The mission of Friends of the Cactus Cafe is to preserve the fundamental character of this legendary music venue in its current location in the Texas Union with professional, experienced management as it currently operates, and build on the current operational model to provide greater educational and cultural opportunities for students and the University and Austin communities. Specifically, our mission is to promote and support the goals that define the Cactus Cafe.[collapse collapsed]
The Cactus Cafe is a cultural landmark that must be preserved. It has launched, boosted and re-energized the careers of many famous musical artists, such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams, to name just a few. For over 30 years, the University of Texas has, through the Cactus Cafe, beckoned students and faculty, members of the Austin community and music fans and musicians from all over the world to spend time within its pleasant confines enjoying its diverse offerings.
Our vision for the Cactus Cafe is that it retain its place as a vital link between the University of Texas and those it has welcomed to its audience and stage for so many years—particularly the Austin and UT student communities. We believe it should continue to boost and re-energize musical artists’ careers and also launch the careers of new artists. At the same time, we realize there is great untapped potential that exists in all that is the Cactus Cafe. We want to assist both the community and the University of Texas in tapping in to that potential to provide ongoing support for, and increased cultural and educational opportunities through, the Cactus Cafe.
We see the Cactus as capable of retaining its iconic status and fundamental character while also becoming an integral part of the UT academic experience, providing a positive revenue stream for the University of Texas and serving as a valuable good will ambassador of the University, Austin and Texas to the world. We believe this is best achieved by building on and adding to the current operational model.[/collapse] [collapse collapsed]
While all institutions change over time, meaningful, productive and truly progressive change is always firmly rooted in the past. It preserves continuity and builds on what has come before. The Cactus Cafe of today is different from the Cactus Cafe of 20 years ago and from what the Cactus Cafe will be 10 years from now. That is a given. In that spirit, we believe the following specific goals define the best direction for the Cactus Cafe moving forward and encapsulate what we are working toward:
- Continuation of current diverse Cactus Cafe programming to assure the preservation of the fundamental character of the venue, with expansion to include additional diverse programming.
- Continuation of daily (six days per week) cafe and bar operations with supervision by professional experienced staff.
- Increased student involvement in operations and programming of, and performing in, the Cactus Cafe, working with professional and experienced staff, and interfacing with professional musicians, through student artist-in-residence and internship programs, and employment opportunities.
- Enhance student hands-on learning through the Cactus Cafe.
- A financially self-sustaining business model that will support the above.
- Provide a structure for short- and long-term community input and support.
We believe the best plan offered so far to achieve these goals is detailed in “Cactus Cafe: The Next Chapter”, jointly submitted by Students of the Cactus Cafe and Friends of the Cactus Cafe to the Vice President for Student Affairs on May 7, 2010.[/collapse] [collapse collapsed]
The short history of Friends of the Cactus Cafe
On Friday January 29, 2010, the Texas Union management announced its decision to shut down the Cactus Cafe at the end of the current fiscal year, on August 31. Later that evening, local drummer and UT staffer Wiley Koepp saw the news and decided to start a Facebook group page called Save the Cactus Cafe. Within about 24 hours, the page had over 5000 members.
At around the same time, Daniel Norton began a Facebook fan page under the same name. Its fan base grew rapidly as well. By Sunday January 31, several people, including Reid Nelson, had contacted Koepp and offered to help, and he and Daniel were discussing how to collaborate in support of the common cause of saving this legendary music venue.
On Monday, February 1, Nelson went to the monthly Austin Music Commission meeting to raise the issue of the Cactus Cafe closing during the public comment period. By the time of that meeting, Koepp’s Facebook page had grown to over 12,000 members. While there, Nelson met local club owner and commission member Paul Oveisi at the meeting who expressed his concern over the University’s plans for the Cactus’s demise.
On Tuesday afternoon, UT president William Powers planned to hold an open town hall meeting to discuss budgetary issues facing the university. A handful of concerned Facebook group and fan page members, including Koepp, Norton, Nelson and Juliana Murphy, met prior to the forum to discuss strategy going forward. By the start of the meeting that afternoon, over 15,000 people had become members of the Save the Cactus Cafe Facebook group page. It was clear from the turnout and comments at the town hall meeting that the community was ready to organize and act.
