Downtown Austin Is Getting a Fresh Coat of Museums

illustration by Robert Faries

In January of this year, the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) officially scrapped its plans for a new museum in downtown Austin that was to be built by the renowned architect Robert Venturi. What had started in 1984 as an exciting, though somewhat solitary, prospect for the visual arts community in the center of the city had over the years deteriorated into a frustrating bureaucratic mess burdened by a lack of funding and indecision by both the city and the museum itself. At its demise, the project with Venturi proved to have been a struggle from the outset.

Getting rid of these world-class plans from a world-class architect could well have signaled the end to Austin's long-sought-after bid for a local museum that could facilitate exhibitions of national interest. Instead, the action has brought the city even closer to realizing its dream. With such vital groundwork as $11 million in city bonds, a secured site, and city support still in place, AMOA -- under the leadership of new director Elizabeth Ferrer -- was able to let go of the project's troubled past and pursue a better future. Within months of abandoning Venturi's plans, the museum was fielding more than 50 new designs for a new facility from some of the most reputable architects working in the world today. Just as the old design hit the wastebasket, a new one was hitting the drawing board.

In many ways, this recent surge of energy in AMOA's efforts to bring the city a visual arts center has been a watermark for a remarkable year in Austin's visual arts scene, a year that has seen new galleries open their doors and a slew of high-profile exhibitions at a number of the city's art facilities. At last, the seeds that were planted over 15 years ago seem to be bearing fruit and downtown -- Congress Avenue especially -- has turned into a core of cultural activity with the city's main street a virtual Museum Row.

Whatever you choose to call it, there can no longer be a question about Austin's commitment to the visual arts. Consider what has happened in the past six months alone: AMOA has hired Richard Gluckman, the New York-based architect known internationally for his renovation of museums in Berlin and Malaga, as well as his work in America on the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Texas Fine Arts Association has opened the doors to the Jones Center for Contemporary Art at Seventh and Congress, giving the statewide organization its first permanent home in its 86-year history. Last week, UT Austin's Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art acquired the $35 million Suida-Manning Collection, a series of 700 Renaissance and Old Master paintings, drawings, and sculptures that solidifies the Blanton as one of the premier encyclopedic museums in the Southwestern United States. On top of that, UT's plans for a new museum building are well under way, with a site at Speedway and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard set aside for construction and an architect to be named by the first of next year. It's enough to get your visual art blood boiling.

But wait, there's more. In a downtown known for its East Sixth Street rabble-rousing and musical hoopla, Austin's North Bank is now home to significant film and performing arts venues like the Paramount Theatre and Austin Film Center. Mexic-Arte Museum, one of the city's most trustworthy art facilities, continues to mount invigorating Latin American exhibitions on Congress Avenue. Soon, the renovation of the dilapidated State Theatre will be complete, and the Austin Children's Museum has already begun carving out a refreshing niche in the warehouse district with its brand-new Dell Discovery Center. In some ways, downtown is rapidly becoming a one-stop shop for cultural activity. As far as the visual arts are concerned, Austin's downtown facilities offer everything from ancient sculpture to contemporary installation.

"It's been a long time coming for Austin to have a serious and substantive visual arts scene," says Susan Moorhead, interim director for TFAA's Jones Center for Contemporary Art. "Downtown, especially Congress Avenue, is not only the heart of the city, but in many ways it's the heart of the whole state."

That said, what is truly remarkable about the growth underway is how much of it is providing Austin with new buildings made solely to house art. The last time the city saw this kind of construction was a generation ago, in the early Seventies when the Huntington galleries were constructed on the UT campus. Since then, Austinites have been showing art in buildings that are, frankly, not made for showing art. In fact, it has become characteristic for Austin's artists to exhibit in any space they can find, from the Capitol to city banks to AMOA's temporary gallery on the ground floor of an office building. And while this may point to the adaptability and determination of the local art scene, it still doesn't give the artwork the appropriate lighting and spatial reference that a site-specific museum can offer. If there is one thing about the current growth spurt in the visual arts scene that is more important than anything else, it is that Austin is finally getting these structures. And the next important thing is that it's getting them right downtown.

To really get a feel for what this means for the visual arts in Austin, take a look at the major projects underway at the Blanton and AMOA. With Gluckman at the helm of the $35 million AMOA structure slated to go up at Third and Guadalupe, Austin will be getting a one-of-a-kind museum by a man that many consider to be the architect for the visual art world, and at a lecture here last month, he hinted at what the new space might look like. We can expect a no-frills, minimalist facility that will focus on integrating the city's characteristics into its design. There will be abundant natural light, outdoor plazas, and generous entranceways. The 100,000 square-foot building will include 25,000 square feet of gallery space, a restaurant, and a movie theatre to underscore Austin's commitment to independent film. As director Ferrer puts it: "The new museum will be a home away from home for Austin residents."

