Like a Greek tragedy, the building of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin’s newest cultural gem, has had no lack of theatrics. Let’s revisit the opening scene: It’s the early nineties. The tech boom is on. (Cue dollar bills falling from the sky.) Meanwhile, the Capital City’s theaters are graying and overstrained. So a grand plan is drawn up for a glimmering four-venue structure on the southern banks of Town Lake. And the $125 million price tag? Just tap the city’s new millionaires, et voilà! But then comes the dot-com bust, and then 9/11, and by 2003 the project has stalled out at $62 million. (Several other downtown developments hit the skids too, namely a still-unrealized new home for the Austin Museum of Art.) “We were all pretty cocky, quite frankly,” said David Fleming, shortly after announcing his resignation as the Long Center’s president and CEO that summer. The venture appeared to be mortally wounded.
Luckily for Austin, Fleming’s successor, executive director Cliff Redd, has helmed an impressive “the show must go on” campaign, and the beleaguered venue is finally making its public debut. The finished product may be a scaled-back version of the original vision—there are two theaters, not four, and the total construction costs were “only” $67 million—but what the Long Center lacks in size it more than makes up for in resourceful charm. A remarkable 97 percent of Palmer Auditorium, the 1959 municipal landmark the Long Center is replacing, was either reused or recycled, including most of its patchwork “turtle” dome (the green panels are now a mosaic). “We built it for $278 a foot,” says Redd, “but don’t let that infer a tract home stripped down with nothing in it.” In fact, the interiors of both the 2,400-seat Dell Hall and the Rollins Studio Theater, which can be configured to seat 80 to 240, are resplendent.
Besides, it’s how the space is used that really matters. “I don’t just want to regurgitate what the rest of the performing arts centers across the country are doing,” Redd says. “This is our Kennedy Center.” (He means it too—he lured programming director Tammie Ward away from the Wash- ington, D.C., institution.)
The opening festivities are fittingly big-deal: This month’s four-day sneak peek includes free shows, behind-the-scenes tours, and a giant “harp” stretched out across the 30,000-square-foot City Terrace. A couple weeks later, the center’s resident companies—the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin—will perform alongside a slew of special guests (Conspirare and pianist Anton Nel among them). But the true christening will be the All Texas Music Concert, when Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Rick Trevino, Flaco Jimenez, and Ray Benson with Asleep at the Wheel give Dell Hall’s acoustics a real test-drive. The curtain is finally going up. In Austin from March 6 to 9 (open house) and March 28 and 29 (grand opening gala weekend); 512-482-0800, thelongcenter.org (Read the full interview with Cliff Redd)
Made in China
In the spring of 1995, photographers Frederick Baldwin and Marc Riboud were having coffee at the latter’s home, in Paris, when a package arrived. Inside was a book of photographs that Riboud had edited, featuring the images of Wu Jialin, a self-taught Chinese photographer. Baldwin, a co-founder of Houston’s biennial FotoFest, was so taken with Wu’s work—shots of mountain tribes in remote Yunnan—that he decided to exhibit it in Texas the following year. About 10,000 festivalgoers saw Wu’s show; a year later, the lensman was receiving worldwide recognition.
FotoFest has, in fact, launched innumerable careers. The six-week extravaganza of photo-based art—which spills into more than a hundred museums, galleries, and other spaces around the city—was started in 1986 by Baldwin and his life partner, Wendy Watriss, and now attracts a quarter of a million people. Photogs, collectors, curators, dealers, and weekend shutterbugs descend, eager to see what new talent is emerging. (Some 350 up-and-coming artists from 28 countries have signed up to have their portfolios reviewed.)
Wu’s 1996 breakout has even inspired this year’s theme, “China,” and the ancillary motif “Transformations.” Baldwin’s and Watriss’s commitment to artists in Asia will come to stunning fruition with a thousand-plus images by 34 Chinese artists. The country’s hot contemporary scene will also be in evidence, with a showcase by documentary photographer Lu Nan and a survey of work by contributors to Beijing’s subversive New Photo magazine. Much of what’s on view will be making its U.S. debut, most notably two recently recovered archives—Sha Fei’s scenes from the second Sino-Japanese War and Zhuang Xueben’s snapshots of the ethnic minorities near Tibet—that date back to the thirties and forties. In Houston from March 7 to April 20 at various locations; 713-223-5522, fotofest.org
When Lance Moore was hired as Diboll’s civic center director last May, one of his first tasks was to cook up more events for the East Texas town. As a former director of the Blueberry Festival, in Nacogdoches, he began to consider what local resources might be worthy of celebration. Pecans? “Now, pecans are sophisticated,” he says. But given their abundance in the area, “a pecan festival would be a no-brainer.” His next idea had more potential: tamales. “We have a large Hispanic community, and a lot of people here work all day Wednesday and Thurs- day making them to sell on Friday. I thought they could be fun. And fun sounds better than sophisticated.”
The inaugural Diboll Tamale Festival—the only one of its kind in Texas, as far as Moore knows—will feature two main events: a cook-off and an eating contest. In the former, contestants (about twenty enlistees so far) must prepare a dozen tamales in one of four categories: pork, other meats, vegetable, and fruit/dessert. For amateur masa makers, Moore has invited a woman from nearby Leggett to teach a tamale class. “I had to bring in an outsider so people wouldn’t already be biased about how she makes her tamales,” he explains.
Word of the weekend is spreading so quickly—Moore’s been fielding about ten phone calls a day from the curious—that he’s been enlisting the community’s help. “One of our police dispatchers has agreed to wear a costume for us. He doesn’t know this yet, but he’s going to be PB the Push Broom, the Keep Texas Beautiful youth mascot. And so far seven people wanting to work off their speeding tickets have signed up to pick up trash after the festival.” Moore has no idea what the turnout will be, but he’s busy installing more electrical outlets, adding RV stations, and corralling sponsors. “It was just going to be a little country festival.” In Diboll March 15 and 16 at the Lottie & Arthur Temple Civic Center; 936-829-4888, cityofdiboll.com
Go to Arts and Culture for more than 170 other March events, including …
San Antonio Museum of Art
The Greek and Roman galleries—home to the largest public collection of such antiquities in Texas—reopen after a five-year hiatus. 3/2, samuseum.org
Houston Ballet’s Cinderella
Artistic director Stanton Welch’s twist on the classic tale features a tomboyish heroine who chooses love over money. 3/6–3/16, houstonballet.org
Stop and smell the more than 400,000 spring bulbs as you stroll through the Dallas Arboretum’s 66-acre garden. 3/8–4/13, dallasarboretum.org
El Paso Opera
The company presents Giacomo Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas, Il Trittico, performed together, as the composer originally intended. 3/13 & 3/15, epopera.org