Happy Camper

Judith Sims on 23 Years with Austin's Art Museum

Judith Sims has that big-city look, with her stylishly short hair and slim gabardine blazer, buttoned top to bottom, over a white jersey and black stretch pants. She dresses like a New York art dealer or maybe an L.A. film agent. In fact, she could be either one, given her breadth of experience in the arts. Sims has spent the last 23 years shaping the programs at the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA), formerly known as Laguna Gloria Art Museum -- nearly half her life. She has been employed there longer than any other staff member. As the museum makes yet another step forward this weekend, toward a permanent downtown location, Sims must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. AMOA is expanding its staff, programming a temporary downtown location and the 35th Street site, negotiating with city staff and architect Robert Venturi -- just as it did two decades ago. A look at the museum's history through her eyes might help predict its future.

In 1973, Laguna Gloria Art Museum (LGAM) had only four employees, including the groundskeeper. That year, Jerry Porter began a brief term as museum director. Porter thought he wanted a secretary, but Sims, who had done some free-lance writing for the museum, convinced him that what he really needed was a program director. He typed his own letters for the next few months, and she got the job for which she was uniquely qualified. Sims' credentials included undergraduate degrees in English and History from UT Austin, plus four years as assistant to Shirley Perry, director of the program department at UT's student union. Under Perry's direction, Sims had advised student committees on film and fine arts programs. Not much older than the students, she spent a lot of time reading background material. In addition, her job provided an opportunity to meet cultural icons -- Ken Kesey ("He hugged me!"), Jane Fonda (in her post-Vadim, pre-Viet Nam incarnation), and Joseph Heller -- and to watch new and innovative films from all over the world. "The union showed films 365 days a year," she recalls. After a short stint as acting director of student activities at the University of Rochester, she was accepted into Harvard's six-week Institute for Arts Administration. One of her classmates was Laurence Miller who, in 1974, replaced Porter as LGAM Director.

"Since I didn't come up in the ranks (in film or art education), I'll just try everything," says Sims, who over the years helped invest the museum's resources in a wide range of exciting multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary programs. She was a founding participant in Austin's Dance Umbrella, brought internationally-renowned dance artist Deborah Hay to Austin for her first performance here, and assisted at the birth of the venerable arts umbrella Women & Their Work. To support exhibitions, Sims arranged for poetry readings and film screenings, some in the outdoor amphitheatre on the museum grounds. She also ran the art school program which, in the mid- to late Seventies, was outgrowing its temporary buildings at Laguna Gloria. Under her guidance, and with the help of architects Robert Renfro and Robert Steinbomer, the museum dreamed a dream of the Bauhaus school and Black Mountain. It settled for a wonderful pink-and-putty-colored classroom building with post-modern diamond accents completed in 1984.

"Everybody can express themselves and be creative," according to Sims, who said the new building helped hone the philosophy of the school. Its focus is on the creative process, rather than on making good grades or earning credits. The program is an ongoing success -- about 3,400 students a year take classes at the school, and 200 more use the facilities through an agreement with Austin Community College, which leases studio space from the museum -- but the school's director defers credit for that to her teachers: "I've had wonderful faculty to work with." Thirty-five to 50 different teachers work for the school each year. They are chosen for their ability in the classroom rather than the quality of their artwork.

Sims credits her independence with keeping her at the museum. "I like starting new things," she says, "being involved with the school and its students, and also working with film and video." The latter, she adds, appeals to the more "esoteric and eccentric" part of her character. Like Sims, the art world itself is always changing. "Laurence Miller provided Austinites an ongoing awareness of new trends as they developed across the country. That's what I look to as a standard. Laurence was great to work with," she says, and the period when he was LGAM director, "was a special time." But then she adds, "Every person who was head of this organization has made a contribution. Daniel [Stetson, who followed Miller as director] healed a lot of wounds. He was energetic, sincere... a caring boss."

By the late Seventies, programming ideas and staff began to outgrow the gallery space available in the old Sevier house on the Laguna Gloria grounds. The museum established a downtown presence in space donated by First Federal Savings and Loan at 10th & Brazos. For three years, the museum attracted thousands of downtown workers into its galleries and expanded its audience even further through other off-site exhibitions. "It was such a successful experiment," says Sims, "that we decided to move downtown permanently." Several years later, staff members moved to downtown offices as plans for a new downtown museum building to be designed by Venturi were being developed. Then Austin's economy began to sour. Despite the 1985 election that promised city bonds to finance the new museum, LGAM's plans (and staff) began to shrink back. Sims stayed on, reinventing her position once again. In addition to being director of the art school, she became executive producer/curator of film and video for the museum.

