Dream On

Austin Museum of Art Re-Examines Its Downtown Plans



The future home of the Austin Museum of Art at the corner of Third and Guadalupe

photograph by Jana Birchum



Think "dream house." Imagine that years ago, you envisioned the ideal home for yourself. You knew the neighborhood where it would be, the plot of land on which it would sit, the square footage, the numbers of rooms, their positions, the look of the trim, the shade of the walls... everything. In your head you had it all laid out, all designed to your needs, every detail reflecting your personal tastes and style of living.

Imagine that you found this ideal domicile so compelling that you were intent on making it real. You salted away money in a "dream house" fund, and when you'd saved enough, you bought some property and hired someone to draw up the plans. This architect took careful note of all your meticulously worked-out ideas and gave them form, elegantly and economically, on the page. The drawings were so stunning that they made you more determined to build this house. Unfortunately, just as you were set to start construction, you suffered your own personal Black Monday. Your finances crumbled, and you were forced to abandon your construction plan and even to let go of the "dream house" property you'd acquired.

Still, you didn't let go of the dream. You started saving again, with the idea of going back to the plans as soon as fiscally possible. In the interim, however, life happened. You met someone. The two of you built a life together. You talked about starting a family. Now, when you finally have the capital to build the house you've been dreaming of for a dozen years, it occurs to you that much has changed since the dream began. The neighborhood is different. You've had to buy a different lot. You're older. You have a partner. And soon the two of you may be parents. Now, as you think about it, the house of your dreams, the one so crisply realized in those architectural plans, isn't such a perfect fit. It doesn't have enough room for some of the things in your life now, too much room for others. It's a house for a younger person, a single person. It's still gorgeous, but how useful is it to you, given who you are now? Do you really want to go through the effort and sacrifice of realizing a dream that you outgrew five years ago?

Imagine that, and you should be able to get some sense of the feeling that led the folks at the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) to scrap Robert Venturi's design for its permanent downtown museum, as was reported recently on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman. At first blush, that information seemed a little shocking. The Venturi design was striking, a visually distinctive structure that boasted a sense of the city and its playful spirit, as well as a number of imaginative and graceful solutions to the challenges imposed by the limitations of the site and size of the facility. It was the work of an architect of the world and would have added distinction to the architecture of Austin.

Unfortunately, the design was made for the AMOA of 1985 - which, to be exact, wasn't even the AMOA yet. That its name isn't even the same today is indicative of how much has changed for the city's most prominent visual arts institution since it commissioned the Venturi plans more than a decade ago. In the time since, the museum has seen directors come and go, staffers shuffle, an art school develop and almost outgrow itself, alliances form with other local arts institutions, one site for the permanent museum lost and another one acquired, a second exhibition space open downtown, patronage grow, a modest art collection expand, and its mission get redefined.

Through all these alterations and evolutions, the museum faithful have clung to their dream of a new facility downtown. But of late, as they have come within sight of that irrevocable moment when the ground will be broken, they've been hit with that realization that not everything fits the way it did a decade before. And that insight has caused them to think that a little reconsideration might be in order before the capital campaign is begun, the millions of city dollars are spent, the land is cleared, and the barn raised, so to speak.

So that's essentially what AMOA is doing: giving this whole permanent downtown museum thing a fresh look. The board and staff are re-examining what the organization's "dream house" should be in light of what the museum has become since 1985 and what it is likely to be beyond the year 2000. To ensure that they take a thorough look, AMOA has retained some professionals to assist them. The firm of Arbonies King Vlock, architects specializing in the programming, planning, and design of art museums, has been imported from Connecticut to lead the AMOA staff and board through the process of defining their - and our - museum. This process won't be completed for weeks, so we can't yet provide an image of the "revised" museum, much less tell you who will design it, but we can provide a thumbnail sketch of the institution itself, a rough picture of the issues being considered in the revision process, the factors behind the rejection of the Venturi design, and the kind of museum which may grace the downtown Austin of 2002.


That Was Then

The story of AMOA's "dream house" began in earnest 13 years ago this month, when local voters approved a multi-million dollar bond package for three ambitious arts projects. Proposition #2 called for "the issuance of $20,285,000 tax supported general obligation bonds for construction of a publicly owned art museum on donated land downtown and the renovation of performing arts facilities." The performing arts facilities were the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, which wanted $3.5 million to build a new space with rehearsal hall, costume shop, offices, and what they hoped then would be a 400-seat theatre to supplement the 200-seat Kleberg Stage, and the State, which was to receive a $2 million makeover at the behest of next-door neighbor the Paramount Theatre, which at the time was trying to mount its own productions and wanted to lease the State for storage, set construction, rehearsal space, and a smaller theatre for newer, less mainstream shows. The lion's share of the bond package - a hefty $14.7 million - was for Laguna Gloria Art Museum, as AMOA was known then, to construct a three-story building on Fourth Street, between Guadalupe and San Antonio, on the site of the old American-Statesman building.

