TFAA Director Sandra Greagor Igniting a Fire for the Arts
Greagor's step-down, added-on office has a montage of art cards taped to the edges of her bookshelves, art objects on the wall, art books, and ideas littered everywhere. And there's a computer on the floor. "What is this?... It's not anything," she says looking around somewhat hopelessly at the mess. "A work in progress." The clutter begins in the front office and mounds throughout all five tiny work spaces. TFAA is headquartered in the modest gatehouse just inside the grounds of the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria. It stands separate from the museum galleries in the old Clara Driscoll house and the newer art school building tucked into the trees. Similarly, TFAA is a non-profit entity, completely independent of the museum, although their histories intersect.
TFAA was founded in 1911 to purchase and preserve sculptor Elisabet Ney's work. Her studio was converted into a museum by the organization and later given to the city. In 1943, Clara Driscoll donated her home on Lake Austin to TFAA as an art museum for the citizens of Texas. Nearly 20 years later, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Inc. was created as a separate chapter of TFAA to operate the museum. Eventually, the building and grounds were deeded to Laguna Gloria.
Greagor herself came to Austin to work at Laguna Gloria as its first public information officer. While visiting her brother (a UT student) during the winter of 1977, she was won over both by the Carl Andre show that museum director Laurence Miller had brought to the museum, as well as the ice-free weather - which was at least 60 degrees warmer than Springfield, Illinois where she had been living. Working toward a masters degree in arts administration at Sangamon State University, Greagor had been instructed to find a non-profit organization to work with for a semester. She quickly chose the museum in Austin. They chose her in return. The next summer, after finishing her degree, she returned to Laguna Gloria for four years. She worked at the Texas Commission for the Arts for the next two and then was offered the director's job at TFAA. Greagor said, "I'll give it a year and see what happens." She will have served for 12 years this coming November.
When Greagor became director, visitors to the gatehouse had to pound on double garage doors to gain entry to the offices, and so one of her first priorities was to carve out a front door. She has been creating doors ever since, opening new opportunities to artists and for the entire art community in Austin. You have only to prowl through the stacks of paper in the office to know there's a lot going on. TFAA's purpose is to "promote the growth, development and appreciation of contemporary visual art and artists in Texas." Sandra Greagor can recite the mission statement by heart. She is a tall woman who stoops forward some. Her demeanor is gracious and unhurried. A combination of white hair, dark eyebrows, smooth skin, and a forthright chin - not to mention somewhat eccentric art clothes - make it impossible to guess her age. Suffice to say, she looked like an incredibly young grandma in a black shirt over gray leggings with a black-and-white polka dot skirt peeking out between the two.
Greagor's initial education in the visual arts came from being married to an artist and art historian. "He was a good teacher," she says of her former husband. Together they traveled, met other artists, and collected art. Greagor's curiosity about the visual arts grew as her experience expanded. "I was very fortunate to get an immersion in the visual arts," she said. Her degrees in linguistics and education were soon set aside.
Serving artists, particularly emerging artists from Texas, is one of the organization's primary goals. Roughly 40 percent of TFAA's 1,000 members live in Austin. Most of them, and many board and advisory board members, are artists. Current board president, Heather McKinney, is an architect. "We are geared toward helping artists gain more recognition," says Greagor. TFAA provides a quarterly newsletter, health insurance, reduced prices for art magazine subscriptions, and artists' conferences - often organized in conjunction with UT or other groups. During the next year, they are planning a conference on health issues for studio artists.
TFAA also hosts an art auction every year, inviting certain artists from around the state to submit work, and organizes two juried exhibitions and one curated exhibition annually. Texas artists usually make up 25-33 percent of each show. Of course, this is because "there are lots of entries from Texas," says Greagor, "but also because the art is very good." TFAA wants to place Texas artists in a national context, feeling certain that they can hold their own. The quality of the jurors imported from museums across the country (including representatives from the Hirshorn in Washington, the Whitney Museum in New York) and the production of catalogues to document each exhibition are very important for participating artists.
In addition, exhibitions that begin here in Austin are traveled by TFAA to museums and galleries throughout the state. Seventeen to 18 sites around Texas receive TFAA travelling exhibitions each year. Four different exhibits circulate at a time at a modest cost to the host community. For some, TFAA's "Art on Tour" is the only outside exhibition readily available to the local audiences.
If they had more space, Greagor contends TFAA could assemble and travel even more exhibitions. They might also trade shows with other art spaces around the state, or borrow from private collections to increase the Austin community's access to art. Because Austin has watched so many building projects fizzle, Greagor chooses her words carefully when talking about the future. "We are planning to have a greater downtown presence, she says. "A year-round exhibition space." TFAA has begun to select an architect to renovate the building at 700 Congress Avenue, which they hope to purchase. Greagor acknowledges that these projects often "cost twice as much and take three times as long as planned," which is why TFAA has been hesitant to announce publicly that a substantial portion of the purchase price for the building is already in the bank. "It feels very good," she says modestly. Once the cost of the building has been raised and an architect chosen, new development director Bennett Sampson will help launch the organization's capital and endowment drive to raise nearly $3 million. "Our project is very focused," says Greagor, crediting TFAA's board with the enthusiasm and commitment to realize their dreams. The new site would double the exhibition space now available at the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria and will provide space for small workshops, additional storage, and comfortable working conditions for the three full-time and three half-time employees (along with interns and volunteers).
The organization has worked hard to maintain a stable and balanced source of revenue. About 15%, or $50,000, of their annual budget comes from public sources - city, state, and federal funds. This year a $20,000 NEA grant has helped support "Art on Tour," keeping the costs affordable for small community museums. Because of their statewide emphasis, TFAA raises funds outside the city of Austin as well as locally, and has board representation from across the state. A truly unique funding source of money for TFAA has been its "Collector's Circle," a program that developed when Mark L. Smith was president of the organization. Even before his involvement with Flatbed Press, Smith was interested in the print medium. He convinced noted Austin painter Melissa Miller to be the first artist to make a print that would be sold to benefit TFAA. Since that time, a stellar series of statewide artists have contributed their time and talent, including Casey Williams, David Bates, and Michael Ray Charles. John Alexander's "Troubled Man Walking His Dogs," the most recent print in the series, is a large, nine-color color lithograph printed at Ken Hale's studio in Austin. As of this time, new Collector's Circle members can choose from any of the prints in the series.
Asked what her dream would be for TFAA Sandra Greagor quickly answers, "an endowment like the Kimball (Museum in Fort Worth)." Barring that unlikely boon, moving to the downtown space would be a enough of a dream come true for the organization. "To tour Texas artists internationally," she adds, "would be wonderful, too."
Personally, Greagor dreams on a more modest scale. "I'd like to be able to take a real vacation," she laughs, "but, I'm very fortunate to do work that I love." She says that perhaps her best dream would be for TFAA to achieve its goals regarding the downtown space. Last year, the TFAA exhibition and auction at 700 Congress was called "Memory and Desire." This year the show will be entitled "Red Hot," encouraging the Austin arts community to look for a substantial spark in TFAA's future. Certainly the director has done all she can during the last 12 years to light a fire under the organization. n