At age 10, the Long Center opens its doors wider

If you lived in Austin during the 1960s and ’70s, you called the oddly shaped domed structure on the shores of Town Lake the Municipal Auditorium.

Austin’s Municipal Auditorium under construction in 1958 and photographed by Rockdale Works. Contributed by Austin History Center PICA 26945

If you arrived in the 1980s, it was then known as Palmer Auditorium, renamed after late Austin Mayor Lester Palmer. Maybe you referred to it jokingly as the “Green Turtle,” or variations on that theme.

If you were around during the 1990s and early 21st century, you’ll recall the seemingly Sisyphean efforts to turn that outdated 1959 building into the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Many things were tried; some failed, some succeeded.

And if you were in town March 28-30, 2008, you might have attended one many glorious events staged for the Long Center’s grand opening. One could praise right away  the handsome and lively Dell Hall, the largest performance space, but also the terrace lined with columns — the result of an engineering challenge — that offered one of the finest views of the city skyline.

The center, home to the city’s top symphony, opera, ballet and choral companies, as well as to mid-sized arts groups and touring acts, is back in the spotlight this year. A larger 10th anniversary party is planned for fall 2018, but before that on March 3, the center will blaze with the talents of the Avett Brothers and Asleep at the Wheel for a celebratory concert and after party.

Never one to rest on its laurels, the Long Center staff and trustees have spent the past year reexamining the center’s role in the community. It was known in some circles a decade ago primarily as a place of refuge for the larger arts groups who were nudged out of Bass Concert Hall by the University of Texas. Yet even from days when charismatic leaders such as Cliff Redd explained the unbuilt center’s future role, it was always intended to be a place of convergence for all of the arts.

It became more than that — and, then again, sometimes less. Despite the absence of a hoped-for café or shop, the center swarmed with unexpected activity year-round, much of that outside. The place itself became the main event, not what was booked on its two indoor stages. And even those performance offerings became increasingly varied, less traditional.

Well, after spending a year with consulting creatives from the ad agency Archer Malmo, the Long Center leaders have in hand a plan to fill the spaces, including the much-loved H-E-B Terrace, with an even wider variety of entertainment.

“The landscape of Austin is changing and so are we,” says Cory Baker, president and CEO of the Long Center. “The most immediate changes you’ll see are in our programming, wherein we’re diversifying in order to set the stage for the next generation of artists.”

How that will play itself out remains to be seen. Everyone is aware of the city’s need for affordable artistic venues. What it means, however, for the current resident companies of Dell Hall and Rollins Studio Theatre, who often rehearse as well as perform there, remains unclear.

For now, branding upgrades will suffice while the staff tries to free up more dates to mix in fresh forms of shared activity.

UPDATE 1:30 Feb. 28.: We asked Baker to amplify her comments on the changes at the Long Center.

American-Statesman: What exactly do you mean by more diverse entertainment bookings in the future? The examples you use — movies, talks, etc. — are already a part of your line-up and have been for a while.

 When we say diversifying programming, we are thinking beyond just adding new genres to the mix. We are focused on diversifying the experience options within the performing arts spectrum and being more intentional about our choices in order to expand our reach and engage new audiences.

We strive to be progressive, relevant and genuinely more reflective of our ever-evolving population. This means working with artists to create unique experiences for Austin – the Avett Brothers playing with Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Murray’s critically acclaimed new project – and blurring the lines to surprise our audiences by partnering with b to showcase boundary-breaking opera singer, Joseph Keckler.

We are also expanding the offerings within each genre, for instance, we are proud to present José González and the Boston Pops (coming 2019). Our speaker series goes from world-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Family programming is another area where our offerings are as different as the many families that we serve, from seeing the Paw Patrol juggernaut in Dell Hall to enjoying free bubble fun on the lawn for Bubblepalooza and our All Summer Long series of community events. This is part of our current programming, and it shows the intentional choices we will be making for the next 10 years and beyond.

What exactly does this mean for the seven resident companies? Less performance time? Less rehearsal time?

The Long Center is proud to continue to be the home of our resident companies. Our strategy has been to look at the calendar and performance spaces as creatively as possible in close coordination with our partners. An example of this is that the Austin Opera graciously works with us so that we can present on their dark nights. This year, we have already presented many incredible artists … through our willingness to share the space in creative ways.

When it comes to Rollins, the venue was always intended to be a shared community asset — an accessible, affordable and practical performance space for a wide array of local artists to create and present work. With the space crisis in Austin growing and demand on the room increasing, we have challenged ourselves to think proactively about how we can serve an extended range of arts groups in the city and work creatively with our existing partners to find practical solutions that will best serve the arts ecosystem here in Austin


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