“It was organically grown with all these little incubator spaces, and it became this thing that grew, and we kind of gentrified ourselves,” Joshua Green tells me. He’s sitting behind a storefront counter in the Arboretum shopping mall in Northwest Austin, reminiscing about East Austin’s art scene over the past two decades. More specifically, he’s explaining the rise and fall of Pump Project, the 20,000-square-foot shared studio space he cofounded and ran for over a decade on Shady Lane. Pump Project was a memorably makeshift hub for artists during what one might call the intermediate phase of East Austin’s gentrification, when hipsters were beginning to overrun the Black, Hispanic, and warehouse-dotted side of town but rents were still low enough to attract broke creatives in need of space. Those prices did not last. In 2018, Green says, his landlord sold the building that housed Pump Project for $2.4 million.
Pump Project was also a longtime favorite stop on the East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), an annual November event in which neighborhood artists throw open the doors of their living rooms, sheds, grungy collective spaces, machine shops, and storefront galleries to show and sell their wares. These days, East Austin is, according to some creative types, “over,” and so, in a sense, is EAST. The event returned this November after a year’s hiatus due to the pandemic, but the name has been changed to AST, or Austin Studio Tour, after a pandemic-necessitated merger with the springtime West Austin Studio Tour. Now, artists from both sides of Interstate 35 are invited to participate in the same fall event.
The name change, which seems more likely than not to become permanent (“So far, it looks like artists and the four-person team are loving the once-a-year event,” says Coka Treviño of event organizer Big Medium) can be seen to mark an epochal shift in Austin’s art community: while artists are still drawn to the energy, legacy, and showcasing institutions of East Austin, the creative “scene” is no longer geographically rooted and has had to find whatever spaces can be found in the nooks and crannies of the city’s tight real estate market.
So, my first stop on the tour this year is at ArtUs, Green’s studio-share and holiday craft market in this Northwest Austin mall. It’s a sobering vision of how the environment has changed for Austin artists in recent years. After losing Pump Project, Green decided that he wanted to find a new location for renting out artist studios, and, after facing down some grim real estate math, ended up in a partnership with the Arboretum. I walked the rickety staircases of the old Pump Project during EAST tours more than once in years past, and I attended openings and other community events there as well. I remember going to a DIY sign-decorating gathering there the night before the 2017 Women’s March, sitting on the cold concrete floor with poster board and paint markers. Browsing the streamlined, Etsy-style kitsch on sale from local ArtUs vendors in the air-conditioned Arboretum store—hand-sewn bags, bespoke fedoras, locally designed greeting cards, plus a smattering of more interesting and expressive wall art—feels alienating given the history. It’s hard to argue against any new space for Austin artists right now, though. Shopping malls, reputed to be dying as Amazon takes over, are perhaps one place to start.
Dating back to 2003, EAST grew to become one of the inimitable, defining events of Austin cultural life. A welcoming experience for both art history PhDs and new arrivals looking for $80 paintings for their blank apartment walls, EAST was at its best when it gave audiences the chance to wander a range of quirky creative spaces, crossing paths with friends from stop to stop. In this way, EAST was also often a way for Austinites from elsewhere to get to know the city’s east side—stumbling upon bohemian homesteads, discovering cool alternative venues, and biking through swirling leaves on what has often turned out to be one of the first gorgeously crisp weekends of the fall.
Now you need a car to survey the disjointed art scene. One road of Austin’s creative sprawl leads to the mall, but others lead to further-afield neighborhoods with a sense of still-nascent potential. The venue I visit during this year’s AST that reminds me most of EASTs of yore is near Stassney Lane and Menchaca Road in Southwest Austin. DORF is a project of husband-and-wife team Sara Vanderbeek and Eric Manche, who curate shows in their garage and backyard. This fall’s group show, “Own it, examine it, and confront it head on,” features works by several notable Austin artists and a few national talents on the theme of sexual violence. Some of my favorites include video art by Yuliya Lanina and a sculpture by Cheyenne Weaver.
Vanderbeek and Manche were themselves priced out of East Austin when Art Post, where they and dozens of other artists rented studios, was sold in 2015 and rent doubled overnight. In 2018, seeing many of their favorite art spaces continuing to close (“It was very depressing,” Vanderbeek says), they decided to be part of the solution and turn their home into a low-overhead gallery, inspired by spaces they’d visited on the EAST tour. Curating a group show of this size is not an easy task at any budget, and Vanderbeek delivers an experience that is politically, emotionally, and aesthetically challenging and feels homegrown in the best sense.
Not all of my AST 2021 wanderings are away from the east side. Canopy Austin, where Big Medium makes its headquarters, remains the hub of the tour experience, although those averse to car and body traffic could be forgiven for skipping the crowds and opting for less-traveled tour routes. Exploring the many private studios at Canopy and elsewhere on EAST always yields a hodgepodge of curiosities, banalities, and revelations. An intricate multimedia installation by Ariel René Jackson and Michael J. Love definitely warrants an attentive visit, perhaps at less busy times, however. Meanwhile, across the street, in the parking lot of Friends and Allies Brewing, I noted signs that some parts of AST is lapsing into just another commercial street festival, with NadaMoo handing out free ice cream samples and trinket vendors hawking their wares to those lining up for the ART Bus booze cruise.
