach of the current covenant.

He also criticized the new program’s site-sharing component that would allow program participants access to each of the four centers. That could mean, in theory, an Asian-American ballet troupe might rehearse at the AARC but perform at the Carver center’s theater.

“We feel that these centers are going to be having all of these different organizations that don’t represent their communities,” Gutiérrez said.

Though she conceded that situation may seem “daunting,” Esparza downplayed his concerns.

“From our perspective, this is a matter of logistics,” she said, explaining that it gives PARD staff scheduling flexibility and also allows different groups access to a broader range of facilities.

Nonetheless, Gutiérrez, along with representatives from other resident groups Teatro Vivo and the Aztlan Dance Company, aired the above concerns and more before the MACC Advisory Board on Wednesday night and convinced the body to ask the city manager for the program’s indefinite suspension.

On Thursday, board Chair Ricardo Hernandez acknowledged there were “legitimate concerns” but said a formal letter had not yet been written. He told the Monitor that every member present supported the recommendation.

Staff from PARD, the Economic Development Department and the Cultural Arts Division will meet on Friday to discuss the program and the concerns elevated by the MACC board.

Photo by SteveFlickr: MACC sunset pano, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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