Not far away, the Blanton museum is planning a similar structure to consolidate its excellent permanent collection that now includes almost 13,000 works covering the ancient and medieval eras, 20th-century American and Latin American art, and, with the recent Suida-Manning acquisition, European Renaissance masters. For an institution of such magnitude, the Blanton has long been dogged by a lack of attention due to its spread out and hard-to-reach locations on campus. The new facility promises to attract the city-wide audience the museum deserves.

"We will be in a very accessible location as far as our interface with the city goes," explains Blanton director Jessie Otto Hite of the new building scheduled to go up across the street from the State History Museum. "And though we've always felt as though our mission is predicated on our teaching role at the university, the demographics of the 50,000 students at the university is not that much different from the demographics of Austin in general. So in providing the collections for the students at the university we're providing them for Austin."

This new space will continue to focus on education by setting aside a prominent number of teaching rooms, including a 300-seat auditorium, a 75-seat lecture room, and several seminar rooms. Like the AMOA facility, the Blanton plans to have a cafe, a gift shop, and room for people to come hang out in a social atmosphere at the museum.

True, we're going to have to wait at least three years for these two facilities to be built. Even so, in the same way that shelving Venturi's plans didn't mean the end of AMOA's project, having to wait for the completion of the new AMOA and Blanton museums doesn't mean Austinites have to wait to see new art spaces downtown. In fact, a couple of site-specific facilities have already opened: The Children's Museum opened earlier this year, and the TFAA debuted its new Jones Center for Contemporary Art this past month. Although the former Lerners department store wasn't originally designed to show art, architect Gary Cunningham's redesign of the downstairs space is very much centered on the display of contemporary art, with the addition of a glass front wall to let in natural light. Plans to renovate the upstairs at the Jones Center are already drawn and the project is expected to be complete in two years. Even the decade-old question of what's going to happen to the upstairs at Mexic-Arte seems to have an answer. According to director Sylvia Orozco, the museum has funding from the city to hire a group of architectural engineers to find out if renovation of the upstairs space is possible.

Moreover, the new commitment to visual arts in downtown isn't only to facilities and it isn't only in the future. The exhibitions that mark this new era in Austin arts are here already. With shows like the Sally Mann retrospective last month and the Cindy Sherman exhibit presently up, Austin is getting a taste of the new direction of AMOA. Combine that with the "New American Talent" show at the Jones Center, the Mexican murals at Mexic-Arte and the permanent collections at the Huntington and the Blanton on campus, and it gives Austin residents more than their fill of the freshest American and Latin American visual art. And what is especially inviting about it is the fact that every one of the facilities they can get it from are within easy reach of each other.

Consider this as a possible arts Saturday in Austin: Start at the Blanton on the UT campus, then proceed to the corner of Speedway and MLK, where you can catch the West Congress Dillo for a five-minute ride to the AMOA at Ninth and Congress. After that, stroll south just two blocks to the Jones Center at Seventh and Congress, and, after taking in the contemporary work there, cruise south another two blocks to Mexic-Arte at Fifth and Congress for some invigorating Latino art. Then treat the kid in you to a little museum fun at the Austin Children's Museum, three more blocks south and two blocks west at Second and Colorado. After that, you can wander into the warehouse district for a beer to reduce the swelling of your art-filled soul. Whether you like Greek sculpture or postmodern photography, you're sure to find plenty to pique your interest.

"Austin deserves these different alternatives," Ferrer says. "Mexic-Arte focuses on Mexican and Latino art; the TFAA is going to be doing cutting-edge art with emerging artists; and the AMOA has a wide range of exhibitions [that are] primarily 20th century. I think between the Blanton and the AMOA, the missions of both are very complimentary."

Oddly enough, the expansion of visual arts in downtown is managing to tighten the neighborhood feel in Austin rather than dispel it, as development so often tends to do. In fact, residential apartments like the Brown Building are realizing the new interest many people are voicing to live downtown. For the most part, the city is looking squarely into the face of enormous cultural growth that will put it prominently on the art and architectural world map -- not an easy accomplishment in a state with two of the most acclaimed visual art centers in the country at the Kimball in Fort Worth and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In five years, downtown Austin will be even more active than it already is. Moreover, the visual arts plan to play a key role in keeping that vibrancy in town.

"Austin has always been seen as the liberal Mecca of Texas," says Hite. "Now I think we will add to that with a very strong cultural scene. You drive by Sixth Street and down Congress and there are people out on the streets. It feels lively and cosmopolitan. It just feels like a place you'd want to be." Just when you thought there was no more bang to the boom, Austin keeps on growing. This time it's in the colorful heart of the city.

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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Amoa, Texas Fine Arts Association, Tfaa, Jones Center For Contemporary Art, Jack S. Blanton Museum Of Art, Mexic-arte Museum, Elizabeth Ferrer, Jessie Otto Hite, Sylvia Orozco

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