AUSTIN: Salvage Vanguard Theater, a creator and presenter of experimental theatre, has been forced to move out of its longtime home on East Manor Road in the city’s Eastside neighborhood. The property the theatre has called home since 2006 was recently acquired by Fairway Properties, which specializes in commercial and residential real estate. The theatre is expected to vacate the building on June 30, 2016.
“The new owner was not interested in entertaining conversation with us about potential purchase or a lease renewal,” said artistic director Jenny Larson bluntly over the phone. “So we’re out and we don’t have a choice!”
Since moving in, SVT transformed the 6,000-square-foot warehouse into a full-fledged development hub with a gallery, a 49-seat theatre, a 99-seat theatre, scene shop, storage, office space, and a puppet workshop. It has a budget of $300,000. Prior to the sale, SVT had been interested in purchasing the building, but it proved too expensive.
“Because of the way the property lines were drawn on [the landlord’s] two joining lots, he was not willing to entertain selling us our parcels alone; he needed to sell both parcels at the same time,” Larson explained.
In its 10 years in the space, the 21-year-old SVT has created its own work as well as hosted more than 50 artists and organizations, including most recently OUTsider Fest, Trouble Puppet Theater, and KDH Dance Company. In 2015, more than 30,000 audience members have come through the theatre’s doors, and in turn, patronizing the numerous bars and restaurants that have popped up around SVT.
“We provide jobs, and we provide a space for people to do their art,” said Larson. “And we encourage commerce and growth on the block that we live on. We’ve been here 10 years; the growth has been astronomical.”
Said Kathy Dunn Hammrick, choreographer and artistic director of KDH Dance Company, in a statement: “SVT has become a home for our dance company and for our audiences. SVT is the only theatre in Austin that is affordable, suitable for my work, and available during our season. I can honestly say that without SVT, I don’t know where I would be able to present our dance season.”
Larson is currently shopping for new spaces for her company, but so far she’s only seen options that would cost more than three times the rent SVT currently pays. For her, it’s indicative of the further Brooklynization of Austin, once considered an alternative arts hub for artists priced out of New York City, and the home of South by Southwest and Fusebox Festival but now getting to be as expensive as some major metropolitan cities. In recent months, a number of dance and music venues have been forced to relocate or, in worst-case scenarios, close down altogether, including Tapestry Dance Company, Holy Mountain, and Red 7.
Upon hearing the news about SVT, district council member Ora Houston released a statement saying, “The announcement that SVT will lose their lease makes me very sad…How many more creative local venues must we lose before the members of the community say stop—enough is enough!”
For her part, Larson is taking up advocacy. On the day of our interview, she was meeting with a group of artists to start strategizing. One idea: for the city to create a municipally protected 99-year lease for small arts organizations, the same often given to larger organizations, to protect them from rent increases.
“If you want to call yourself an arts town, you need to be looking out for us and taking care of us,” said Larson.
They’re not going gently into that good night: SVT is booked solid with engagements through June 26, giving them just four days to move. They’re also taking donations to fund their moving expenses. Larson estimates it will cost a minimum $20,000 to move out of the Manor Road space, and around $300,000 to transform a potential future space into a performance venue.
For now, Larson has very simple instructions for anyone looking to support SVT.
“If you’re in Austin, come to the show. Another thing is volunteering—if you’re in Austin and you want to help us pack some boxes, paint some things, we could use the help there, too.”