The museum began to show independent films that weren't available anywhere else in town, some from the American Avant Garde Film Collection housed at the Rice Media Center in Houston. Sims explored a relationship with the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) in Houston and soon Austin's museum was producing its own version of the show, The Territory. Now in its 21st year, The Territory is the longest running public television showcase of independent short film and video in the U.S. Its aim is to be "always cutting-edge and breaking new ground." Since 1990, SWAMP and the museum have produced the program together. Taped in Houston, it is being aired statewide for the first time this year, benefiting both audience and artists. The Austin museum also offers video workshops, providing scholarships to local artists and exposing them to nationally acclaimed artists working in that medium. "We brought Bill Viola to Austin (his video installations represented America in the 1995 Venice Biennale) and only 35 people came," Sims says, simultaneously proud of her vision and saddened by the limited response. Film and video are clearly her first love.

Lately, however, she's enjoyed trying her hand at curatorial duties. Following the departure of Director Daniel Stetson last spring, museum board member Stephen Becker helped redistribute staff responsibilities. Sims and Debbie Gula became acting co-directors of the officially-rechristened Austin Museum of Art, with Sims in charge of programs and Gula in charge of administration. Kathryn Davis, education curator, was named acting senior curator, and museum registrar Jean Graham became curatorial assistant. Davis, Graham, and Sims have scheduled AMOA exhibitions through August of 1997 for both the Laguna Gloria and 823 Congress sites. "I have the final say," Sims explains, "but we've been pretty much in accord."

"We approach curating as a team," says Sims. "It's been so much fun working on exhibitions." They didn't have a lot of time to put the schedule in place for the new 5,400 square feet of downtown exhibition space (nearly three times the current gallery size), but Sims is proud of their upcoming exhibitions at both facilities.

She feels sure that the earlier First Federal numbers predict strong support for 823 Congress, but regarding other comparisons to the earlier foray downtown, Sims is dismissive. "This is so different," she says. "The 823 Congress space is much bigger, more complete, has a museum shop. It's more like a museum than a gallery." And standing in the midst of the elegant space designed by Marla Bommarito confirms Sims' assertion. No trace is left of the labyrinthine "sets" from the Judy Chicago show that AMOA presented in this space three years ago. The galleries are more generous, open to each other, and a roomy classroom/lecture hall has been incorporated into the space, allowing for the rigorous schedule of programs relating to the exhibitions that Sims has planned. There will be noon talks for people who work downtown and events after 5pm (the museum is open until 7pm Tuesday through Saturday and until 9pm Thursday) and on weekends for those concerned about finding a parking space downtown.

The museum presents its first three shows this weekend at the downtown site. Beginning Sunday, November 17, the public will be able to see "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America"; "De Mujer a Mujer: Celebration of Latinas by Latina Artists"; and "Selma Burke Sculpture: Selected Works from National and Local Collections" in the new galleries. "I Dream a World," which had originally been scheduled for the Laguna Gloria site, was moved downtown to better emphasize AMOA's commitment to multicultural programming. In January, the Austin Print Show will be presented downtown rather than at Laguna Gloria to take advantage of the expanded gallery size. Curated by Dr. Mark Smith, the print exhibition promises to be something of a local blockbuster, with over 100 prints taking up the entire 823 space.

The curatorial team is waiting until the dust clears from the big opening to program further, hoping that the new museum director will be hired soon. In the more distant future, Sims hopes to see a beautiful, permanent downtown museum, lots of excitement surrounding the facility, an ongoing film series, regular Saturday films for children, and arts activities in a public plaza within walking distance of the Children's Museum and other cultural institutions.

Has the art school director/film and video curator/acting museum co-director ever wanted to close the door and walk away from this seemingly endless wishing and planning process? She says not. "I have the best job in town," Sims insists. "I'm not a martyr, I'm a happy camper. I have the ability to re-create my own enthusiasm for things." The new downtown galleries should help create some enthusiasm for the rest of us.


"I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America"; "De Mujer a Mujer: Celebration of Latinas by Latina Artists"; and "Selma Burke Sculpture: Selected Works from National and Local Collections" run Nov 17-Jan 5 at AMOA Downtown. "Two Cents: Works on Paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Poetry by Kevin Young" run through Jan 5 at AMOA, Laguna Gloria.

Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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