The approval of the arts projects may well have been an act of cultural oblige by a flush boomtown Austin of the time, but if so, it was perhaps the final such act. The bust hit soon after and hammered the arts hard, especially the bond projects. The Paramount incurred so much debt from its self-produced efforts that it scuttled any plans for acquiring and repairing the State, and the voter-approved funding fell into limbo. (It was only recently freed from that condition by city council, which awarded the money to Live Oak Theatre. For more on that story, see "Home Improvement," Austin Chronicle, Vol. XVII, No. 16, Dec. 19, 1997.) Because Zach had to raise 25% of whatever amount of the bond money it wanted to access, Zach ended up delaying its construction plans for years, finally reducing the size of its proposed theatre to 120 seats to cut costs. The result was less than what the theatre had envisioned, but six years after the election it was open - and was the only bond project to be realized by that point.

The museum project, while the most ambitious of the three, had had the most auspicious beginning. Laguna Gloria had a plot of land that was all but a sure thing. The Watson-Casey Company, one of the city's most prosperous developer firms during the boom and a magnanimous supporter of the arts, had acquired the onetime Statesman home and was willing to donate it to the city for the museum's plans. And not too long after the election - relatively speaking, of course - the museum also had plans, impressive plans, from nationally renowned architect Robert Venturi. Venturi's design managed to incorporate into 86,000 square feet 25,000 square feet of gallery exhibition space, a 290-seat theatre, a museum store, a restaurant, and offices for the museum staff, all within a dynamic limestone exterior fancifully adorned with tile and decorative stars.

The Venturi design represented a quantum leap forward for Laguna Gloria both as a cultural institution and a museum. Although it was the largest of Austin's "major" arts entities at the time (along with Zach, the Paramount, Ballet Austin, and the Austin Symphony), Laguna was in a larger sense still something of a "minor." Its home site, on the 12-acre Driscoll estate nestled against the shores of Lake Austin, was a beauty, but it afforded the museum less than 3,000 square feet of exhibition space. The limited room severely restricted the museum in booking touring shows or mounting exhibitions of any scope on its own. By the mid-Eighties, when museums had discovered the mega-exhibit - those dazzlingly popular and eminently profitable major retrospectives or showcases of historical relics like all the stuff from Tut's tomb or everything Cezanne ever painted - Laguna Gloria was consigned to the back of the pack in terms of museums and what it could offer Austin in the way of state-of-the-art exhibitions. The Venturi design put the museum in a whole new class, with close to 10 times the gallery space and room for the shop and cafe that would allow it to capitalize on the cultural trend of museum-as-consumer-destination.

It's worth recalling that in 1985, a museum at Fourth and Guadalupe would have needed to be its own destination. At that time - years before martinis, steaks, and cigars lit a fire in development west of Congress and south of Sixth - the warehouse district was still largely that: lots of big, empty warehouses. A block west of the museum site, one such structure had been converted into a warren of artists' studios and rehearsal spaces - more corporate largesse from Watson-Casey - but the rest of the area held little: Liberty Lunch, Capitol City Playhouse, a used book store, a few gay bars, a moontower. Had it been built within the few years after the election, the Venturi-designed downtown museum might have sparked the revitalization of what's now called the West End years before it happened.

Of course, at this end of the road, that's very-dry-and-hold-the-olive-this-time speculation; it sounds pretty good after the second drink. The fact is, the Venturi museum wasn't built in the late Eighties. Almost nothing was - in downtown Austin, anyway. The local economy took a bath. Watson-Casey went under the water, and the Fourth Street site for the museum went with it.

As if that weren't enough to stall construction of Laguna's "dream house," the local "art wars" also helped to suck momentum out of the project. For years, city funding for arts groups had been a contentious arena, with many a dispute over the distribution of funds among the "majors" and the numerous other, smaller groups, and the question of whether funding for minority arts groups was truly equitable, but as the Eighties wore on and arguments intensified, it was a battlefield, among the bloodiest in all city politics. And as the biggest target on the battlefield (and one of the whitest), Laguna came under heavy fire. How would a downtown version of lily-hued Laguna serve the city as a whole? And what minority project - say, the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) or the Carver Library and Museum - would be sacrificed to make it happen?

