Ten Years After

Curator Annette Carlozzi Returns to Austin's Arts Scene

Annette Carlozzi's photograph on the inside jacket cover of her book, 50 Texas Artists, still accurately describes her. She is a dark-haired, pale-eyed, attractive woman. The book was published in 1986 as she was completing her seventh year as senior curator of Laguna Gloria Art Museum, just before Carlozzi and her husband, writer Tom Zigal, left for Aspen, where she became director of the Aspen Art Museum. Several years later, she was named Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans and then was appointed Visual Arts Producer for the 1996 Olympics Arts Festival. Now Carlozzi has returned as Curator of Contemporary Art for UT's Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery. If anyone has the credentials to evaluate the changes 10 years have brought to this city's art scene, this woman does -- and she's also an old friend -- so I invited her to lunch.

At first, she demurred, saying she had only the most preliminary of impressions to offer, that she'd spent most of her first month in Austin fixing up their first house, settling her son in school, visiting friends and family. I want your gut reaction, I assured her, even pre-preliminary impressions are fine. When she began by talking about how much she has enjoyed The Austin Chronicle's cultural coverage, I thought my editor might even pay for the meal.

Annette Carlozzi: In Atlanta we had very little if any first-person reporting, so it was great to come here and read the Olympic Diaries of five Austin acts that performed in Atlanta's Centennial Park (The Austin Chronicle, Vol. 15, No. 50, August 16, 1996). I read it from the perspective of the producer, wondering how they felt they were treated but also trying to imagine how it would be if it was my only window on the Olympics. The places I've lived since I left Austin have not had serious, incisive reporting on culture and entertainment in their alternative newspapers, but in the Chronicle the writing is really smart. It's not separated from the rest of the paper as if the right brain were something so exotic it had to be separated from the rest of life. It's really refreshing.

Austin Chronicle: The Olympic exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum ("Rings: Five Passions in World Art") that was curated by J. Carter Brown (former Director, now Director Emeritus of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) got lots of critical coverage, nationally and internationally. Did you help plan the exhibition? What did you think of it? Did it deserve the criticism?

Carlozzi: Yes, yes, and yes. (Laughter.) My role as producer of the visual arts program was to coordinate all the art exhibitions that we had coming into town and also to commission works of public art. I represented the Olympic interest in the co-development of the "Rings" project, but the staff of the High Museum was experienced enough to do the show without needing my help. I had the opportunity and the privilege, really, of sitting in at all the organizational meetings.

The exhibition was a really fine collection of works drawn together in a novel way. The installation design allowed the works to be considered individually. And I think it deserved the critical response it got. I wasn't defensive about the criticism. But I don't know that Carter felt that way....

AC: It drew huge crowds, right?

Carlozzi: I don't know that every day was a record breaker, but there were times when there were lines around the block.

AC: You interfaced not only with Carter Brown, but an international array of artists. Commissioning the Olympic torch by Siah Armajani was one of your projects -- the big opening and closing Olympic shot on TV! That's heady stuff.

Carlozzi: It doesn't matter what the context is. When you commission work, it's always the same. You just bring yourself and your set of observations to the experience every time, and artists give you theirs. But there was a moment during the presentation when things got heady in an extraordinary way. During the Olympic period, it was exciting to see the exhibitions, the public artworks out in the street available to people. I got to do a national media tour for two days in a bus. They were really excited to see things they hadn't seen before. But by and large, it was still very personal, very intimate. It was never, `5,000 people today talked to me about what they think.' It was about the three people I stopped on the street and asked what they thought.

AC: What was the response to Betty Saar's "Spirit Chairs"? (In June, Saar interrupted her work on the Olympic project to come to Austin's Women & Their Work Gallery for the opening of her exhibition.)

Carlozzi: People were really struck with the work, even though it was on a very intimate scale, about the size a real chair would be. Each was put in a location where the surrounding environment created an intimate space -- city parks and the university campus. They were discovered rather than encountered. One of them was vandalized. Twice. It finally stopped. Whoever was doing it made their peace with it, I guess. Anyway, what I liked about her work was that it was so intimate compared to the monumentality of some of the other works.

AC: While you were off in Atlanta, did you stay in touch with your colleagues around Texas? Do you know the names of the current players?

Carlozzi: No, I have some catching up to do. My work with the Olympics was very focused.

AC: Well, everyone in Texas seems to be in a building or adding-on mode -- the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, even the Dallas Museum of Art is thinking of expanding again. Is this because Texas is somehow behind the rest of the country when it comes to great arts institutions?

Carlozzi: Not at all. The Kimbell Museum and the Menil Collection still represent the best in wonderfully understated museum design.

AC: And in Austin we're trying to change everything at once -- again. Do you have a sense of déjà vu with both the University Museum and the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA, formerly Laguna Gloria Art Museum) planning new buildings?

Carlozzi: Yes, a little bit. Although I know that in the intervening decade, there was a real slump for awhile. I'm glad to see that they're all moving forward again.

