A Big Word With a Small "A"

Sue Graze on Her First Year Directing the Texas Fine Arts Association

A Big Word With a Small A
Photo By Kenny Braun

Recently, I visited with Sue Graze, executive director of the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA). We met at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, the 700 Congress Avenue arts facility some may still remember in a previous incarnation as Lerner's department store. Dallas architect Gary Cunningham brought a bit of New York's urban art space aesthetic to Austin when TFAA hired him to redesign the building several years ago. The Jones Center's slyly exposed structure, high metal ceilings, and post-industrial simplicity serve as the perfect backdrop for the 89-year old organization's changing contemporary, mostly cutting-edge exhibition schedule. Before coming to Austin last January, Graze worked as Assistant Director for Programs and Senior Curator at the Miami Art Museum, Curator for Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, and as Director of the Center for Research in Contemporary Art at the University of Texas at Arlington. On yet another balmy winter day, we fell into comfy leather sofas in her office to discuss her first year in Austin.

Austin Chronicle: January 11 marks the end of your first year as director of TFAA. What kind of changes have you seen since you've been here?

Sue Graze: It's funny because we had an executive committee meeting today. We have one a month and usually have excellent attendance, but today three out of 11 people showed up. Several called at the last minute, many of them are sick with the flu. I laughed to myself and thought, I've been here a year so now no one's showing up.

AC: Tally Dunn, the president of your board, has just opened a new gallery in Dallas, hasn't she?

SG: Yes, Dunn & Brown Contemporary. Dallas is becoming very lively. The economy is so good not only are old galleries revving themselves up, but there's room for new.

AC: And the climate in Austin?

SG: I feel Austin is totally ripe for some good galleries. Not only do we have all of the people who are involved in high tech and all that, but the community itself has grown to service all of these newcomers. You've got lawyers and financial advisors and managers -- all kinds of things that diversify the art-buying public.

AC: How has TFAA benefited from all this diversity?

SG: We've certainly had more diverse fundraising in terms of corporations and individuals. Of course, we're totally more visible now. The new building helps a lot. It's located in a prime spot and it's not intimidating. Before, I'm sure people went to the Laguna Gloria site and saw a show of ours and had no idea really that it was any different from the Austin Museum of Art's (AMOA) programming. Now we have a separate identity.

AC: Speaking of fundraising, TFAA announced a $3.3 million campaign several years ago. How is it going? Obviously you raised enough money to purchase and renovate the first floor of this building and to begin operations here.

SG: What we've done is put the rest of the capital campaign on hold, because I want to work with the board to do some strategic planning for what we're going to do upstairs.

AC: This project started in 1995?

SG: TFAA purchased the building in '95, so the thinking behind it started before that. We moved into the building November 1998. Now everybody else in Austin is really moving forward in terms of the visual arts. I believe you have to look at yourself in the context of your community and the community needs. We're statewide, but our home is in Austin. I want to think about the upstairs in a new context, in the context of AMOA having its building and the Blanton having its building. What can we add to Austin with all of that in mind?

AC: Distinguish TFAA and what you do from AMOA and the Blanton.

SG: The Texas Fine Arts Association is the oldest statewide visual arts organization that supports solely contemporary art in the state. It was founded in 1911. It has always supported not only artists in Texas, but also all kinds of programs that bring people in from outside the state. Since the 1920s, TFAA has brought artists in and circulated exhibitions throughout the state of Texas. One of the differences between AMOA and us is that whatever we do has a connection to the entire state. Our focus is also on living artists. The Blanton is really quite different. It does collect contemporary art and some of it is from Texas or Texas-based artists, but for the most part their focus is not that. And we don't collect.

AC: You have no ambition to do that?

SG: No, no, no, although I have been involved with collecting institutions most of my career. When you don't collect, you don't have the constraints that go along with that sort of thing. You can be much more flexible, less bureaucratic, you can, from my point of view, be more experimental. The burden of owning and caring for something is much greater than presenting something for a limited period of time, then sending it away. You can be more flexible, and investigate things in a different way -- at least that's how I feel.

AC: Does that compromise what you're saying about the art to the audience? These objects are less important somehow, because we don't want to own them?

