East Austin Studio Tour Promotes Artists But Jeopardizes Cheap Rent
The ninth annual East Austin Studio Tour (also known as E.A.S.T.) kicks off tomorrow. It's a free, self-guided tour of more than 150 artist studios east of I-35. E.A.S.T. runs from Saturday, November 13 until Sunday, November 21.
KUT News talked to Shea Little, founder of E.A.S.T. and director of the non-profit that runs it, Big Medium. He talked about the tour's origins and the cruel irony of how helping artists contributes to the gentrification that could one day price them out of their own neighborhood.
KUT News: What made you decide to launch the East Austin Studio Tour?
Shea Little: We had recently moved to the east side back in 2002, and had started meeting some artists in the area. We had our studio on the east side and thought, "This is a great area. There's a lot of activity. Let's open our doors and promote each other." It was just like a networking, cross-promotion, and awareness activity.
KUT News: How much has it grown?
Little: It started in 2003 with 28 studios on the first tour, and then the next year I think it grew to 40. Then it was 60, then 80, then 100. It's been growing very rapidly every tour up until this year when it's actually plateaued. I think we've hit the saturation point. It's such a huge amount of artists and studios that I think it's good that it's plateauing. As of right now, I think we have about 150 studios, and in those studios there are about 340 artists showing their work.
KUT News: How do you curate the tour? Can anyone get on it?
Little: The basic curation is that you must fit a certain set of requirements. You have to be a visual artist, which is a gray subjective term, but you have to be an artist working in a studio in East Austin. That's the number one requirement to be considered as a studio on the tour.
Once you have a studio, you can have guest artists who are from South Austin or Dallas or wherever. The idea is that it will add some new flavor to the tour. But we really aren't picking artists on their work or judging them on anything besides these set of requirements. It's really an all inclusive event, and I think that's one of its greatest strengths. It's a community project and we're here to expose the huge spectrum of art being made in East Austin. It's from the professionals doing installations in the White House to people who just paint on the weekends and do whatever they can to make art but it's not their profession.
KUT News: What is it about East Austin that seems to foster this artistic community, and how is that changing?
Little: It was interesting for us to get involved in this community because I grew up in Austin. My aunt is an architect here and she has her office in East Austin. She moved over when it was the notoriously but inaccurately named "bad part of town." But there's something about that label, the "bad side of town" that made this the perfect spot for artists, because it kept rents down. And in Austin's seemingly miniscule industrial history, this has been one of the few industrial districts, so there are warehouses and distribution centers that have the kind of set-ups that artists need: big buildings with little infrastructure. The rent is cheap and artists can move in and do their thing. East Austin, under all those different circumstances, became a haven for artists to come and set up shop.
As we started to do the studio tour, it drew out a lot of the people who had been here for twenty, thirty years in this area and working as artists. They finally kind of waved their flag and said, "Hey, I'm here making art. Come check me out." As soon as the studio tour came around, everyone embraced this idea of, "We are East Austin. There's a lot going on around here." I think that call-to-arms in such a creative and diverse neighborhood was just good timing and luck on our part.
And some people are still scared to come over here. It feels like, "Oh my god, I'm going on this crazy adventure in my own city!" It's such a cool thing to break those stereotypes and get people over here and see what an amazing, culturally rich part of Austin this is.
KUT News: East Austin has been undergoing some rapid changes over the past few years with rising property values and more development. Do you ever think about the role of the studio tour plays into the gentrification that one day could price these artists out of the neighborhood?
Little: It totally makes sense and we've been thinking about it since we started. The studio tours are not a new thing, and gentrification is a very understood effect that happens to these parts of cities. While there are so many factors at play in gentrification, it looks like we will eventually be priced out of this area.
Things have changed so drastically since we first stepped foot over here, and I'm not going to claim that we are the one and only catalyst to the development of East Austin. It is such a ridiculously amazing part of town and so close to downtown that it was going to get developed. They kind of needed a catalyst to break the mold and get things moving in the right direction to get landowners to sell or develop things they've been sitting on. We certainly have a huge role in it, and we're kind of fueling our own fate by doing this.
But it is important for us to be seen in our community, and the side effect of gentrifying the area that we've become part of is sad. I think a lot of the feedback we've received from people who've lived their whole lives here or had generations of their families live here is that we're changing things, but ultimately for the better.
But now it seems like it's leaning towards getting rid of all the cool mom and pop shops that have been here for 40 years and turning them into law offices. I love the flavor of the neighborhood and don't want it totally wiped clean. You've got to keep it, but who's out there saying what you should keep and what you shouldn't keep?