Chasing the Dream
AVAA Director Vanessa Ronsonette
about the shortage of exhibition space for artists in Austin. Ronsonette - who was born in Bridge City, Texas - moved to Ohio with her husband, and then returned to Texas eager to find a niche in Austin's rich cultural climate. "I think I'm a good administrator," she says, "I love art, but I'm not an artist. I want to be immersed in the arts."
Volunteering her time as coordinator of AVAA's Leading Visions program, a series of seminars meant to serve arts administrators as well as artists, she also became involved in the process of writing AVAA's cultural contract with the city. "I was working to fund my own position," she says, adding that there were not many arts administration positions open to someone with her background - a B.A. in political science from Ohio State University and stints as assistant to a sculptor and then a wealthy collector. She was convinced she could work to make her own opportunities. By October 1993, the position of executive director of AVAA had become a paid rather than volunteer, half-time position, and the job belonged to Vanessa Ronsonette.
The AVAA office is little more than a reception area between the entry doors and individual offices within AVAA treasurer Mark Schiffgen's one-story office building on East 51st Street. Visitors to the building occasionally ask Ronsonette how to find Schiffgen's and other tenant's spaces, but the most frequent questions come from AVAA's artist-members, wanting to know where they can find studio space and where they can show their work in Austin. According to its director, AVAA sees itself as a local information and referral service for artists. Ronsonette stresses they are a "membership organization" which exists to provide services for members as well as to "expand public appreciation and awareness of the visual arts and visual artists." A lot of the time, she answers artists' phone calls about where to make and exhibit work. While she refuses to maintain a printed list of eateries that show artwork, she provides answers when she can and helps artists make connections which might prove useful. She is also eager to work cooperatively with other arts groups. AVAA, La Peña, Mexic-Arte Museum, Women & Their Work, and the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria have begun to share mailing lists, which is a significant sign of mutual support. "Interface [with other organizations] comes as a result of personal relationships," says Ronsonette. "I am working on it."
While the director is a relative newcomer to the scene, AVAA was established nearly 20 years ago as the Austin Contemporary Visual Arts Association, then changed its name in 1986. The group's fortunes and direction waxed and waned with Austin's economy during the Eighties. At present there are about 400 paying members - mostly artists. Members receive the organization's newsletter 10 times a year, access to the annual membership exhibition and credit union membership, and exhibition and program fee discounts. The current Membership Directory and Resource Guide, which is mailed free to members, is in its second edition. It includes lists of artists, arts organizations, free and rental exhibition spaces, studio spaces, art schools, and classes. The booklet also includes a list of political representatives, from city councilmembers to President Clinton. It is a handy brochure, professionally designed and executed, as is AVAA's Gallery Guide, distributed by the Chamber of Commerce and other tourist-oriented groups. Along with Avaanti, edited by Jacqueline Mgebroff and designed by Molly McCombs, these printed materials go a long way toward presenting the organization in a professional light.
"Is this the office of Mark Schiffgens?" asks a stranger passing through the AVAA office as Ronsonette is being interviewed for this article. She smiles, points down a long hallway and continues, calmly, to answer questions. Ronsonette is a self-possessed woman, young-looking, with round, pale eyes, and tousled, medium-length brown hair. She balances her part-time job with AVAA, which occasionally claims twice the 20 hours a week for which she is compensated, with caring for her husband and 18-month-old son. Volunteers, generous with their time, help mail the newsletter and organize AVAA's other projects including the upcoming Art @ Large Billboard Art Competition. This is the eighth annual opportunity for artists to have their work reproduced on a giant and eminently public scale by Austin Outdoor Advertising painters. The three winning boards will be unveiled March 7, 1996 and then displayed around Austin for approximately six months. This year, a collaborative piece created by children under 12 will also be selected.
In prior years, AVAA hosted eight Leading Visions Seminars annually, but that number has been cut in half in hopes of raising the quality and attendance for each program. Recently, Leading Visions transported a group of Austin-based artists and arts administrators to San Antonio to meet with gallery owners at Blue Star Arts Complex, tour the Pace Roberts Foundation, and visit with Linda Pace Roberts and newly appointed Director of ArtPace, Laurence Miller. "It makes me very jealous," says Ronsonette when asked about the trip. "I want for Austin to have what they have." Success, she concedes, feeds on success, and Austin groups need to build their reputations through achievement and raise money. AVAA's job is "to help change the image of the Austin art scene," she says, which will in turn promote a better future here for the arts.
To that end, AVAA will soon hold its annual August board member retreat to plan for the future. "We are due for a good look at where we are and where we're going," Ronsonette says. By improving their Membership Directory, making certain the newsletter comes out on time, and developing the Gallery Guide, she is hoping to position the organization so that they can begin to move forward and seek out new patrons with confidence. When asked whether they have aspirations to have a permanent space of their own - as so many other visual arts groups seem to be working toward - Ronsonette looks startled. "Our dream would be to have our own gallery space for our shows and to make available for artists to use," she says, emphasizing the word "dream." "It's fairly easy for us to find a space for an art exhibition," says Ronsonette, returning to the theme that first grabbed her attention three years ago when she moved to Austin, "but it's much harder for individual artists or smaller groups." Even after the board writes a long-range plan and fine tunes their mission statement, there is a lot of work to do before such a dream can find substance. Asked about her personal dreams, Vanessa Ronsonette says she wants to be "involved in the arts in a center position for as long as possible." n