Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paperclips, Public Art, and the Pacific Northwest

Wow--leave town for a week and a giant landmark arrives! After arriving back from the Americans for the Arts convention in Seattle, I was delighted to discover Chris Weed's newest piece of large-scale public art in front of our office. Friday night at the opening reception for Art on the Streets Chris won first prize! Congratulations to him. We're thrilled to have such an eye-catching and playful piece in front of our office and doubly thrilled that it's by a local artist. Go, Chris. It's been a ball to watch the passersby gawk and the children climb all over the work. The paper clips have also resulted in a dramatic increase in traffic into our office (see the little door - that's COPPeR- come visit us!), so I have been woefully neglectful in writing in this little blog. Hi, readers, nice to see you.

So, Seattle. This was my second year attending the Americans for the Arts annual convention, and I was pretty excited about its location (the convention is in a different city each year; last year was Philadelphia, next year will be Baltimore) because my mother and one of my best friends live there. I was also excited because this convention provides such great opportunities to connect to my colleagues at local arts agencies around the country in a truly meaningful way. This year the Pikes Peak region had four representatives--in addition to me, the fabulous Susan Edmondson of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation and COPPeR board member was there, along with my dear friend (and PeakRadar's Kevin Johnson's fiancee) Amber Cote, executive director of FutureSelf, and Wendy Mike, former executive director and founder of FutureSelf and creativity champ. It was great to have such strong representation from our community-- and I think it's a real sign that our arts community is growing up.

I arrived in Seattle and my mom picked up from the airport. We decided to have a late dinner before she took me to the hotel (thanks to Amber for letting me crash in her room. I would have stayed at mom's but she lives in West Seattle and commuting would have taken away valuable networking time). I have a thing for grocery stores, especially Asian grocery stores, so we went to Uwajimaya.

After yummy sushi and a bahn mi, Mom dropped me at the hotel and headed home. Sidenote: my mother is a working artist and she lives in the coolest place ever -- the remodeled and repurposed Cooper School, which has been converted into an arts center complete with affordable housing for artists, part of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. More about that in a later entry.

The conference kicked off with a lively plenary by Bill Ivey, in which we got a behinds-the-scene glimpse at what life in DC was like during the presidential transition. Bill Ivey was chair of the National Endowment for the Arts during President Clinton's administration, and he was also part of the transition team and is the author of Arts, Inc. . One of the most important pieces of advocacy Americans for the Arts completed last year was lobbying to have every single presidential candidate form an official arts policy. I remember hearing about this at last year's conference--it ended up taking on a much bigger scope when Obama was elected, since his was among the strongest arts policies. Here's an interview with Mr. Ivey at the conference in Seattle, courtesy of ArtsJournal.

More coming soon. Just wanted to give you a teaser!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Americans for the Arts - Seattle 2009

I'm tying up loose ends here before I head off to Seattle tomorrow for the annual Americans for the Arts convention. I attended the convention for the first time last year (in Philadelphia) and found it incredibly inspiring. I will post my takeaways and big ideas here when I return. In the meantime, here is a blurb from the incredibly moving 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks lecture on American Arts and Public Policy delivered by Wynton Marsalis at the Kennedy Center in March. If you have a few minutes, please watch this video at the Americans for the Arts website.
This is entitled “The Ballad of American Arts.” Before we sang, we spoke. Before we danced, we walked. Before we wrote, we told stories. Before we told stories, we lived. Those songs, dances, writings allow us to speak to one another across generations.
They gave us an understanding of our commonality long before that DNA told us we are all part of one glorious procession. At any point on the timeline of human history, there are tales to be told of love and loss; glory and shame; profundity and even profound stupidity; tales that deserve retelling, embellishing, and if need be, inventing from whole cloth. This is our story. This is our song. If well sung, it tells us who we are and where we belong.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Austin Trip: Part IV

After our meeting with the San Antonio Chamber, our group took a brief jaunt over to the Alamo (the building was smaller than I expected; the grounds much more magnificent than I could have dreamed). Then Dave Csintyan from the Colorado Springs Chamber took me and Angela Joslyn from Senator Michael Bennet's office in Colorado Springson a tour through the Riverwalk. It was about 90 degrees and quite humid, but down on the riverwalk it was cool. We wandered past the many restaurants, mariachi bands, and hotels. It is a vital and bustling tourist destination, and Dave, a former resident of San Antonio for many years, assured me that the locals spend time there as well. I would like very much to go back and spend some more time there, specifically to see Fiesta Noche del rio, the longest running outdoor performance series in the country, at the Arneson outdoor amphitheater.

