We salute Bloomberg arts gifts, Austin Opera, Austin Art League and more

As reported in the New York Times, Bloomberg Philanthropies is putting $43 million into small and midsize arts group in seven new cities, including Austin.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the Times.

The other cities new to the project are Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. Already, the program has given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By invitation, the arts groups are offered unrestricted support up to 10 percent of their budgets along with management training.

We’ll update this report when names of the local arts groups are revealed.

Austin Opera

Notes on Austin Opera‘s recent production of “La Traviata.”

• Just as with Austin Symphony‘s concert that included Beethoven‘s Fifth, the opera company can fill a house with a favorite. Yes, just as patron Robert Nash said as he passed me going in, this was something like my 5,000th “La Traviata,” but who is counting? I like a full, enthusiastic house and a fresh interpretation of a classic.

• Every “La Traviata” is about Violetta, the fallen woman who finds love, abandons it in sacrifice, then dies. Yet everything about this production at the Long Center for the Performing arts centered expressly on Marina Costa-Jackson, who could fill an sporting arena with her charisma, her nuanced acting and her gorgeously tawny voice. She now moves up to spot No. 2 after Patricia Racette on my list of favorite Violettas.

RELATED: How Austin Opera got its groove back.

• Every conductor from here on out must be considered a candidate for the position of Austin Opera artistic director. That’s not the official line, but it’s customary. What can we say about Steven White, who conducts around the world including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York? Judged by this one show, his sound is clean, unassuming and solidly in support of the artistic whole.

• While we loved the whirlwinds of activity elicited by stage director David Lefkowich, as well as the simplicity of his intimate scenes, we were of two minds about the costumes, sets and lights. The first act was appropriately suggestive of a bordello with a hint of luxury, each subsequent scene looked more and more bleak, less and less polished.

• Alfredo is, by nature, a pallid character. And that’s the way tenor Scott Quinn played him from beginning to end. Even during scenes of rage or regret. Germont, on the other hand, offers a mature range of responses. Although he looked young for the role of Alfredo’s father, Michael Chioldi proved forceful, then dignified, although he was less convincing as he warmed to Violetta.

Austin Art League

They have been meeting for more than 100 years. The Austin Art League started regularly examining and discussing art in social settings in 1909. They continue to do so.

Apoorva Jain, Lulu Flores and Laura Bauman during the Art League Luncheon at Tarry House. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

During a light luncheon at Tarry House, a private club in Tarrytown on a former estate that belonged the Reed family, they covered a multitude of subjects, but got down to business handing out scholarships to Austin Community College art students Apoorva Jain and Laura Bauman. A third recipient of the $1,500 grants was not present.

They can do so because, a few years ago the group sold a collection of art that they owned, but had been closeted at the Austin History Center for decades. That secret stash brought in $200,000, part of a story I want to tell in full.

In the custom of legacy women’s clubs, members have at times been identified only by their husband’s names, at other times by their given first names and married last names. Looking over a list of first 100 or so presidents, I spied some social celebrities right off: Mrs. Walter E. Long, Mrs. Harry Bickler, Mrs. T.P. Whitis, Mrs. R.L. Batts, Mrs. T.S. Painter, Mrs. Z.T. Scott, Mrs. Fred. S. Nagle, Mrs. Austin Phelps, Mrs. Martha Deatherage, Mrs. G. Felder Thornhill III, Mrs. D.J. Sibley, Jr. and Mrs. Frank Starr Niendorff.

Leonard Lehrer

We did not know accomplished artist, teacher and administrator Leonard Lehrer, but he spent his last years in the Austin area. He died on May 8.

Leonard Lehrer

Lehrer was a founding trustee and current honorary member of the International Print Center New York and emeritus professor of art from New York University, among other titles. His art was the subject of 48 solo exhibitions and multiple group shows. His work is in the collectcions of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Library of Congress as well as other museums and private collections.

