Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage

How much closer we are to getting the cultural wonderland we imagined 10 years ago

In the Nineties, Austin's cultural scene could afford to dream big. The city was riding high on high tech, and so much money was flowing that even arts groups were seeing the green. More than a dozen of them took advantage of the opportunity to imagine new buildings for themselves: expansive, expensive buildings that would catapult them to new levels, creatively and organizationally. Between 1994 and 2002, plans were hatched for nine new or newly renovated museums, two new performing arts organization headquarters, one new theatre and one renovated theatre, a new cultural center, and a new three-venue performing arts center – almost all of them within a few square miles in the heart of the city. By the end of 2003, they would transform Central Austin into a cultural wonderland.

Of course, by the time 2003 rolled around, the dot-com economy had jumped the rails, leaving those big dreams of a cultural makeover stalled in their tracks. As we noted in a feature story in February 2004, almost half of the proposed projects managed to get completed before the downturn, and two more began construction. But the rest – among them two of the most ambitious, high-profile projects, a new Downtown facility for the Austin Museum of Art and the Long Center for the Performing Arts – were left to uncertain fates, their construction either delayed or put on hold. The picture at the time was not optimistic.

But a lot can change in 3½ years. The local economy has rebounded with a vengeance, and a flock of construction cranes is perching on our skyline once more. Austin's building again, in a big way, and with it the cultural makeover is back on track. One museum was finished in 2004. Another opened one building in 2006 and will open a companion facility next summer. Two facilities that were in limbo at the time of the previous story celebrate their grand openings this month, while a third will open next March. Two stalled projects won a new boost last fall when voters approved bond money for them, and another may get one by teaming with developers. Moreover, three projects that were finished in 2004 are in development again, two continuing renovations in their current spaces, one in a new space blocks from its current home.

The following update reiterates the long struggle that local arts groups have endured in their efforts to build, literally, a new future for themselves. But it also documents the perseverance of these organizations and the individuals working in them. What Austin's cultural community may lack in its ability to generate financial support for realizing its big dreams it makes up for in patience and persistence. By the look of things, the cultural makeover of Austin envisioned 10-15 years ago may be complete by 2013. That's 10 years after we thought, but, hey, better late than never.


THE NEXT STAGE: Now open


Ballet Austin Butler Dance Education Center and Community School

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

501 W. Third

Project proposed in: 2002

Architect: The Bommarito Group

Original cost: $2.5 million

Revised cost: $10.3 million

Current status: completed, opening Sept. 9

Ballet Austin was a late player in the cultural makeover sweepstakes, launching its bid for a new facility well after the Nineties boom began to go bust. It may have seemed like madness to pitch a new multimillion-dollar home when other arts groups were scaling back their grand expansion plans, but there was method in it: The downturn made prime Downtown real estate a lot more affordable for a nonprofit. So in October 2002, the ballet paid $3.5 million for the 28,000-square-foot Aus-Tex Printing & Mailing building on West Third. Though the boom had meant phenomenal growth for the ballet – doubling ticket sales, more than doubling dance academy enrollment, and boosting the annual budget from $1.6 million to more than $4 million in just more than five years – it took a few years for the company to raise the funds to renovate the building. Austin arts patrons Sarah and Ernest Butler took the lead, first donating $2.5 million toward the project, then giving $1 million more last year as a community challenge grant. Austin Ventures donated $1 million to fund a studio theatre that can seat 275 patrons for performances. The Bommarito Group was hired to reinvent the industrial space and did so with a sharp eye toward recycling the Aus-Tex space and materials. The result is a 34,000-square-foot arts center with seven dance studios for rehearsals, performances, and all Ballet Austin Academy classes; a physical therapy room for dancers; costume shop; offices; and community meeting rooms. The center's grand opening is Sept. 9. (See "Find Your Center," above, for details.)


Mexican American Cultural Center

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

600 River St.

Project proposed in: 1992

Architect: CasaBella Architects and Del Campo + Maru with Teodoro González de León

Original cost: $45 million

Current status: Phase 1 complete, opening Sept. 15; Phase 1-A to be completed in 2009; construction of phases 2 and 3 to be staggered over the next 10 years