We headed back to Austin, and I collected my bags from the AT&T hotel up by UT-Austin and headed downtown to the Radisson (My contact at the Cultural Arts division, Vincent, kindly arranged a very reasonable rate for my last night in town). I checked in and then headed toward the 2nd street district, to Cru wine bar to meet my cousin Jessie. Jessie and I hadn't seen each other for more than ten years, but we reconnected instantly. She just completed her first year as an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, but has lived in Austin since the mid-1990s. She is a historian with a keen interest in urban and suburban history, so she had lots to say about Austin's development, particularly with regard to how the housing boom had affected many of her friends. Her husband, for example, bought a loft in 2004 and is now trying to sell it at nearly three times what he paid for it. House-flipping was common and the incredible swell in real estate values caused radical gentrification and pushed families out as wealthy young workers moved in. After only hearing about the positive aspects of economic development, it was refreshing to hear about the real-world impact on Austinites and their families.
Jessie had dinner plans, so I headed back to the hotel to get a better view of the bats at dusk. The hotel is on the river, so I stepped through the pool area, and headed down the hill. On this second night at the bridge, I saw more bats--the Congress bridge colony is estimated at 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats. Each night during the spring and summer, the bats emerge at dusk, and the spectacle has become an extremely popular tourist attraction.
On my own for the evening, I began wandering up toward 6th street. The weekend was in that strange in-between-time of post-regular performing arts season, pre-summer season, so I couldn't catch a formal event. I wasn't worried, though--one of my favorite things to do in unfamiliar cities is to wander around and see where I end up.
As I walked among the crowds of people heading uptown from the bat bridge, I happened to overhear a gentleman pointing out various landmarks and telling funny stories about Austin architecture. I boldly stepped up and asked if I could join their tour. "Why, sure!" said one. "Where are you from?"
When I told them I was visiting from Colorado Springs, they were astonished. It turns out that two of the guys in the group, Jim and Mark, graduated from Mitchell High School in the 1980s. Jim had been living in Austin since then, and Mark was visiting from New Hampshire. They hadn't seen each other in about ten years. With our 719-connection established, they kindly let me follow them around on their night on the town. Jim knew many of the business-owners on 6th Street. We ate dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, visited a bar called Maggie Mae's where a friend of Jim's had some photorealistic oil paintings of local music legends hanging on the wall. Jim moved to Austin because of the nanotechnology boom (he does something that has to do with semiconductors, I must confess, the details were beyond me). After a brief stop at Lovejoy's, a very punk rock sort of place where they brew their own beer, we headed to Emo's, the legendary rock club. Jim knew the property owner, so we got in for free and caught the Detroit Cobras, a great lo-fi rock'n'roll soul band. On the way out, we stopped at Best Wurst, a fabulous street vendor, then said goodnight.

My new friend is in Colorado this week for Apogaea, the Colorado arts and outdoor festival, put on by Burning Man. I promised to show him around when he returns from camping--here's hoping I can return the favor and get him some behind-the-scenes access!

The next day I went on a long walk on the river path and met up with Jessie again. We had a leisurely lunch at Enoteca, a charming restaurant on South Congress. The South Congress neighborhood is a hip revitalized area with quirky shops, restaurants and a parking lot filled with retro airstream trailers converted to food vendors, including the original "Hey Cupcake."

We poked around in Uncommon Objects, a thrift store/antique shop crammed full of strange and delightful curios, then stopped at the outdoor street market, where local artisans sell their wares. One of the merchants stopped me to compliment me on my watch and then recommended a pair of hand-carved wooden earrings. I have a bit of an earring habit, so I happily obliged. We walked the whole stretch of South Congress in about an hour, stopping in boutiques and peeking in the glamorous hotels that have become destinations for film industry folks.

Just a few years ago, the entire South Congress area was, to say the least, seedy, with a reputation revolving around prostitution and drugs. A strategic initiative to redevelop the neighborhood resulted in the South Congress Combined Neighborhood plan. In the commercial guidelines, one of the first instructions is "Keep It Funky."
The urban design guidelines for South Congress Avenue set out to create a
distinctive district with a “funky, Austin-centric” feel. This development should not be a replication of other areas of Austin; rather, a new expression of the energy, culture, and individuality embodied in the slogan: “Keep Austin Weird”.
It's a very cool neighborhood.

