Thursday, February 11, 2010

COM: The Cactus

Off the Record
Forsaking the Song, Part 2

BY AUSTIN POWELL, Austin Chronicle

"This was a very rash decision that was made without proper consultation from individuals and bodies that would have had something to say about it," professes Dr. Thomas Garza, one of the three faculty members appointed by UT President Bill Powers to serve on the Texas Union board, which as discussed here last week, approved plans Jan. 29 to phase out operations at the Cactus Cafe and terminate informal classes in August.

"There was no faculty representation there at all," continues Garza, who was at a conference in Indiana at the time. "I've been on this board for three years, and it's always seemed like business would go very much as prescribed, but this wasn't even on the agenda."

In what's become known as "Cactus Gate," University Unions Executive Director Andy Smith proposed the cuts to save an estimated $122,000 per biennium (not annually, as previously reported here), a move unanimously endorsed – but not voted on – by the board's six student representatives (see "'A' Is for Axed: UT Chops Cactus, Cuts Classes," News, Feb. 5). Powers backed the decision at last Tuesday's town hall meeting but was alarmed to learn of this recent revelation. "If there's an advisory board, it ought to have the full input of the group," he told the Chronicle.

Garza is now among the 23,000-plus aligned with the "Save the Cactus Cafe (Austin, Texas)" Facebook group, which promises to raise the necessary funds to preserve the campus landmark. The group, along with filing for status as a nonprofit called Friends of the Cactus Cafe, announced a detailed counterproposal on Saturday at Maria's Taco Xpress that included marketing initiatives to increase revenue and enhanced access to the venue for students through internships, artist residencies, and booking opportunities.

"Money is an issue, but it's not the primary issue," shifts Student Government President Liam O'Rourke, who has visited the Cactus five times in five years and only to watch his fellow students perform. "It's a student building and student space, and students should be the ones leading all efforts to program and use it. ...

"Several people have mentioned that there's space all over campus, but the Cactus is a place with rich history and students want to play there. The main change that's occurring is the change in management."

While the Cactus already hosts an open mic night and is readily available for booking by student organizations, not to mention that a new Student Events Center is already being built, the larger issue was laid out succinctly by Lyle Lovett in the Chronicle last year (see "Blood on the Tracks," Feb. 6, 2009) in celebrating longtime venue manager/booker Griff Luneburg: "Griff is the Cactus."

To suggest that the UT student body would have more success at running the venue than the Cactus' three main employees – Luneburg, bar manager Chris Lueck, and part-time staffer Susan Svedeman – with a combined 70 years invested at the venue is to ignore the fact that the Music and Entertainment Committee and the African American Culture Committee, two divisions of the Texas Union Student Events Center, spent close to $60,000 just to bring Busta Rhymes to the (mostly empty) Austin Music Hall in 2004.

"That the decision was about the impact of these institutions on the undergraduate student populations, I find that at best to be a red herring," concludes Garza. "That's not the only constituency that the Union is supposed to serve. It's also about faculty, graduate students, and yes indeed, it's about the community."

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