SG: No. We are not a museum. We don't say we're a museum. We are an art association, an organization, not a museum. We don't have that aura of finality, that coffin-like place -- You know, people call Austin the "velvet coffin."

AC: No--.

SG: You've not heard that? When I said I was coming to Austin, more than one person said to me, "Oh, Austin, that's the velvet coffin."

AC: What did they mean by that?

SG: These were art people and they said, "If you go to Austin, you become a slacker and dazed and not so active."

AC: Wow. Did you feel that way?

SG: No, it's ridiculous. It's all that competitive chatter.

AC: But was it a hard decision to leave the Miami Museum to come here?

SG: Yes, because I had a position I liked a lot. It was a much more traditional institution and that was what I was used to, that was my background. To come to this place and to have the opportunity to make some things anew was exciting and exhilarating and scary, frankly. At some point, if this institution becomes something more significant in the state, I can say I had a tremendous part in that. If it doesn't, I also have a tremendous part in that, whereas even in an upper level administrative position in a museum, I wouldn't have that kind of responsibility.

AC: So, what are your top priorities for TFAA?

SG: My first priority is to set a tone for our exhibition schedule. What we do is show art, and the reason we opened this building was artists wanted more places to show. I want to focus on the exhibitions, on the quality of the exhibitions. I want to change the character of some of them so people will get a sense that we were something to be reckoned with statewide. It's not all that hard to do.

AC: How many new shows are generated here every year?

SG: This year, there are a lot. From September 1999 through September 2000 we will have eight different shows here.

AC: That is a lot.

SG: It's too many. And I knew it when I was planning them, but I believed if we didn't insert some new programming in this year's schedule, it wouldn't reflect me and my views. It wouldn't feel fresh, and we wouldn't seem nimble. Next year we're absolutely not going to do that many.

AC: And the whole time you're doing that here, you're traveling shows around the state so that at any given moment you have two or three circulating.

SG: We have one person working on only that. It's complicated. We're always shipping back and forth --

AC: Do you develop educational programs or panels that travel with each exhibition to museums or other art spaces?

A Big Word With a Small A
Photo By Kenny Braun

SG: No, but we tell them what we've done here in Austin. And also this year we got some money from the Stillwater Foundation to offer to our venues for their own programming so they can bring somebody in that's not from the Austin office.

AC: You give them money that they can use any way they want?

SG: Yes. So they can do what's appropriate for them. This summer, we'll begin researching the development of curriculum for secondary students and adults about how to look at contemporary art that would travel with our exhibitions.

AC: I was wondering about a smaller town's response to these shows. In Austin, we're used to seeing some pretty strange stuff happen here and at AMOA and the Blanton, but you're sending these exhibitions out to Abilene and College Station.

SG: And those are the big cities.

AC:You don't just drive a truck up and dump this stuff on the sidewalk.

SG: Oh no. There is a dialogue. These other institutions pay us a small fee and we provide the exhibition and the catalogue. We give them notes. But it is not as formal a process in terms of the education as I'd like with various options for people to select from. That would be good for us here in Austin, too.

AC: Have you had a good response to the shows you've had here?

SG: Oh yes, we've had a great response, whereas in Miami, we had wonderful programming, but it was hard to develop an audience.

AC: There are so many people who make art here to sort of prime the audience.

SG: Yes, and when we have programs, we don't just put them out there, we market them.

AC: Do you work with AMOA and the Blanton to build audience?

SG: Yes, we're just about to have an opening at the same time with AMOA: February 11. Both openings are 6-8pm on Friday night. And then the next day, we're having a talk at 2:30pm and they're having a talk at 4pm. We're on the road to major cooperation and that's great. In fact, next year AMOA and TFAA are sharing a Nic Nicosia exhibition.

AC: I'm impressed! Talk a little bit about "New Texas Voices." I think it's a wonderful new program. (The first "New Texas Voices" exhibition, "Material, Process, Memory," was curated by Alexander Dumbadze, a doctoral student at UT's Department of Art & Art history.)