The killing blow came in 1989, after questions were raised about Laguna's contract with the city over the construction and maintenance of the proposed museum. Council, feeling the pinch of the bust and fearing a civic boondoggle, was loathe to proceed and voted to cancel the project. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the bond package approval, Laguna's "dream house" died.


This Is Now

Yet the Austin Museum of Art's "dream house" lives on. That's owing to a number of factors, some readily apparent to any Austin citizen - the rebounding of the local economy, the resurgence of interest in downtown development, the makeover of the warehouse district, the opening of AMOA's galleries on Congress - and some visible only to those deeply involved in the arts scene - the persistence of longtime museum supporter Alfred A. King, a reorganization of the museum board and mission to include a broader cultural base and direction, the input of new AMOA director Elizabeth Ferrer. The fact that the downtown museum got as far as the design stage might have helped sustain interest in it through the years of bust and battle, but it's hard to imagine that, even with the Venturi plans in hand, the project would have been resurrected in the time it has, with the sense of purpose it has, without a keeper of the flame as passionate and determined as Alfred King. He was instrumental in steering the project from the former museum to the latter, enabling the new generation of staff and board to help shape it and make it a reality.

The creation of the AMOA as a cross-cultural institution - one rooted in and responsive to not only the patrons and constituency of what was Laguna Gloria, but also the patrons and constituencies of the MACC and the Carver - gives more of the city a voice in the museum's future and a stake in the eventual construction of the downtown facility. Some of the response to that change has been evident in the progress made in the past five years: identification of a new site one block south of the original (the south side of Third Street between Guadalupe and San Antonio); purchase of the property and donation of same to the city in January, 1995; resurrection of the permanent museum plan, with full council support, in June, 1996; lease of downtown galleries for five years, in fall, 1996. That's not to say that this progress has come without friction or that AMOA's future will be one of tranquil unanimity among the people engaged in it, but the five years since the founding of AMOA have had more to recommend them - as regards the permanent museum, at least - than the five years preceding it. And what comes in the next five years will no doubt be influenced by the heightened involvement of the African-American and Mexican-American communities in AMOA. How that will affect the design of the proposed museum is an interesting point to ponder, and in any attempt to define that building's needs, it's certain to be discussed.

Perhaps even more pertinent to the issue of museum design is the collection factor. When Laguna Gloria originally embarked upon its campaign to construct a new facility downtown, its focus was the exhibition of art from other institutions. It did mount some shows itself, and it had some artwork, but primarily it displayed work from shows that toured. The expansion of the museum that would have occurred with the opening of the downtown space could have allowed Laguna Gloria to alter that focus, but it didn't. The museum was designed with the idea that Laguna Gloria would continue to concentrate on temporary exhibitions. Recently, that has changed, and it may be one of the most significant changes that has come with the switch from Laguna to AMOA: The museum now wants to develop its own collection. Now, that isn't just an offhand change for a museum to make; it brings with it a slew of new needs for the institution: parameters for the collection; funding for acquisitions; storage space for the collection; maintenance of the collection; exhibition space for the collection,... It's like choosing to have a child. Everything changes.

At present, the AMOA collection is modest, to say the least. But the institution is enthusiastic about acquisitions, as was evident last month when the museum crowed about the acquisition of four works by area artists Dale Chihuly, Julie Speed, Bob Wade, and Sydney Yeager, and even devoted part of its gallery space downtown to an exhibition titled "Selections From the Permanent Collection of the Austin Museum of Art." That makes it a good bet that the collection will play a substantial role in the re-design of the museum.

These are the elements swirling around the downtown museum right now - constituencies, cross-culturalism, collections - and they are so central to what a museum is that they must be taken into account when a new facility for that museum is designed. It's still too early to tell how different the new museum design will be from the old one. The few numbers that are being tossed around at present are the same as the old ones - 86,000 square feet for the building, 25,000 square feet for galleries - and, according to new AMOA board chair David Gold, it's even within the realm of possibility that Robert Venturi will be selected to design the new facility. But even if some things don't change about the downtown museum's design when new plans are generated, the essence of the design will be different. It will have to be in light of the institution's evolution, its growth, its aging, its progress through defeat to success, its new sense of self. We get older, and our dreams change. They have to. And our "dream houses" have to change with us.

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