AC: When you left 10 years ago, Sandra Gregor was head of TFAA (Texas Fine Arts Association), Chris Cowden had been at W&TW (Women & Their Work) for about a year, Jessie Hite worked at the Huntington, but not as director.

Carlozzi: A lot of the players were the same, but their roles were different. There are a lot of similarities, but I see all the institutions as having gone through a lot of change, too, in the last 10 years. The challenge for me is learning who the institutions are now and not assuming they are who they used to be.

AC: The AMOA is moving downtown into a temporary space again.

Carlozzi: Yes, that was surprising for me. I'd been paying closer attention to TFAA's move downtown. I just hope AMOA stays there long enough to get their feet on the ground, to establish a strong downtown presence and constituency for the new building.

AC: Do you think it's a good idea?

Carlozzi: I think it's a smart move [as long as they] stabilize and mass their resources so they can move to the next step. It will take awhile to establish that presence. They should take their time. That's just my opinion. I'm excited for them. A lot of institutions seem to be anticipating big changes in the next couple of years. That's exciting, risky, nerve-wracking. It's a little scary to think that everybody's doing it at the same time. It's been so long in the planning stages, I only hope the momentum is backed by some serious commitments by fundraisers so the plans can be realized.

Let me ask you something. Have you seen Patricia Johnson's book, Contemporary Art in Texas? [Published last year, the book features 48 artists from around the state, selected by the Houston Chronicle art critic.] I haven't seen it yet.

AC: I brought a copy with me so we could compare. (Carlozzi starts perusing the contents page intently.)

Carlozzi: She had the freedom to include artists who lived outside Texas that I didn't have -- Terry Allen, John Alexander, Mel Chin. I thought of them.

AC: People say there's a definite Houston bias in the Johnson book.

Carlozzi: And they said mine had an Austin bias.

AC: Did you try for a geographic balance?

Carlozzi: No, I started with 250 people and went out to see the work in studios and galleries until I reduced the number to 70. Then I worried about how to get from there to 50. The issues of [state-wide] balance weren't ones I could address. Gender and race couldn't be addressed the way I wanted either. In my mind, the more advanced work was being done predominately by white men, because the opportunities for their work to mature were greater. I talked a little about it in the introduction. Some day there will be a better degree of balance there.

AC: You can see that to some extent in Johnson's book. Some of her additions are women, minorities. Who don't you know on her list?

Carlozzi: Four artists.

AC: Amazing. Since you've been back in Texas, have you identified any potential new art stars to watch?

Carlozzi: Not yet. But I've been looking very casually. Starting Monday, I put on my hat of obsessive seriousness.

AC: Has there ever been a contemporary curator at the Huntington before?

Carlozzi: I don't think so.

AC: So you're inventing as you go?

Carlozzi: Yes, and that's good. I'm going to study the exhibitions from the last 10 years or so, just to see the range of things they've done, and look at the interaction between the art history and studio departments and the museum to see where the strengths and possibilities are there. I think the spirit of the Michener Contemporary Art Collection is very powerful, very strong. To extend that into the future makes a lot of sense.

AC: Is building a collection part of what you're going to be doing for UT?

Carlozzi: The other curators, Mari Carmen Ramirez and Jonathan Bober, have spent years successfully cultivating collectors and building the collection in their areas. It'll be a new task for me, hopefully one where I excel. I've worked with collectors for years, of course, always as patrons and museum supporters, and to borrow works from them. I hope to make a good start vis-à-vis the debut of the new building.

AC: Will the new building bring new work to the collection?

Carlozzi: New buildings always do. There will be offers of things we don't think are appropriate and then there will be things that will help us create a deeper collection, new directions as well.

Chronicle: When are we going to see the results of your curatorial skills at the University?

Carlozzi: January 10, 1997.

AC: So soon! Which show is that?

Carlozzi: That's the show that hasn't been announced yet, because I'm still working on the concept. There was a hole in the exhibition schedule.

AC: Stay tuned.... Are there any local artists you've known over the years who have made particularly big strides in the last 10 years?

Carlozzi: No. And I was surprised to see, 10 years later, that so many of the names on Patricia Johnson's list are on mine -- Melissa Miller, James Surls, John Biggers, Luis Jiménez.

AC: What does that indicate?

Carlozzi: It says that the artists who appear on both lists are still producing good work. That not too many people moved away.

AC: Or else they came back. Like you. Are you here to stay?

Carlozzi: Yes, I thought I'd try something new for a change -- staying put.

AC: That goes on the record, you know. I have it on tape.

After lunch, I scurried home to transcribe my recorded notes. Booming male voices from the table next made it hard to decipher several exchanges, so I called Carlozzi to fill in the gaps.

"You know when you asked me why I came back to Austin," she said, "and I didn't give you a straight answer? Now I know what I should have said." She paused, and I waited for an explanation having to do with family members who live nearby, a quality environment for her son, a community filled with old friends and colleagues.

"I missed Eklektikos," she said, referring to KUT-FM's long-running morning show with John Aielli. "I really did. That's why I came back."

Maybe I should ask John Aielli to pay for lunch. n

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