Art's New Address

Uptown Is Home to Austin's Latest Cultural District

photograph by Jana Birchum

Great cities have great arts districts. Great big cities (such as New York) often have several (Soho, Tribeca, Chelsea, the Village). In the last 15 years, Austin has seen the rise and fall of more than one modest area where visitors could see a variety of art exhibitions, eat lunch or dinner, and attend stage performances. In the mid-Eighties, before it was the West End Entertainment District, the region south of Sixth Street and west of Congress Avenue was such an area. At that time, it was home to a smaller mix of clubs and restaurants, as well as two major theatres, Capitol City Playhouse and Live Oak Theatre, and a cluster of art galleries (including my own) in Republic Plaza at Fourth and Lavaca. These entities were welcomed not only by patrons of the arts but by "bidness types" who understood that the arts and commerce often go hand in hand. Eventually, the Republic Plaza Galleries and both theatres were evicted from their various spaces, effectively killing the West End as an arts district. But arts districts continue to spring up elsewhere. Now, the "new" Uptown Cultural District is emerging as an important cultural and culinary destination for Austinites and visitors to town. This district -- bordered by 15th Street to the south, Lavaca to the east, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the north, and San Antonio Street to the west -- is home to five galleries -- Lyons Matrix Gallery, Women & Their Work Gallery (W&TW), ACA Gallery@ArtPlex, Galeria Sin Fronteras, and R. Peeples Gallery -- and five restaurants -- Arturo's Bakery & Cafe, Bertram's, Dog & Duck Pub, Mars, and El Mercado. They're working together to promote the area as a cultural hot spot. The first big neighborhood event occurred this past week when the Austin Visual Arts Association (AVAA) celebrated its 20th anniversary with the opening of a members exhibition at the ACA Gallery@ArtPlex, 1705 Guadalupe. On Saturday night, crowds listened to music on the building's rooftop deck, bagpipes and drums played at the Dog & Duck across the street then paraded through the first floor gallery, and guests left their mark on a signboard outside where paint and brushes had been provided by AVAA. The festive atmosphere poured out of the ArtPlex onto the street. Whether it spread to the other galleries and restaurants in the area was harder to determine. There is some fine tuning that may have to occur before all the venues in the Uptown Cultural District benefit uniformly from such evening festivities, but the long-term potential for enjoyable Art Nights and art-filled days in this active area is truly exciting.

AVAA's celebration this past weekend was set for 6-10pm. That's too long an evening for all but the most hardy souls, but the organization and its members have much to celebrate after 20 years of serving Austin's artists. Their move back into the downtown area alone (from an obscure office some 40 blocks to the north) would have been worth a party. Now, AVAA offices in a building filled with artists' studios and across the hall from a gallery space that is perfectly suited to the shows sponsored by that organization. It seems the perfect marriage of convenience.

The matchmaker was Gary Peden, a young commercial real estate broker. While he explains that he is not an artist, ArtPlex is certainly a fine work in progress. Challenged to find the highest and best use for a building with an excellent midtown location but limited parking, Peden brought the gallery and studios of the Artists Coalition of Austin (ACA) from their former location on Baylor (in the Goodwill warehouse) to 1705 Guadalupe this past spring. Already there have been several exhibitions in the two-room gallery and the studio spaces are just about full. On Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to visit one artist's studio in the building. It was a small, dark-paneled room with no natural light. The young woman who worked there was ecstatic nonetheless, because she was working near other artists. Peden, who was himself leading studio tours throughout the building, stopped to extol the virtues of the artist-painted doors that have begun to appear up and down the hallways. His own door -- his commercial offices are also in the space -- is still serviceably plain. He also proudly pointed out the banner hanging on the outside of the ArtPlex building, promoting the AVAA show.

photograph by Jana Birchum

The AVAA membership exhibition was open to all 300 members of the organization. Each was entitled to enter one art work (although obviously not everyone participated) and to submit more slides subject to a selection process. Membership shows are diverse by their very nature, uneven due to the democratic process employed, and yet vital to the kind of organization that AVAA has always been. It is an artist-centered group which supports the visual arts in Austin "through information exchange, educational programming, and juried invitational, and open exhibitions of regional talent." Through its newsletter, AVAANTI, the organization profiles local artists, keeps members abreast of exhibition opportunities, and the group's informal workshops and seminars. Executive director Sue Fawver, still relatively new to the organization, follows on the heels of a diverse, dedicated (for the most part) list of directors who have organized volunteers and toiled for very little monetary reward to move the organization forward.