SG: We all know about supporting artists and that's critical. But in terms of putting work together and presenting it to the public, that's a curator's job. I wanted to be able to support the visions and ideas of emerging curators. It's a tough profession if I do say so myself! It's important to nurture young people in that field. We do everything from setting out a timeline for the exhibition and talking to them about placement of artists' work and we talk about defining and focusing their concept initially and about budgets.

AC: So the organization does more than host contemporary exhibitions.

SG: It's a service organization.

AC: You help artists and curators and -- ?

SG: -- give people a window on the curatorial process.

AC: You're in Austin. Do you get city money?

SG: Yes. The city is our single largest patron. We get $44,000.

AC: And your annual budget is half a million dollars?

SG: Yes. We have a group of foundations and private individuals who kick in the rest. We get money from Texas Commission on the Arts as well, almost as much as from the city.

AC: And your endowment?

SG: We now have $80,000 in our endowment and more pledged, which is not going to keep us going without doing everything else we do, but it encourages people to know that we are stable, that we're not going away.

AC: You had a unique two-part fundraiser this year.

SG: Absolut Vodka was the sponsor and we had a party here and at the Driskill Hotel, which we thought was appropriate because of the history. And then we had music (an Arc Angels concert at La Zona Rosa). I loved the idea of working with music because this is Austin, the music capital. It enabled us to have a more high-end fundraiser one evening and we didn't have to charge so much money for the other event.

AC: Remind me about the Driskill connection.

SG: Clara Driskill gave the Laguna Gloria property to TFAA in the Forties, then it later conveyed to AMOA.

AC: We seem to go back and forth, talking about art and money. To work this hard for an arts organization, you have to love it. How did you become an art person?

SG: When I was growing up on Long Island, museums were very familiar to me, but I had no particular art association through my family. Well, I did have a step-grandmother who was an artist of sorts. She took classes from Arshille Gorky. Everyone in my family thought she was crazy. When I was in college, I got involved in art history and I realized this was a lifetime path I could pursue. I ended up with a double major in English and art history, then went to art history graduate school in Southern California and worked for a little gallery there. Originally, I was studying Italian Baroque art, that was what I was doing my thesis in, but then I began meeting artists -- I met Frank Gehry when no one had ever heard of him and went to see his house. I loved it! I loved the idea of working with living artists, and I liked working with objects. So I got an internship at the Dallas Museum and the rest is history.

AC: Do you make art yourself?

SG: I have no artistic talent, but I have all the other skills and knowledge that enable me to really nurture the visual culture of our time.

AC: I'm always surprised that so many people feel estranged from contemporary art, the culture of their own time.

SG: A lot of people don't want to be challenged, and cutting edge art is very challenging, both visually and through its subject matter and the issues it wants to tackle. It's hard for people to understand that artists are responding to our time, too. Some contemporary art does need to be explained, and people don't like that. People want to respond immediately to it.

AC: How would you help someone walk through TFAA's exhibition "Transcending Limits: Moving Beyond Mainstream and Margin"?

SG: I would talk about the idea that artists are responding to our time in terms of media, materials, new forms -- they don't want to make something appropriate for the 19th century. The Impressionists made work that was not acceptable to the traditional critics of their day; they had to establish an alternative spaces to show their work. "Art" is a very big word with a small "a." It encompasses a lot of different things. The best artists are the smartest people I know. They are the best read. They are knowledgeable about all kinds of fields because it plays into the work that they do. I do think more and more people are becoming open to the art of our time by various means. We [arts professionals] are all reaching out. We want people to understand what we're doing and to respond to it in some way.

AC: I have a friend who is always looking at the art on my walls and apologizing for hating it. But I think it's great that she looks long enough to form the opinion, and that she goes back and looks again every time she comes over.

SG: In our case [at TFAA], I can always say, "Well, if this show was not up your alley, difficult to grasp, whatever, guess what? It comes down in six weeks and then we put up something else. Come look again." I love that. end story


"New American Talent: The Fifteenth Exhibition" is on display Feb 11-Mar 12 at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, 700 Congress. A lecture on "Art of the Nineties" will be given by exhibition curator David Pagel on Sat, Feb 12, 2:30pm, at the Jones Center. Call 453-5312 for more info.
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