With just a couple of hours before my flight, we headed down to the shops at 6th and Lamar, where the first Whole Foods began. Now an 80,000-square feet museum of a grocery store, it's a destination all in itself. Jessie bid me goodbye, and after I drooled over the foodstuffs (but miraculously did not buy anything!), I headed across the street to Book People, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. I spent two hours happy as a clam (a painful reminder of how much I miss the Chinook bookstore and Hathaways), bought the new John Hodgman book, then phoned for a taxi.
My cabdriver arrived, apologizing that he had his sister along with him, but explained that she was visiting and he wanted to show around. I asked where she was visiting from and was delighted to hear that she was visiting from Paris. We quickly discovered that they had grown up in in the same neighborhood I stayed in on my trip to France two years ago. The siblings had not seen each other for several years. The last time they had seen each other they had gone on vacation in.....wait for it...Southern Colorado! They reminisced about skiing at Monarch and going to art galleries in Salida. We had a lovely time chatting and they tolerated my very poor French. I was sad to get to the airport.

I neglected to mention this so far, but since I was representing all you groovy artists and musicians out who call the Pikes Peak Region home, I gave a copy of our local music compilation, Sounds of the Pikes Peak Region, to each one of the fine speakers who met with our group. Austin may be the live music capital of the world, but we have some incredibly talented people here as well, and I was pleased to be an ambassador.

The entire visit left me (and all the participants) with much to think about. The biggest takeaway for me was that successful community-planning depends upon a delicate balance between careful planning and long-term vision and valuing the characteristics that make a place unique and authentic. We need to figure out who we are -- then be the best we we can!

I also feel very confident that the community arts development, the work we at COPPeR are engaging in on a daily basis, is putting us on the right path. Of course there are many components of a successful city, but the arts help us tell the story of what makes us human. Right here in COPPeR's brochure, we have a list that answers the question, "Why the arts?" It's simple:
  • the arts foster vibrant neighborhoods and urban revitalization
  • the arts are a magnet attracting young professionals and a skilled, innovative workforce
  • the arts shape a "destination city," luring cultural tourists, who stay longer and spend more money than other travelers
  • the arts create a positive, unique and authentic brand for our community
  • the arts bridge ethnic and cultural divides, helping us to better understand people of different backgrounds and viewpoints
  • the arts build community identity, inclusion and pride.
Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Austin Trip: Part III

Thursday evening wrapped up with a huge group dinner at Carmelo's. Everyone was in high spirits, and Dave Csintyan, head of the Chamber, gave a toast, ending with, "and no one else can give a toast unless they do so in the form of a limerick." Kevin Reel, headmaster of the Colorado Springs School, stood up to the challenge. Unfortunately I can't recreate his spontaneous poetry from memory, but, inspired, the group then decided to go around the table and create a new poem using rhyming couplets. As you can imagine, this resulted in much hilarity and merriment.

After dinner the honorable Mayor of Manitou Eric Drummond took us down to the Congress Avenue bridge to see the bats come out at dusk. A group of people headed off to the Broken Spoke to do some two-stepping, but I decided to stay on 6th Street with a small group. We wandered into an Irish pub with a blues band playing. The very talented guitar player, Ulrich, from Germany, had just received his Masters in music from UT-Austin. Yet another connection between the university and the lively cultural scene...

Next morning, we had breakfast with Pike Powers (or, he joked, as he is frequently introduced to people, "Austin Powers"). In 1983 Pike began the planning and organizational tactics for attracting two of the nation's most ambitious projects around global competitiveness in electronics and is widely viewed as one of the senior voices on technology development and as the designer of important legislative and public policy solutions resulting in new enterprise and corporate models for attracting and retaining technology-based activities. If that description sounded complex and jargon-y, Pike himself is the opposite of that. He has frequently been quoted in Richard Florida's work and is a spokesperson for why the City of Austin has become successful.

His lesson? All his accomplishments stood on the legs of what Florida calls the "Three Ts:" Tolerance, Technology, and Talent. Listen to each other, widen the conversation, be respectful. One of the most powerful stories he told was about how he invited young people to join the conversation about
economic redevelopment. He talked about the importance of understanding people's differences and making sure you are genuinely inclusive. He may be coming to Colorado Springs in November--I will keep you posted. He's well worth hearing.