Lehrer studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught or led programs at the Philadelphia College of Art, University of New Mexico, University of Texas at San Antonio, Arizona State University, Columbia College Chicago and New York University. His last position was a director of the printmaking convergence program at the University of Texas.

A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. June 2 at Thurman’s Mansion in Driftwood.

Austin actor, producer and educator Billy Harden has died

Billy Harden, co-founder of Spectrum Theatre Company, died early Tuesday of colon cancer. He was 64. An actor, producer and educator, Harden appeared in many shows with Spectrum, Zach Theatre and permutations of Austin Playhouse.

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Austin actor, producer and educator Billy Harden has died. Larry Kolvoord/American-Statesman

“(I’m) wrecked today at the loss of Billy Harden,” posted Laura Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse, on social media. “I met Billy when I was 12 years old and for 30 years he served as an unparalleled example of kindness and integrity. … I’m grateful to have known him and so saddened by his loss.”

Harden earned a doctorate in educational leadership and served as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator. He was former head of school at Goodwill Industries Charter School and assistant principal at the Austin School District’s Alternative Learning Center.

Among his memorable performances were multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts include roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and many more.

“Billy was such as sweet soul,” posted actor Felicia Dinwiddie on social media. “And so talented and surely he will be missed. … He has taken his final bow into the hands of the Lord.”

“Billy F. Harden was present from some of the earliest parts of my venture into this industry,” posted actor Vincent Hooper. “A constant source of wisdom, experience, kindness, and support; Billy was always such a positive presence to have around. You could always find him involved in something bigger than himself.”

Harden served as executive director of Spectrum, Austin’s leading African-American theater company, founded by Harden with Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson.

“There’s an old gospel song that says, ‘May the work I’ve done, speak for me’,” Stinson said. “Although Billy is now safe in the arms of Jesus, his works will continue to speak. I will truly miss my dear friend of 33 years. We have shared the stage many times, often cast as husband and wife. In fact, Billy would sometime introduce me as his ‘stage wife.’ So as your friend, castmate and stage wife, I say, ‘Take your rest my friend.'”

RELATED: Billy Harden on desegregating the city’s schools.

He is survived by his mother, Ada Harden, brother, Roosevelt Harden, Jr., and sisters, Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis. No memorial service has been announced.

This is a developing story. Check back here later for more details.

Austin theater veteran Ken Johnson dies at age 82

Austin theater veteran Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson died at home Friday of a heart attack. He was 82.

“Ken died here on Gault Street sitting in a red swivel chair in front of his computer and TV,” said longtime friend and housemate Maggie Cox. “Two of his dogs were in his office with him.”

According to his friends, Johnson came to Austin from Port Arthur in 1965. He transformed the community theater troupe known as Austin Civic Theatre into Zachary Scott Theatre, which is now Zach Theatre. Johnson named it after an Austin-reared stage and movie star who died in 1965 and whose family had been prominent in the city through several generations.

Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson, 1935-2018

Johnson had long runs as the director of at least two other groups, Center Stage and Hyde Park Theatre, and he participated in the revival of the Paramount Theatre. Johnson wrote many plays and screenplays, most notably “Jesse’s Closet,” his stage drama that he adapted and directed for the screen.

Tempestuous and sometimes controversial, Johnson kept close a coterie of theater friends. Cox worked with him in various capacities for decades and invited him to share her home during his later years. She said that Johnson raised the general level of quality in Austin theater, including at what would become Zach.

“His abrasive nature was like a grain of sand in an oyster shell before he left,” she said. “Strong  management practices after that helped propel Zach Theatre toward the grand theater it is today.”  
Dock Jackson, a Bastrop public servant who worked with Johnson mainly in the 1970s, praised his skills as director, producer, writer, theater owner, actor, singer, set designer, costume coordinator and master carpenter.
Jackson: “There wasn’t anything he didn’t or couldn’t do in the theater.”
Johnson worked energetically until the end. He eagerly took to YouTube and created many short films for that format.

Memorial services are pending.