The small group who had met through Facebook decided that an organizational meeting was needed and, after a number of sleepless nights in preparation, held one on the following Saturday at Maria’s Taco Xpress. Over 150 people showed up for that meeting and a number of teams were formed to handle various aspects of the campaign to save the Cactus.
It was determined that a legal vehicle was needed to raise funds to sustain the campaign and to show that financial support existed in the community to sustain the Cactus Cafe and promote cultural and educational opportunities through it. On Monday, February 8, with the volunteer assistance of Austin non-profit attorney Burgess Jackson, documents were filed to create a non-profit organization, “Friend of the Cactus Cafe”, and SaveTheCactusCafe.org officially became a campaign of the non-profit.[/collapse] [collapse collapsed]
Board of Directors
Friends of the Cactus Cafe was incorporated as a non-profit organization on February 8, 2010. Its initial founders currently constitute its board of directors, but the organization plans to expand the board shortly to include other members of the community, at least one UT student, one UT faculty member and one musician.
Wiley moved to Austin in 1991 to embrace and become a part of Austin’s vibrant music scene. He is a musician, father, UT employee (for over 10 years), and earned a BA in English from UT in 1995, at which time he became a Life Member of the Texas Exes alumni association. Wiley has worked in and around music and education for years, holding Texas teaching certificates in secondary English, fourth grade, and special education. He served as the undergraduate advisor for the UT School of Music from 1997-2000 and, while living in New York City (2000-2005), became an A&R rep for then Universal Records’ subsidiary, Farmclub Records. He is currently a software developer for UT Continuing Education.
While managing and promoting his own bands in the mid-90s, Wiley formed Coyote Music Artist Consultants (www.CoyoteMusic.com) through which he has since managed, promoted, and written reviews for 100 artists since 1995. He played Cactus Cafe open mic nights as a student and has taken in many shows as an audience member. More recently, he drummed on the venerable stage with his electro/rock band, Scorpio Rising, and singer-songwriter Juliana Murphy. “I have played Bass Concert Hall, Antone’s, The Continental Club, and many of Austin’s live-music stages, and there are some wonderful venues in our city. But the Cactus Cafe is like no other. The staff, audience, performers, and even the physical space all come together for the joy of the music. The mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation of one another are something that exists at precious few venues.”
Upon hearing the announcement of the Cactus Cafe’s closure, Wiley created a Facebook group of which its membership quickly grew to over 25,000 and which became the impetus for Friends of the Cactus Cafe.
An entertainment law and civil litigation attorney, political consultant, marketing and communications specialist, an accomplished actor who has acted in films, on television and in leading roles Off-Broadway, restaurateur and musician, Reid brings a broad and valuable range of experience to his work on behalf of Friends of the Cactus Cafe.
Reid cut his political teeth in Indiana politics working on numerous congressional and senate races, and is a specialist in organizing grassroots campaigns and developing winning communications strategies. After graduation from law school, he clerked for the Indiana Supreme Court and then entered private practice in Indianapolis, working primarily in litigation.
In 1994, he joined the Washington-based public affairs firm of Robinson Lake Sawyer Miller as a vice-president and opened one of the first public relations/public affairs offices in a former Soviet Union state. In 1996, he joined KSRH and worked for a year in Bogotá for the president of Colombia, managing communications strategy with the U.S. After serving as senior campaign consultant for a U.S. Senate campaign in Indiana in 1998, he returned to the legal world, and then joined a start-up in Austin as corporate counsel in 2000.
Since 2005 he has headed up a successful, broad-based grassroots ballot access effort for the Friedman for Governor Campaign in Texas, and has managed several grassroots petition drives in Dallas, Ohio and California, the latter involving the collection of over 2.5 million signatures in just over seven weeks. His recent international political work includes designing and implementing a comprehensive plan for political party rebuilding in Nicaragua and consulting on a campaign in Panama. While not busy on political campaigns, he practices entertainment law here in Austin.
Reid was graduated cum laude from the Indiana University School of Law and holds a B.A. with highest distinction in Anthropology from Indiana University. His favorite Cactus performers include Chris Smither, Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson.
Paul Oveisi, who describes himself as “a father above all else,” was born and raised in Austin by parents who emigrated from Iran in 1970 — speaking hardly any English — to attend the University of Texas. He was born into married student housing (the Colorado Apartments on Lake Austin Boulevard), and his father taught economics and finance at UT and St. Edward’s University.
