By Matthew Hinsley

In the first part of this series I mentioned that we at the Austin Classical Guitar Society, have decided this year to expand our programming a bit. I listed our “normal” offerings in some detail, which I’ll abbreviate here: an International Concert Series, a Summer Chamber Music Series, an in-home catered salon concert we call our Benefit Concert, a gala fundraiser for education, and around 100 outreach events annually (from education performances to free community concerts).

Partnerships have become an increasingly valuable way to reach new people, enhance programming, and expand boundaries. In part 1 of this series I reported on how we were able to launch a sold-out series of intimate concerts with wine and cheese receptions by partnering with Heritage Society of Austin, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, and Twin Liquors in Austin.

In the past, we’ve had wonderful luck co-presenting events as well, for example, almost every summer we select at least one event to co-present with the fabulous Austin Chamber Music Center (e.g. this year, we’ll collaborate for our July 16th “Tango” show!). We’ve had similar arrangements with Texas Performing Arts, the Long Center, the Austin Lyric Opera, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Children’s Museum, and many others. In all cases it’s been a simple process of aligning our programming with the mission or flavor of another entity, and then asking them into enter into a simple, quid pro quo, zero dollars, co-promotion partnership. We hire and present the act, they help us spread the word through their channels, and in return we tell everyone who shows up all about the partnering organization!

While today’s installment does revolve around a partnership to be sure, it’s also about pushing the traditional boundaries of classical music.

Classical Cactus

Several years ago I distinctly remember having coffee with superb guitarist (and then-DMA-student-of-Adam Holzman at UT) Dr. Jonathan Dotson. Jonathan and I spoke at length about a vision he had of expanding classical guitar performances beyond the concert hall. As a matter of fact, Jonathan was already practicing what he preached by bringing his phenomenal playing to non-traditional venues like Austin’s hip coffee shop Spider House.

I had thought over the years about effectively bringing classical guitar to new venues. For a several-year period in the 90s ACGS had even orchestrated Monday-night classical guitar open-mics at Mozart’s (another area coffee shop in town). Eventually those evenings became too labor-intensive for us to maintain, not to mention that ensuring entertainment value is difficult in an open-mic environment, and competing with the espresso grinder can get old!

All that said, Jonathan’s conversation stuck with me, and was ringing loudly in my ears, when I got the call from Austin’s NPR affiliate public radio station KUT that they would like to talk because they had just taken over management of the University of Texas at Austin’s famous live music venue, The Cactus Café.

The Cactus Café is known for being an intimate (115 seat) bar and music venue with mostly-acoustic acts, that has hosted some incredibly famous rock, pop, blues and jazz acts over the decades. Even so, with waning audiences in the last few years, combined with the economic downturn, there was a proposal to close the Cactus! This created much turmoil in the community, and the short version of a long story is that KUT came to take over management, and The Cactus remained open.

KUT has been kind to ACGS over the years, we have built a strong relationship that has involved more than 15 years of ACGS guests performing live on the air there! So it made sense that they might call and ask us if we wanted to interface in some way. What shook out from our conversations was that ACGS would program one Thursday each month, for three months in the spring (2011), of classical guitar performances. Our format would be two acts per evening, one at 8 and one at 9. ACGS would make no money on the events, the Cactus would do a 25/75 split with artists (75% for the artists) for $5 admission at the door. The Cactus also has a full bar, so they’d be selling drinks and taking care of all sound and lighting.

Our job, therefore, was to book the acts, maintain communication with the artists, and promote the events as much as possible! The benefit to ACGS? Service to our community, an opportunity to expand our programming with little expense, a chance to meet new people, a chance to hire local artists, and an opportunity to communicate with our constituency (spoken word, print collateral on tables and chairs, air time on KUT, etc.).

We took our job seriously. We decided to develop a brand for the series: Classical Cactus. We added a page to our website, and I asked our designer to create a logo just for the series. We developed fliers for the series – and for each individual act – and not only placed them at our own events, but also asked the artists themselves to spread the word via pdf versions of the fliers and social networking.

Here’s a shot from my iphone of YK performing for our third of three Classical Cactus shows!

For series we booked Chad Ibison, Tom Echols, Michael Gratovich, Kim Perlak, YK, and The Texas Guitar Quartet.

The response was incredible!  We sold 130 tickets to the first show, nearly 100 for the second, the about 140 for the third.  Keep in mind, the Cactus Café only seats 115!  So for two of the shows we had quite a few standing in the back.  The energy was palpable.  At the final concert of the spring, I got up to introduce the second act and asked the crowd if we should keep doing this in the fall – the applause and cheering was immediate and enthusiastic, people are thoroughly enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and great music!

As it turns out, Jonathon Dotson is a member of the Texas Guitar Quartet.  (He’s now also joined the faculty at UT Brownsville where he teaches along side of the dynamic champion of guitar Dr. Michael Quantz).  Jonathan mentioned several times from the stage during their performance how wonderful it was to see Austin produce a series like this, how excited he was to be part of it, and how this was one of the most fun performances he’d ever been part of.  Thank you Jonathan!  Classical Cactus will continue!

Next in this series:  Pasión…

The Classical Cactus logo


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