Our group split again, for the last time. My group made the two-hour drive to San Antonio, during which I had a lively conversation with El Paso County Attorney Bill Louis and Angela Joslyn with Senator Michael Bennet's Colorado Springs Office. We discussed Law school, children's creativity, playground equipment and more. We arrived in San Antonio at the Chamber of Commerce, located right on the Riverwalk. Upon walking in, we saw local contemporary artwork all over all the walls. The Chamber has monthly rotating art exhibits, all featuring local artists.

Representatives from the Chamber, including Chair-elect Carri Baker Wells, and staff Bill Mock and Mark Frye, discussed how they are leveraging San Antonio as an economic center for health technology. Ann Stevens, the President of BioMedSA, a new initiative to promote
the local healthcare and bioscience industry and its importance to the local economy. She talked about the medical community's unifying moments--hospitals would fight against each other for patients, doctors, and funding, but when it came to raising the entire industry's profile, their leaders came together, realizing that they needed to do this as a sector.

We also discussed how industry drives job creation and growth. If competitive industries exist in a region, they can serve as an incentive for young people to stay. Congruently, if there are skilled workers in a region, they can convince a business or industry to stick around. This got me thinking: I believe that the only way the creative sector is going to survive is if we can promote ourselves as a viable, productive sector of the economy. Every business leader I know talks about industries as having clear definitions of different industry sectors (Military, health care, nanotechnology, etc.) A recent study by the Colorado Council on the Arts points out that creative industry makes up the 5th largest sector of the Colorado economy. We are big. We matter. So every lesson I try to learn from Business leaders is how to translate those lessons into the work we do.

We can have a touchy-feely feeling of community here in our arts community all we want (and in fact should have a supportive, nurturing environment to bolster our creative spirits), but the fact remains that if there is no infrastructure to support our artists--no market for artists selling their work, no institutions of higher learning offering them superior advanced degree programs, no museums, galleries, or performing arts facilities for our creative people in which to do their work, it is all for naught.

These same San Antonio leaders told us about a project they had been working on called Pathway to a Great City. Please note: the their informational brochure prominently features an enormous piece of public art (Mexican artist Sebastian's The Torch of Friendship (La Antorcha dela Amistad). This document makes a series of recommendations to the City for what it will take to move San Antonio from a good city to a great city. Among their recommendations:
  • Great Cities are known for their parks and vibrant cultural and entertainment centers, and as such, this plan calls for a new cultural and performing arts center
  • Great Cities think big and know that making their city unique involves a variety of innovative and creative funding strategies, as such, this plan calls for the expansion and improvement of the San Antonio river district
  • It is desirable to highlight many cultures and western heritage and provide more access to historical sites and monuments

Food for thought? Perhaps the work ordinary citizens are doing to create a long-term vision for our community through Dream City: Vision 2020 can be harnessed into something similar.

Coming soon: Final thoughts and a night on the town.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Austin Trip: Part II

Promptly at 8 a.m. on Thursday, we dove into our first session with Dave Porter, Vice-President of Economic Development at the Austin Chamber. In many communities, Economic Development and the Chamber of Commerce are merged, creating one umbrella group responsible for retaining and cultivating existing businesses while simultaneously seeking out new businesses and industry. In Colorado Springs, the Chamber and the EDC are separate organizations (they were once aligned, but split in the early 1990s). Dave spoke about the importance of attracting and incubating small businesses in the high-tech field. Because UT-Austin is such a fantastic training ground for highly-educated, skilled workers, businesses began to move there, knowing they would have a rich pool of talent from which to pick their workers.

Austin's story began to unfold as we met with Downtown developers and Lee Cook, the former Mayor of Austin. In the 1980s, Austin was in the midst of a huge recession. During the Savings and Loan crisis, more than 30 local banks closed (out of about 750 that failed nationwide). Real estate plummeted, and the future of the capitol city was uncertain. Austin had been "branded" the Manufacturing capital of Texas in the early part of the 20th century. Local leaders realized they had to shake off that mantle and move forward with a more clear and compelling direction in order to compete.

You may have seen the bumper sticker campaign: "Keep Austin Weird" (Manitou Springs has also adopted this slogan). The slogan was generated by the Austin Independent Business Association and is a perfect example of how Austin takes pride in being quirky, independent and visionary. Over and over, the people we met with kept invoking this indescribable Austin creativity and sense of pride.