AVAA's mission includes "expanding public appreciation and awareness of the visual arts and visual artists." More so than any other art space in the Uptown Cultural District, this organization and the ACA expose vistors to art by a broad cross-section of local artists. While both groups encourage professionalism, many (though certainly not all) of the folks represented in the members show are "young" artists whose work is not ready for prime time presentation in one of the other galleries in the district. But it would be a mistake to ignore the ACA Gallery@ArtPlex when you're in the neighborhood. Not only is this a place where artists are being trained to present themselves to the public, but here visitors with a good eye can train themselves to spot stars that are about to shine. It's easy to find great art in a museum; it can be much more fun to watch artists develop, to see if you can recognize talent on the rise.

Across the street from ArtPlex, R. Peeples Gallery is a new "art venue dedicated to museum-quality studio furniture and decorative art." The gallery opened in April and is located on the first floor of 1708 Guadalupe. Peeples provides a resource for Austinites looking for unique hand-crafted furniture, textiles, and creamics, as well as for the occasional fine art object and black-and-white photograph. Owner Robert Peeples, once a professional pilot, began making his own furniture in 1993. He fancifully combines exotic woods to produce highly patterned high-concept pieces which are also on display. Of course, now that he's the proprietor of this new venture, he has very little time to make furniture. No doubt he's begun to realize how the dips and leaps of running a for-profit gallery parallel his flight experience. It might even be scarier.

Peeples' current exhibition features furniture by Dallas architect Russell Norton Buchanan. It's hard to pin down the style of this collection which includes pale (but stout) screens wth an oriental feel and rounded whimsical design, a nouveau-Stickly-style chair and ottoman, and a boxy bureau drawer poking directly out of a tall vertical wall mirror. The gallery also shows Beverly Penn's first-rate constructions and drawings (which sometimes include furniture or architectural references) and work by other artists and craftspeople from across the country. Peeples is less the traditional craft gallery than a space devoted to beautifully crafted objects.

Currently on display at Lyons Matrix Gallery, 1712 Lavaca, are landscape paintings by Austin artist Jimmy Jalapeeno. These include one gigantic canvas with a brilliant red bridge, golden flowers, and a blue sky that will reverberate in your mind long after you've left it behind. The gallery represents a number of mid-career Austin artists and others from across the state. Women & Their Work Gallery nearby includes women artists from across the country, with a focus on those within Texas. Currently, Regina Vater is presenting an installation in the main gallery. Her transformation of that space, particularly the floor, into art is impressive. Later this summer, W&TW will present an exhibition by Denton artist Annette Lawrence, who is one of only two Texas artists represented in this year's Whitney Biennial in New York.

Returning to Guadalupe Street, Galleria Sin Fronteras is currently showing paintings by three Mexican artists: Nunik Sauret, Paul Birbil, and Morgan Santander. This exhibition was brought to the U.S. by the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in San Antonio and the Foreign Minsitry of Mexico. Galeria Sin Fronteras rounds out the district's cultural scene by adding an international flavor with this exhibition and a Latino focus year round.

Even in the heat of summer, once you've slipped your coins into a meter or managed to find some other safe place to leave your car, you can easily navigate this district by foot, strolling from one gallery to the next and stopping at one of the area restaurants to refresh yourself. The Uptown Cultural District is ready to provide a diverse assortment of art and culinary experiences for Austinites and out-of-town guests. It's time to check it out!

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

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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