Paul bought the local music club Momo’s in 2001 and left behind the law and a civil litigator job for the passion he had for the live-music business — just as Austin’s downtown began its transformation. His work at Momo’s (including as bartender in a pinch) led him down a related path to his involvement in the music community.
A two-term member of the Austin Music Commission, whose goals include reviewing and advising City Council on music development issues and assisting in implementation of programs to meet the development of the industry, Paul has earned praise for his levelheaded approach to concerns voiced by all parties. He was appointed chairman of the Commission’s Live Music Task Force, whose goal is to build a solid infrastructure to help musicians and what he calls “music industry folks” do their thing.
The love he found for live music spurred his bringing together of several singer-songwriters at Momo’s into Band of Heathens, a local favorite, and his becoming an artist manager (currently working exclusively for Dan Dyer, occasionally touring with him for the larger festival gigs).
Paul has taken the same energy and drive to community organization, working on promulgating commercial recycling for Austin-area businesses, especially live-music venues, and increasing awareness of physical fitness programs for school-age children.
An adjunct professor at St. Edwards University, Paul earned an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Texas and left Austin only as long as it took to earn a law degree at Southern Methodist University. On his list of things hard to find time for are camping, swimming with his children and cooking with his aspiring-chef daughter, and relearning the Farsi language, in which he was fluent as a child.[/collapse] [collapse collapsed]
It is clear from documents released under Open Records requests that the decision to close the Cactus Cafe was made in early December of 2009 by Texas Union executive director Andy Smith with the approval of Vice President for Student Affairs Juan González. It is equally clear that the reasons were wholly budgetary. Despite the fact that the Cactus Cafe has been budgeted by the University to lose money for the last several years and despite that it bettered its budget projections by more than 20% (budgeted to lose $35,360, lost only $27,750) over the last fiscal year, the reasons cited by Smith were that the Cactus Cafe operation “had struggled to maintain profitability” over the past decade because of “current economic conditions, competition and the resulting decline in demand.”
This so-called “resulting decline in demand” was so great during the last fiscal year that the Cactus Cafe had its highest grossing year in at least the last decade (perhaps ever), including its highest amount of revenue from both admissions ($365,500) and alcohol sales ($183,000). In fact, the Cactus covered about 92% of its budget during 2008-2009. To put that number in perspective, Texas Performing Arts, the umbrella organization at UT that manages numerous performing arts events at venues such as Bass Hall and Bates Recital Hall, covers only about 63% of its budget from admissions and state grants. The rest is made up from corporate and individual donations — a funding mechanism that had never been allowed or tried for the Cactus.
The Union management decision was not vetted with student groups and was not presented to the Texas Student Union Board until their meeting on January 29, about an hour before it was formally reviewed. Although supposedly only an advisory board with regard to such matters, the approval of the Student Union Board was important to the UT administration because, as it had six students as members, it would give the veneer of broad-based student support for the Cactus closing. According to some Board members, the decision was discussed in “executive session” and the students unanimously decided to “support” the decision, although no vote or minutes were taken.
After the decision was announced later that evening, Wiley Koepp, a local musician heard about it and started a “Save the Cactus Cafe” group on Facebook. Within 24 hours it had over 5000 members. On Tuesday, February 2, UT President William Powers scheduled a town hall meeting to discuss budget cuts facing the university. By the time of that meeting, over 15,000 people had joined the Facebook group and community opposition was widespread and vocal. This outpouring of support for the Cactus eventually resulted in the formation of the non-profit, Friends of the Cactus Cafe, and the formal launching of the Save the Cactus Cafe.org website and campaign.
Many passionate pleas to keep the Cactus Cafe open were heard at the town hall meeting from students, faculty, musicians and community members. Several people mentioned that the money needed to keep the cherished venue open could easily be raised. The spin out of the University, however, was shifting at this point. The budgetary concerns, which were the clear and only impetus for the decision in December, were downplayed in favor of the notion that the decision was related to students wanting more access to and control over the Cactus Cafe space. No student groups came forward to express such desires.
On Tuesday evening, following the town hall meeting, Liam O’Rourke, the student body president and member of the Student Union Board, spoke to the undergraduate student assembly. He stated that there would be no outside corporation brought in to take over the Cactus Cafe space because the Union building was at the limit of its space allocation to outside entities under the so-called “10% rule.”
