The East Austin Studio Tour is arguably the city’s largest art event. Add up the number of participating artists, the scale of the audience over the two-weekend event and the geographic footprint of the self-guided free tour, and EAST’s magnitude becomes almost exponential.
This year there’s 272 artist studios, 65 galleries, 194 temporary exhibitions, 44 happenings and ten public libraries that make up the 585 official EAST stops.
Shea Little, executive director of Big Medium, the organization behind EAST, estimates that this year’s iteration will see an audience of approximately 15,000 — or maybe 20,000. It’s impossible to get an accurate count.
But whatever the numbers, the event is a long way from when Little, Jana Swec and Joseph Phillips launched the first East Austin Studio Tour in 2003 with just 28 studios on a one-afternoon-long tour. At the time, the trio were among a growing wave of young artists of all disciplines moving into the then-affordable real estate of East Austin’s historically African American and Latinx neighborhoods, establishing art studios and warehouse theaters.
Over the years Little and Big Medium have expanded the geographic footprint of EAST, pushing eastward, northward and even southward across the Colorado River/Lady Bird Lake as artists have staked out working or living spaces beyond central East Austin.
By 2015, however, rising real estate prices in the rapidly gentrifying central East Austin area began to exert its pressure on artists and arts organizations. Several influential art studio complexes and warehouse theaters closed, sending the creative community into crisis mode.
Austin’s majority white arts community now finds itself increasingly priced out of East Austin. Which makes for the great irony of the East Austin Studio tour: While the event has been a factor in accelerating the gentrification of East Austin, the creative community it promotes is threatened by that gentrification.
Gentrification has had a corrosive effect on East Austin’s historically Black and Latinx communities.
A study by University of Texas scholar Eric Tang found that between 2000 and 2010, East Austin’s Black population decreased by 66 percent, its Latino population decreased by 33 percent, and its white population increased by 442 percent. And in subsequent studies, Tang and his co-authors found that the economic pressures of gentrification were the primary reason longstanding residents of East Austin had left the neighborhood.
By 2015, Austin was the least affordable of Texas’ four major cities, according to a report from Texas A&M. In East Austin, the median home price in January 2011 was just under $125,000. By December 2014, that number was nearly $350,000, a 180 percent increase.
In their most recent research brief released in May of this year, Tang and his team found that in East Austin dogs now outnumber children nearly 2-to-1. And while a dog-dominant neighborhood doesn’t necessarily signify gentrification, a steady decrease in children does.
Austin’s legacy of inequity
For all of Austin’s popular reputation as a liberal and progressive place, the city has a deep legacy of discriminatory public policy that today makes it a city of profound racial and income segregation.
When it was published in 2014 by UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, Tang’s study — “Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population” — grabbed local headlines as the city seemed suddenly confronted by a part of its history it had ignored.
Using U.S. Census data, Tang demonstrated that between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only among the ten fast-growing major cities in the United States to show a decline in its African American population.
And in “Outlier” and subsequent studies, Tang and his co-authors posited that African Americans did not choose to leave Austin so much as they were compelled to leave not just because of a lack affordability, but by historical and governmental forces as well.