Utilities plant: A work of art

Published 5:10 pm Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bonnie Rietz and Belita Schindler talk outside the Austin Municipal Plant in downtown Austin. The pair head a group that is organzing The Austin Artworks Festival, which will utilize a portion of the plant. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Art festival will give a look into the possibilities surrounding the downtown utilities plant

Some art-minded Austin residents aren’t waiting for Vision 2020 to come into fruition eight years down the line.

Plans are coming into play to convert the downtown Austin Municipal Plant into a house for art for two days in August. The Austin Artworks Festival will be held Aug. 25-26 and will feature art from all areas including music and food. It’s a move by organizers to tout what is possible for the old building and Vision 2020.

Conversion of the Austin Utilities building was one of 10 ideas revealed as the final Vision 2020 projects back in April.

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“The idea is go get people into the utilities building and get people interested,” said Bonnie Rietz, one of the event organizers.

Gone are the massive turbines from the plant. This is where the main body of the festival will be organized. - Herald file photo

According to the Vision 2020 idea, the utilities building would be part of an “arts corridor” that will run along Fourth Avenue south in downtown Austin. It will include well known buildings like the Hormel Historic Home and Paramount Theatre.

The idea actually came from ideas being thrown around in the Hormel Foundation’s finance committee. A core group of about 20-25 people split into five different committees to develop the festival.

“A lot of people are involved in moving this forward,” Rietz said.

In the beginning, however, the idea wasn’t an arts festival. According to Jennie Germain, project director, it started off with a broader range.

“At the time we were talking about arts and culture in Austin in general,” Germain said. “We weren’t sure where Vision 2020 was going at the time.”

Relatively speaking, the event hasn’t been a reality for long, but the event is showing clear signs of taking off.

“It’s a most interesting thing to work on,” Belita Schindler, another organizer, said. “People are calling to ask if they can be on a committee.”

The plan for the first year is simple: Acceptance.

“We’re going to be very accepting,” Rietz said. “We want it to be more open and fun.”

The idea revolves around several different forms of art and will include everything from paintings to storytellers. There is also the idea of having artists on hand during the two days, particularly if they are from Austin.

“We would love for somebody to come back that has an Austin connection and that are well known,” Schindler said.


Celebrating art

At its heart, the idea of the festival is simple awareness; highlighting the various avenues of art.

“We want to celebrate the arts in Austin,” Rietz said.

A lot of eyes were focused on the utilities building with a variety of ideas swirling around the atmospheric complex, fueled by the idea of what it could be.

“We wanted to show what that space would look like as an arts venue,” Germain said. “I think it’s a great place. There are a lot of architectural aspects that would be interesting.

“The idea is to put (Austin) on the map as a destination,” Germain added.

When it comes to what the festival could be, the options are many, because it’s not just the main building, with its three massive smoke stacks, that’s available.

There is the parking lot along with the row of garages running alongside that will be available as well as talk of wanting to close down Fourth Avenue running out front. It’s a scope that has ranged outside the original idea.

“This started as a one-day festival,” Germain joked. “I missed a meeting, and all of a sudden it was two days.”

It’s a testament to how well this is being accepted and how quickly its being put together, seemingly on the fly.

“It’s kind of like building an airplane while it’s in the air,” Germain said.

Plans for the utilities building include both inside and outside spaces as well as possibly closing Fourth Avenue. However, space inside will be limited to only the main turbine room. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Room for more

The hope for the festival is expansion, not just in the festival itself, but downtown in general and how the festival affects it.

The committee hopes other businesses will join the cause and have things of their own going on during the festival to balloon the options people have.

Both Rietz and Schindler joked that it’s a cause they would go after even if it meant walking from business to business.

“When people come downtown, we want other things going on,” Rietz said. “We’re going to walk along and say, ‘please be open.’”

The benefit then would expand past the festival to downtown businesses keeping alive a trend to make the area better.

“We’ve worked for so many years on downtown, we have to keep it going,” Schindler said. “We want our downtown healthy, and we’re going to do something about.”


Site prep

Since the auction last year, a majority of the equipment that was housed in that room has been removed. The large turbines that anchored the room have been removed, leaving holes and some other equipment behind. The holes left behind where the turbines sat have been filled.

In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t much that needs to be done to get it ready.

“We probably couldn’t have done this last year,” said Austin Utilities general manager Mark Nibaur who has been working close with the committee.

“There’s still some cleaning: Clean the floors, walls — it’s not in bad shape,” he said. “I think its a great opportunity to allow the public to see a part of this building. It fits well with 2020.”


The future:

Near and far

While the application process hasn’t been opened yet, artists can expect to see something very soon. One of the biggest limitations will be the number of artists. The turbine room will be the only room available inside the main building as well as the outside garages.

It will become increasingly important when you add everything else along with ideas still being considered. Already, five food venders have been finalized. There has also been thoughts given to glass blowers, sculptors and possible activities for kids.

But for the time being the committee is just looking forward to the several applicants it hopes it gets.

The hope for the festival itself is that it continues, even if it doesn’t continue in the utilities building.

“The group is going to meet afterwards and talk about what went well,” Rietz said. “We’re really excited to have another festival.”

The festival, though still some months away, has a good start not only to showcase the arts in Austin but to take this first move toward a Vision 2020 goal.

“I’m excited,” Germain said. “To have this first step, it means things are actually starting to come together.”