Just one example of this--Austin is known as the Live Music Capital of the World. Most people know that. But what you don't know is how that came to be. Former Mayor Lee Cook told us the story about Max Nofziger, a flower City Councilman. From his bio:

Max's love of the city prompted him to become involved in the political process. He felt that he could legitimately and effectively work to keep Austin environmentally and culturally unique.

In 1979 Max made his first run for City Council -- Place One, campaigning for a clean environment and against Austin's involvement in the then newly proposed South Texas Nuclear Project. A political new-comer, Max won several thousand votes, but not enough to win. Not to be discouraged, he tried again in 1981 and got even fewer votes! Again not to be discouraged, Max was determined to be a voice in the city he had adopted as his own. 1983 saw "Max for Mayor" this time getting enough votes to force his contenders into a run-off. Another run for mayor in 1985, another run-off, this time he endorsed the eventual winner. Finally, on his fifth try for elective office Max won Place One on the City Council in 1987, edging out a well funded opponent in a very tight run-off race!

He went on to serve nine years in City Council. As Mayor Cook told the story, Max "Max for Mayor" Nifzger suggested calling Austin the Live Music Capital of the World. Not the live music capital of Texas, or the Southwest, or even the United States. THE WORLD.

That, folks, takes guts. And leadership.

Later that afternoon, we headed down to Ballet Austin (that's the lobby of this to-die-for facility with acres of sprung floors and a modular performance theater with moveable seats that, when removed, reveal a floor the exact dimensions of the stage of the Long Center, where the company performs).
We met with Vincent Kitch, head of the Cultural Arts Division at the City of Austin. Vincent was kind enough to agree to give a presentation to a group of people he'd never met coordinated by a woman he'd never met (me). But all of the new connections I made in Austin were easy--I picked up the phone and called people and they agreed to meet with me. The arts community is like that, I suppose--just one more reason I feel so fortunate to work in this field. Also, just another reason why having a Cultural Office in a community is so essential; our peer network gets us access.

I gave a bit of a background on COPPeR and how we were founded, and then Vincent talked about what his office does. Most U.S. cities have cultural offices embedded in their local government (as a nonprofit partnering with the City, COPPeR is different). Austin's department of cultural affairs is under the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services branch of Austin city government, and it's easy to see why. Just a few quick facts:
  • Live Music contributes $616 million in economic impact and $11 million in local tax revenue
  • There are 1,543 music-related businesses in Austin and 1,903 Austin music acts.
  • The not-for-profit performing arts and visual arts generate $532 million in economic impact and $6 million in local tax revenue.
  • The City of Austin provides nearly $5 million annually of the Hotel Occupancy Tax to contract with non-profit arts and cultural organizations for services rendered.
  • Creative industries in Austin generate $2.2 billion in economic activity and create 44,000 permanent jobs.
That is a huge chunk of revenue. Vincent explained that the Cultural Arts division grants millions of dollars to local arts organizations and individual artists. While I wiped the drool from my chin and attempted to collect my jaw from the floor, he told us more about how this all came about.

In 1985, a 2% tax for the arts was approved by voters. The money comes out of hotel/motel tax, and results in all the funding. Vincent's division now has 9 employees and the majority of the work they do is regranting to arts groups and artists. Austin just recently completed a Cultural Planning Process, called Create Austin. All the figures above came from that process. You can read the plan and see how they are implementing it here.

After this extremely educational session, a few of us wandered over to City Hall. This might look familiar to Pikes Peak regionettes, since it was designed by Antoine Predock, who also designed Colorado College's new Cornerstone Arts Center.

City Hall is a perfect example of Austin's purposeful integration of arts and civic life--this gorgeous building is also one of Austin's most important art galleries. City Hall showcases the talents of local artists with an extensive annual art exhibition in the atrium and open areas of the first three floors. Approximately 150 contemporary artworks are on display, including paintings, photographs, sculptures and other mediums. Upon entering the building and going through the metal detector, we picked up a 24-page booklet guiding us through the pieces of art. It is breathtaking.

The bottom line: Austin took a time of scarcity and true hardship and harnessed creativity to cultivate a thriving arts and music destination city as well as a center for emerging technology. They consistently take the long view and continually search for ways to learn from other successful communities. They listen to their leaders, they communicate, and above all, they COLLABORATE.

