In years past, many would have spent a couple of weekends in May enjoying the West Austin Studio Tour.
WEST, as it’s abbreviated, is the calmer companion of the more frenzied, party-filled East Austin Studio Tour that happens every November. WEST encompasses a geographically larger swath of Austin. Artist studios and pop-up galleries are mostly home-based, rather than in warehouse complexes, and a visit is a socially intimate affair.
Big Medium, which organizes both EAST and WEST, closed down all of its public activities March 16, when Austin shuttered against the spread of the coronavirus.
Only a week earlier, at its gallery in the Canopy complex, Big Medium had opened the exhibition “Rock Standard Time (RST),” the third annual Tito’s Prize show featuring winner Betelhem Makonnen. The evening was one of the monthly Open Canopy events. Other galleries and arts spaces in the eastside complex, as well as dozens of resident artists studios, throw open their doors. Crowds of 1,000 people aren’t unusual — the kind of arts night happening that now seems so improbable.
“I don’t know when we’ll open up in a way that’s responsible and that has value for people,” says Shea Little, Big Medium executive director, during a recent video call. “It’s really questionable how safely a big building and place like Canopy can open to the public.”
Since the closure, Big Medium’s staff of six have been working from home. “I Zoom way too much,” Little wisecracks. And through the CARES Act, and after two tries, Big Medium received some Payroll Protection Plan assistance, money that has so far staved off any staff furloughs or cuts.
Big Medium also helped more than a dozen artists apply for CARES Act subsidies — not an easy task to sync the vagaries of an independent artist’s financials with federal forms. And, through the recent Stand With Austin campaign, Big Medium received $20,000 to re-grant to artists and visual arts groups with immediate financial need.
That’s the beginning of what Little hopes is a future initiative for his organization — a permanent emergency relief fund for artists.
“Austin needs an emergency fund for artists that is established, not just something thrown together when an emergency hits and is doled quickly without guidance or oversight,” he says.
Like other arts organizations, Big Medium pivoted some of its artists’ programming to a digital format. Now, monthly Coffee Chats and regular professional development workshops happen online.
However the Texas Biennial, Big Medium’s state-wide survey, has been pushed into 2021. And WEST, of course, was cancelled, although it may be folded into the East Austin Studio Tour this fall, a merger considered before the pandemic.
Yet with Austin Public Health officials recently signaling that any large-scale events could be off until next year, Little is hesitant to confirm any future tour.
“Merging the two tours together was a question before,” Little says. “But going forward with any tour in the near future is even bigger question mark now.”
For all that the pandemic presents a stream of details to be dealt with, other ideas bloom.
Jordan Gentry Nelsen, Big Medium’s programming director, said that while the studio tours and opening nights have grown to large affairs, the root of the organization is connecting people to visual artists, and keeping art in front of the public.
“I think if anything, this (pandemic) has proved how essential culture is,” Nelsen says. “It’s the first thing people turned for understanding (the pandemic when it hit), it’s what people say they miss most experiencing in person. For us as an organization, we’ve always been about creating connections between artists and others, creating direct relationships. This is pushing us back to that.”
In the works now is an online artists’ registry — a site through which Austin artists can sell art work, but as importantly, keep their work visible through robust, image-filled individual artist listings.
Just as Big Medium’s studio tour catalogs are valuable guides to Austin’s visual artists — with many people saving them from year to year — the artist registry will offer the same.
“It’s a project we’ve always talked about it, and now we have time,” Nelsen says, adding that the launch of the site is slated for early June.
But back to those looming ideas. Both Nelsen and Little share the concerns of everyone in Austin’s non-profit culture community: That the sole source of the city arts funding comes from hotel occupancy tax, and the tourism industry is in tatters.
“We’re such an entertainment, festival culture here in Austin,” says Nelsen. So how to keep the visual arts valued in all that?
Then there’s the speed of life pre-quarantine: the packed calendar of events, our carbon footprint, our self-created state of always being busy.
“This is such a moment for us to not just reset but rethink everything we do, as a species, as individuals,” says Little. “What we made for ourselves was a little over the top.”