The decision of the Union management would shut down Cactus Cafe operations entirely and transfer its two full-time employees, Griff Luneberg and Chris Lueck, to other jobs at the new Student Activity Center (still in the budget of the University Unions). The room which houses the Cactus would be returned to the room inventory of the Union building and be available for use by student groups to reserve for activities—performances or otherwise. In other words, there would be no guarantee of any ongoing music programming under the current decision.
On February 10, the UT Graduate Student Assembly voted unanimously to oppose the decision to close the Cactus and criticized the Union management for failing to get input from graduate students before making the decision. The 18 College Council presidents also criticized the decision.
The outrage to the impending closing of the Cactus Cafe was so great that the University then attempted to backpedal somewhat. They launched a proposal through the Student Activities Center board that would turn over programming of the Cactus Cafe space to a student committee. This committee would be charged with approaching student organizations and encouraging them to produce shows in the Cactus. The proposal held out the vague possibility the room might be available for community groups to also produce shows on nights when it was not being used by students, but there would still be no guarantee of any ongoing music programming at the Cactus Cafe under this approach.
In reaction to the SEC proposal, two other proposals emerged. One entitled the “New Cactus Cafe,” from two students in the Music Business program, would also utilize a student committee to take over programming, but also mentions that the dedicated staff of the Cactus Cafe need not be removed. It talks about more selective “outside bookings” for the Cactus and having students work under the guidance of an experienced industry professional. It contemplates renting the space to outside groups for income and a greatly expanded performance schedule by student bands, music department recitals, [presumably student] jazz performances and open mic nights. (It should be noted that there were 26 open-mic nights held during 2008-2009 at the Cactus Cafe and student music ensembles have also graced the Cactus stage in years past, so this is nothing new.) Any continuation of current programming would be produced by students. The proposal also suggests corporate sponsorships and donations as a means of additional support revenue.
The Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe also developed a proposal, one that recommends building on the current operational model, to add elements that would address the supposed concerns regarding the need for more student access to, and control of, the space. This proposal would keep the current model and staff in place and add student internship, performing artists-in-residence and marketing programs to increase both student involvement and performance in the space. In order to ensure the preservation of the fundamental character of the Cactus Cafe over the long term, it proposes the creation of a seven-member Cactus Cafe Coordinating Committee made up of two students, two faculty members, two community members and one professional musician. This committee would be charged with preserving the fundamental character of the Cactus and would make recommendations for overall policy for the venue and for implementation of the student internship and performing artist-in-residence programs, and other programs that would enhance the cultural and educational opportunities for students using the Cactus Cafe as a resource.
These three proposals were presented to the Student Union Board meeting held on February 26. There was still a great deal of opposition expressed by members of the public attending this meeting to the original decision of the board to close the Cactus Cafe and to the SEC proposal. The Board voted to refer all three proposals to the Vice President of Student Affairs, Juan González, for review and requested him to report back to the board at its final regular meeting of the current academic year on April 30.
Shortly thereafter, the Office of Student Affairs initiated what they termed a series of six “conversations” on the future of the Cactus Cafe, which began on March 11. Friends of the Cactus Cafe board member Reid Nelson was invited to attend these meetings, the purpose of which was to assist Juan González in reviewing the proposals. The group comprised two students, a representative from Texas Performing Arts, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lily, González, and the chair of the Austin Music Commission. Nelson agreed to take part only so long as progress was being made toward the goals of Friends of the Cactus Cafe.
Progress was slow. The first three meetings were largely taken up with discussion of what the goals for the Cactus Cafe were. Reagins-Lily had made references more than once that everyone agreed on the “what” and it was just the “how” that had to be agreed upon. It took three meetings for those involved to agree on the “what,” and FOTCC published those goals after that third meeting.
On March 30, the UT undergraduate student government also unanimously passed a resolution in support of preserving the Cactus and recommended that the Union management revisit the decision to close the venue because it did not seek sufficient input from students.
At the fourth meeting of the conversations group on April 1, Reagins-Lily stated that she wanted to revisit the goals, specifically with regard to continuing daily cafe and bar operations at the Cactus in the future. Also, a number of things that had been only vaguely referenced in prior meetings became much clearer by this fourth meeting. Despite the fact that two of the proposals, collectively, contemplate keeping the Cactus Cafe’s current staff in place and keeping the Cactus operationally on the Texas Union books, any discussion of such alternatives were to be completely off the table for these “conversations.” Moreover, it also became clear that there were plans being developed, wholly outside of these meetings, to turn cafe and bar operations over to a third-party vendor and to transfer programming to another department within the University. The University was actively looking for ways around the 10% rule to essentially franchise the Cactus operations as it had done with food service operations several years ago, thus jeopardizing continuation of daily cafe and bar operations, student employment opportunities and the entire character of the legendary venue.