Coming soon in Part III: more leaders dish, going green, and I hit the town with some locals.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Austin Trip: Part I

Several months ago I heard about a strategic planning mission coordinated by the folks at the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce (with whom COPPeR co-hosts an annual award luncheon honoring businesses that support the arts) to try to figure out why Austin left us in the dust in terms of economic development 20 years ago. Two decades ago, Austin and Colorado Springs were competing neck-and-neck for businesses and high-tech industries. Now, Austin boasts a population of 1.7 million people, a thriving nanotechnology industry, a world-class research and teaching university, and of course, it is the live music capital of the world.

The Southern Colorado Innovation Strategy Leadership Trip to Austin, coordinated by the Chamber and UCCS, took place last week and I was extremely honored to be among the attendees, representing the arts and cultural community in the Pikes Peak region. Elected officials City Councilwoman Jan Martin and County Commissioner Sallie Clark and Manitou Springs Mayor Eric Drummond were there, as was Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor at UCCS. About 30 movers, shakers and leaders in the business and education world from Colorado Springs, Manitou and Pueblo went on the trip. My job was to connect the dots between a quirky, authentic and vital arts and cultural community and a thriving economy. I quickly got to work connecting with my counterparts in Austin cultural services coordinating meetings and sessions so all the attendees could see firsthand why a vibrant arts scene is essential to economic and community development.

I flew out a bit early on Wednesday morning so that I could do some reconnaissance around town before the rest of the delegation arrived. It may betray my hipster pedigree to admit this, but I had never been to Austin before last week. I stepped off the plane and immediately noticed the placard in the jetway ("Welcome to Austin," it said, "the live music capital of the world."). I flagged a taxi, got a basic geography lesson from the friendly cabdriver, checked into the AT&T Conference center and hotel up at the UT campus, and then wandered down Congress Ave, past the capitol and in to the heart of downtown.

I found myself at Arthouse, a contemporary art venue. I caught the last week of the very cool local show up right now called 5x7, in which hundreds of contemporary Texas artists create unique works of art on identical 5” x 7” boards, all displayed anonymously and on sale for extremely reasonable prices. An old family friend, Ben Slade, is working there as membership coordinator and new media coordinator, so he and I chatted about the visual arts scene there. Ben and I both grew up in New Mexico, and after he graduated from college he got a job working at a gallery in Santa Fe. Shortly after, he left to move to Austin. He vastly prefers the authentic arts community in Austin to the glittering commerce-based community in Santa Fe. I also talked to Nathan Green, staff from Okay Mountain, an artist-run gallery space.

Ben and Nathan told me that between the Univerity of Texas art students, the South by Southwest music and film festival kids (Austin is a festival town--it's the #2 major U.S. City in the number of festivals per thousand population), there is creative energy burbling up all over the place. Young artists will start art galleries in their living rooms and host First Friday receptions with bands playing. They both praised the new-ish Fusebox Festival, which focuses on performing arts.

Ben and Nathan had to get back to work, so I left them and trudged around the 2nd St. district, peered in at the Austin Children's Museum (noting that their informational brochure is completely bilingual), and drooled over a couple of very chic design boutiques.

Later that night, we broke off into small groups to enjoy dinner. I took a small group to Moonshine (note: beer-battered asparagus is delicious; I regret not ordering the corndog shrimp) and we met up with some local longtime arts mavens. Rick Hernandez, the immediate past Executive Director of the Texas Commission on the Arts, an organization he was involved with since the mid 1970s as an artist-in-residence. Rick is warm, outgoing, and full of insights about how Austin completely transformed during the 1980s. Latifah Taormina also joined us--she is the executive director of Austin Circle of Theaters, a co-presenter of NowPlayingAustin.com (sister and fellow Artsopolis site like PeakRadar.com). Latifah has a fascinating past--she started the legendary Committee improv troupe in San Francisco. We had a wonderful dinner sharing stories and laughing, then Rick and the rest of our gang set off to see the town. We just missed the solar-powered outdoor concert series in Republic Square (a brand-new initiative to prove that even the music scene is part of the environmentalist movement in Austin), but we cozied into the Elephant Room and heard a great set of jazz. Then the diehards in the group headed up to 6th St., where among the dozens of bars --all featuring live music-- we found Pete's dueling piano bar and laughed our way into the wee hours of the morning. Along the way we played one of the GuitarTown guitars,a public arts project feautring local artists' takes on ten-foot Gibson Guitar sculptures.

I'll continue with Part II tomorrrow, in which we meet with the head of Austin Cultural Affairs (responsible for giving $5 million to arts organizations and individual artists in 2008) and continue the cultural tourism.