Just as EASTs in the 2000s gave my twentysomething self the chance to poke around other people’s spaces to get a sense of how to make a creative life in the East Austin of taco trucks and homemade granola, so this year’s AST affords opportunities to make sense of what the artist’s life looks like in the new Austin. I visit the studio of Ata Mojlish, resident artist of the fancy downtown LINE hotel, who makes art about migration and homesickness. I take an elevator to the twenty-first floor of a Rainey Street high-rise to view the work of Alejandra Regalado, who does dreamily elaborate aerial and underwater photography involving themes of insomnia and immersion in water. (The view of Lady Bird Lake from her apartment is pretty stunning, too.) And I visit the East Sixth Street studio of native Austinite Kelly Framel, who recently moved back to town after seventeen years away in New York City and Mexico, where she developed a colorful painting and sculptural style rooted in spiritual symbolism.
It’s a useful corrective to hear Framel’s perspective on the city’s changes. She felt the limitations of the slacker Austin as a young person and chose to start adulthood and her art career elsewhere, but has now been drawn back in part by the cosmopolitan changes underfoot. “I think Austin might finally be sexy,” she says.
For artists, the biggest upside of Austin’s boom is, of course, the potential arrival of more plentiful and serious collectors. It’s hard to get a comprehensive sense of how that is playing out in AST 2021. Several artists tell me that the combination of Instagram and the open studios is drawing new eyeballs to their work. Anecdotal reports of sales are often positive. Clearly, artists want to be featured on the tour—at least 530 different artists are on view this year, evidence that Austin’s creative spirit has not been blunted by the real estate market.
And despite the name change, East Austin is still the place to be, at least in terms of showing work: moving out of the neighborhood might be good for cheaper space, but it’s harder to entice studio-tour traffic. Seph Itz of Marfa Open, who is selling wares as the “Austin/Marfa Art Exchange,” reports brisk sales at his location at Central Machine Works near East Cesar Chavez and Springdale, not far from the Canopy complex, but few visitors at another location at the western end of the East Cesar Chavez district, near I-35.
Meanwhile, in between those two locations, one could squint and see the beginnings of a bona fide gallery row on East Cesar Chavez, which could help East Austin take the next step as an art market. Austin institution Women & Their Work recently moved here from the UT campus area, and it is showing fragile, architecture-inspired work by Egyptian-born, Austin-based Rehab El Sadek. The grayDUCK gallery puts on a group show featuring four of Austin’s most prominent Black female artists: Christina Coleman, Betelhem Makonnen, Deborah Roberts, and Tammie Rubin. And Prizer Arts and Letters is presenting “Vecino,” a show of photographs by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon with his neighbors as subjects.
“I’d love to say that I moved to this neighborhood in East Austin because of its rich cultural heritage or interesting characters, but I didn’t,” writes Sanhueza-Lyon, a twenty-year resident of Willow Street, in his artist statement. “I moved here because I could afford it. What I didn’t realize then was that this would be the community that raised me.” It’s a sentiment that hits close to home—I spent about a decade living on the same street, just far enough away to have a different set of neighbors. I recognize in Sanhueza-Lyon’s photographs a similar flavor in the mix of elderly Hispanic front-yard gardeners, younger working-class men with tricked-out cars, white members of a funky alternative marching band, and art-world “professionals.” His portraits are a sensitive tribute to a neighborhood that will never again be what it was, but hasn’t ceased to be home for its old-school residents either.
Just around the corner from the gallery, Sanhueza-Lyon’s house is loaned out to an artist collective from suburban Bee Cave, selling wall art and tchotchkes out of the living room. It’s a low-key, friendly affair, in keeping with the live-and-let-live, gentrified ethos of AST overall.
My long AST travels wrap up a couple miles northeast, at a private home on Tillery Street, where director-choreographer Jennifer Sherburn is presenting a dance performance, The All-Overs, in a custom-built backyard batting cage belonging to the homeowner. It’s a great show made all the more special by its unique venue. The audience lines up on either side of a floor-to-ceiling netted enclosure with backstop and pitching machine at either end, and nine dancers perform a two-part show very, very loosely related to baseball (at the end, they line up and kiss each other, saying “Good game”), but it’s mostly about passion, emotion, and the shapes of bodies. It’s sexy, too, but in an older Austin sense that has more to do with wide-open artistic freedom and less to do with sophistication.
We emerge from the show to a firepit and art raffle, and here at last I find a post-pandemic East Austin I completely recognize, still intact in this one spot—going, going, but not yet gone. I hope it lasts another year.