Concerned that the “conversations” were being used as mere window dressing and the appearance of community approval for decisions that had already been made, FOTCC determined that it could no longer take part in the meetings and Nelson wrote a letter outlining his concerns and the organization’s decision to discontinue its further involvement.
On April 6, as his final act as UT student government president, Liam O’Rourke vetoed the Student Government resolution in support of keeping the Cactus Cafe open under its current operating model. Because there was only one more scheduled Student Government meeting, an override of his veto of the resolution was not procedurally possible.
Later that same week, a proposal was released jointly by KUT and the University Unions to have the public radio station take over booking and programming at the Cactus during periods “outside the main academic calendar” for approximately 150 nights per year. This proposal was simply a variation of the bifurcated approach that was pushed by the Office of Student Affairs in which booking would be handled by a University entity (KUT) and the bar operations would still be contracted to a corporate third-party vendor. However it further complicates this model by bifurcating the programming and booking operations. Presumably, booking during the “main academic calendar” would be handled by yet another group, probably a student committee, as proposed in the SEC plan. A relationship with KUT would have some benefits for the Cactus Cafe, however this is not the model for it. In the past, the Cactus Cafe has partnered with KUT to present “Live from the Cactus Cafe” programs, and FOTCC believed that these should be re-initiated. Making the Cactus Cafe an arm of KUT, however, in a business model that includes another programming entity and a third party for-profit corporation is a recipe for disaster.
A public forum was held by Juan González on April 21 for further student and community input and when Dr. González opened the forum, he announced that the third-party option was no longer on the table.
The final meeting of the current Union Board was held on April 30. Juan González was to present the two options to the Board at that time and recommend that the final decision be left to Union management on how to proceed. For personal reasons, however, González was not able to attend, and Soncia Reagins-Lilly stood in for him and read a formal statement. González also extended the input deadline by one week, to May 7. The two remaining proposals were 1) a self-operating model and 2) a bifurcated model which, as mentioned above, would involve KUT and another student-run entity booking the room during different times throughout the year.[/collapse] [collapse collapsed]
About the Cactus Cafe
If you look on the University of Texas website, you will find these lines describing the Cactus Cafe:
The Cactus Cafe is one of Austin’s great acoustic music traditions. The Cactus is an intimate live music performance venue, and since the Cafe opened in February 1979, the Cactus has acquired a national reputation, showcasing the top local, regional, national and international acoustic music acts on the circuit today. Billboard magazine listed the Cactus as one of fifteen “solidly respected, savvy clubs” nationwide “from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces.”
As descriptions go, that’s not a bad start and certainly raises the question as to why any university would ever want to close down something with such a sterling reputation.
That reputation has largely been created by the hard work and vision of its current manager, Griff Luneberg, assisted by dedicated and long tenured staffers such as Chris Lueck and Susan Svedeman. Located in the Texas Union building on the University of Texas at Austin campus, the club first opened its doors on February 14, 1979 and Griff worked there since 1981 and managed the club since 1983. For many in the Austin community and the greater music community at-large, Griff Luneberg is the Cactus Cafe, though he would protest otherwise.
Over the years the club has offered — and continues to offer — a wide diversity of musical and other types of programming. It is primarily a listening room for music, however, and that’s one of the things that make it special. At the Cactus Cafe, the focus is on the music, and everything else — the lighting, acoustics, bar operations and audience’s attitude — is designed to enhance and sharpen that primary focus. For singer-songwriters and for music fans everywhere, it is hallowed ground.
The list of now-famous, even legendary, performers who have played Cactus is lengthy. It includes Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Patti Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Loudon Wainwright III, Richard Thompson and many more.
During the daytime hours, it provides a treasured meeting spot for students, professors and members of the community to socialize in a traditional cafe atmosphere, run in part by students. A visitor during these times is likely to encounter lively discussions over any number of topics being conducted over beer and coffee.
All of this combines to make the Cactus Cafe what it is and what we are trying to preserve and support.[/collapse]
For more on the Cactus Cafe: