The Cactus Café, a music venue established in the University of Texas student union in 1979, barely seats 150 people. The stage, backed by a quaint, red velvet curtain, is somewhat cramped (much like the rest of the space), but it is here that much of Austin’s musical heritage from the last 30 years has been established. However, the Cactus Café may be going in a “new direction” said the school’s Student Government President Liam O’Rourke.
Initially, the famous listening room was going to be nixed alongside the informal classes program in an effort to cut costs by the university. However, in recent developments since the initial press release, UT administrators and student body officials have tried to distance themselves from the idea that the Café would be closed permanently. O’Rourke said, “We’re changing the Cactus Café’s management. We’re opening it up for a more diverse set of acts that are more relevant to students, but that doesn’t exclude acts that perform there today.”
Students have been less upset about the closure than alumni and other members of the Austin community. Juan Gonzalez, vice president of student affairs explained, “We examined it very closely, and while the students understand the loss, they also understand there are higher priorities, and to direct services to students, I think, is the higher calling.”
O’Rourke said that he has received a total of nine negative e-mail responses from students since a campuswide was sent out announcing the plan to close the Café, but business students have emailed him saying that managing the Cactus Café would be an excellent class project, which university President William Powers, Jr. proposed in a town hall meeting several weeks ago.
Andrew Nash, president of the Student Events Center (SEC) said, “We’d be creating a new committee within the next few weeks or month that would be tasked with promoting the space and bringing student organizations to utilize the space.”
The Cactus Café has won the Austin Chronicle’s Austin Music Awards title ‘Best Acoustic Venue’ for 8 years in a row (the only venue with this claim to fame since the category was established in 2001-02), and has been the launching point for the careers of many notable Texas musicians, including Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. However, despite Nash’s assurances that they’re “making sure none of the history would be lost,” people are concerned that all of this could change.
Reid Nelson, a leader of the Save the Cactus Café movement said, “If keeping the Cactus Café open and turning it into a hip-hop room is
what they’re talking about, that’s not keeping the Cactus open.”
Dale Rempert, treasurer of the Austin Friends of Traditional Music, believes that the music played at the Cactus is largely in part because of the contacts and experience of manager Griff Luneberg, and the idea of replacing him with students who would run the venue is ridiculous. “It won’t be the Cactus,” Rampert said.
The Cactus Café was intended to be self sufficient, but in recent years it has had to depend more and more on the $66,000 subsidy it receives from the university. This could be for many reasons: Firstly, there is no way for the Cactus to accept donations. Secondly, it is a cash only venue, which is fine for older, moneyed patrons, but more difficult for college students who are short on cash but would be willing to pay with a card. Furthermore, because UT is hesitant to promote a venue that sells alcohol to students, events at the Cactus Café are not permitted to be promoted on campus.
Moral of the story: “The cafe will continue to exist,” said Gonzalez, “But it’s going to be different because it’ll have student oversight. There’s an end to the prior chapter of how it existed and the beginning of a new chapter more defined by current students and students’ wishes.”