Calls for a local center dedicated to Mexican-American culture and history go back to the 1970s, but the project struggled to gain the momentum that would lead to its realization. In 1992, a $10 million bond proposal to fund a Mexican American Cultural Center and the Carver Museum and Library failed by just 3% of the vote. Despite that defeat, the city set aside 6 acres for the MACC on the north shore of Town Lake. Then in 1998, the matter went before voters again, and citizens approved $10.9 million for the MACC. CasaBella and Del Campo + Maru were selected to design the facility, and their master plan called for building the center in three phases: Phase 1 would create an outdoor plaza, open toward Town Lake, surrounded by a two-story crescent-shaped building with offices, classrooms, and a large multipurpose room for performances and talks; Phase 2 would extend the building on both ends to add more classrooms and offices and add a 300-seat theatre; and Phase 3 would add an 800-seat theatre and a two-story parking garage. Troubles with funding and oversight for the facility caused the center's ground-breaking to be postponed several times, but in January 2006, construction finally began on the $16 million first phase. That was completed this summer, although the southern arm of the building wasn't built; now dubbed Phase 1-A, this addition – to include a dance studio, a music studio, a classroom, and offices – is projected for completion in spring 2009. The center's grand opening is Sept. 15. Phases 2 and 3 are expected to be finished over the next decade as funding is secured.


George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

1161 Angelina

Project proposed in: 1992

Architect: Carter Design Associates

Original cost: $10.4 million

Revised cost: $10.4 million

Current status: completed 2005

Having history on its side didn't help the Carver when it came to renovation. Though it sits in the original 1926 city library building, which was moved to the Eastside and opened to blacks in 1933, and is Texas' first African-American neighborhood museum, the Carver still had to fight for years for a facility upgrade. In 1992, a $10 million bond proposal for a Mexican American Cultural Center and improvements to the Carver failed by just 3% of the vote. It took six more years for voters to approve the construction of a museum and cultural center and expansion of the library. Carter Design Associates of Austin designed the 30,655-square-foot center, which includes an art gallery, 134-seat theatre, dance studio, photo lab and darkroom, conference room, offices, classroom, archive space, and museum store. The library expanded to more than 15,000 square feet, with computers, meeting and study rooms, gallery space, and a youth library area. The project broke ground in October 2002, and both facilities opened in February 2005. Later that year, the center's theatre was named to honor local theatre artist and community activist Boyd Vance.


Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Congress

Project proposed in: 1997

Architect: Herzog & de Meuron Architekten (1998); Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects (2000)

Original cost: $30 million

Revised cost: $83.5 million

Current status: Gallery Building completed, opened 2006; Smith Building under construction, scheduled for completion in 2008

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

In the 1990s, the UT art museum's major additions to its Latin American art and print holdings and purchase of the Suida-Manning Collection left it in serious need of more room than it had in the Art Building and Harry Ransom Center. In February 1997, UT President Robert Berdahl announced that a $30 million museum would be built at Red River & 26th. With donations of $12 million from Houston Endowment, $10 million from James Michener, and $5 million from Bernard and Audre Rapoport, the museum named for Houston Endowment Chair Jack Blanton was off to a smooth start. Then the designs proposed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron Architekten were heavily criticized, leading to the firm leaving the project, UT School of Architecture Dean Lawrence Speck resigning in protest, and the regents rebooting the search for an architect. Almost a year later, they settled on the Boston firm of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects, who delivered a more conventional design for the facility, by then relocated to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Congress. The museum was split into two buildings with a plaza between: to the east, a 124,000-square-foot Gallery Building, housing the Blanton's permanent collection, exhibition space, a print and drawing study center, and storage and collection care areas; to the west, a 56,000-square-foot educational center, with a 299-seat auditorium, 60-seat lecture hall, classrooms, cafe, museum shop, and administrative offices. Construction of the $83.5 million pair started in October 2002. The Mari and James A. Michener Gallery Building was finished in 2006. Its Extremely Grand Opening drew 13,000 people in its first 24 hours and 160,000 more in the 364 days following, far exceeding Blanton staff projections. The Edgar A. Smith Building will be completed next summer, with grand-opening activities set for fall 2008.


Long Center for the Performing Arts

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

Riverside at South First

Project proposed in: 1998

Architect: originally Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; currently TeamHaas

Original cost: $89 million

Revised costs: $110 million, then $125 million; now $77 million

Current status: under construction; scheduled for completion March 2008

This was the most ambitious of the Boom Generation arts projects, transforming a 40-year-old municipal auditorium into a 21st century performing-arts center and a civic landmark. It began with the symphony, opera, and ballet losing their performance home at Bass Concert Hall and seeing a potential alternative in an overhauled Palmer Auditorium. In 1998, they put the idea before Austin voters, who approved it by a 2-to-1 margin. But what was initially projected as a $45 million renovation, to be complete in 2003, doubled in costs when the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed project expanded to include a 2,300-seat concert hall, a 700-seat theatre, and a 200-seat flexible performance space. Still, that goal seemed reachable with a historic lead gift of $20 million from Joe and Teresa Lozano Long and several other spectacular donations. Then came the delays, first from the need to create the city-owned Palmer Events Center next door and build a parking garage for both, then from more design changes – adding a rehearsal hall, a catering kitchen, and a chilled water plant – then from a need to remove more asbestos from the site than was originally expected. As time passed, the costs ballooned to $110 million, then $125 million, but as the economy cooled, the capital campaign stalled at $61 million. Long Center trustees opted to downsize and build only the 2,400-seat Dell Foundation Hall and 200-seat Rollins Hall, a move that saved $48 million but cost them the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designs. Local firm TeamHaas rode in to save the day, delivering a design that sacrificed Palmer's patchwork dome but kept the ring that provides its support structure, put the concert hall on the auditorium's original foundation, and placed the small theatre – and any venues that may be added – next to the ring structure. Asbestos removal and deconstruction began in May 2005. Since the arrival of Executive Director Cliff Redd in 2004, the capital campaign is back in high gear, with $35 million raised over the past 40 months. In fact, the center has now raised almost $81 million, surpassing its $77 million goal. Construction is on schedule for the center's opening March 28-30, 2008.


THE FINAL STAGE: Down the line


Austin Children's Museum: Dell Discovery Center

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

West Third at Guadalupe

Project proposed in: 2005

Architect: Koning Eizenberg Architecture

Original cost: not available

Current status: projected completion by 2010

The Austin Children's Museum launched the city's cultural makeover in 1992 with construction of the Dell Discovery Center (above), a replacement for the 5,000-square-foot space on West Fifth that the museum had been leasing for five years. With aid from Schlotzsky's and Downtown property owner John Woolley, the museum secured a 10-year rent-free lease on an old plastics factory in Downtown's Warehouse District and raised $4.8 million to transform it into a 20,000-square-foot museum. Architect Gerald Susman designed a 14,000-square-foot ground floor with exhibit space, museum store, and theatre, topped by a 7,000-square-foot mezzanine containing administrative offices and a teen center. That facility was completed in 1997, but within a few years the museum began scouting for a permanent home in the area, and it looks to have found it in Block 21. When Stratus Properties won the bid to develop the block north of City Hall, the Children's Museum was announced as part of the plan. The museum will anchor the northwest corner of the proposed 35-story structure that will include a W Hotel, 200 residential condos, a home for public-television station KLRU and Austin City Limits, and retail space. The museum will get 30,000 square feet, which will be designed by Santa Monica, Calif.-based Koning Eizenberg Architecture. Costs for the facility and a construction timeline have not been made public.


Jones Center for Contemporary Art

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

700 Congress

Project proposed in: 2005

Architect: Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis

Original cost: $2.5 million

Revised cost: not available

Current status: plans in development; completion date not set

The Texas Fine Arts Association (now known as Arthouse) purchased the building that once housed Hegman's Queen Theater and Lerner department store in 1995 while the association was still headquartered in the carriage house at Laguna Gloria. Arts patron Clara Driscoll gave her estate to TFAA in 1943, but TFAA deeded the building and grounds to Laguna Gloria Art Museum (now Austin Museum of Art) in 1961. Out of the empty storefront on Congress, Dallas architect Gary Cunningham created a main gallery, a secondary gallery/work area, and administrative offices. That renovation was completed in 1999, but funding restraints kept Arthouse from developing more than the ground floor. In 2005, the organization picked up where it left off, engaging the New York firm of Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis to design the next stage of renovation, focusing on the second floor and rooftop of the 23,800-square-foot space. Arthouse officials have been working through construction costs, budgets, timelines, and Executive Director Sue Graze claims that "the end of the process is in sight."


Zachary Scott Theatre Center Third Theatre

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

South Lamar at Riverside

Project proposed in: 2000

Architect: Overland Partners

Original cost: $15 million

Revised cost: $25 million

Current status: plans in development; completion date not set

When the Zachary Scott Theatre Center built its second stage and administrative wing in the late Eighties, using funds approved by Austin voters in a 1985 bond election, it didn't spend all of the available money. Zach held on to some $2 million of the $3.5 million toward construction of a 500-seat facility on the southeast corner of Riverside and South Lamar. In 2000, the theatre seemed to be moving forward on that project, with the announcement that award-winning New York architect Steven Holl would design a $15 million third theatre. But once the economy began to turn, Zach shelved the plans and Holl's participation with them. In 2005, talk about a new theatre was revived: a 40,000-square-foot facility that would house not only the 500-seat auditorium but two classrooms, a rehearsal studio, shops for building and storing scenery and costumes, administrative offices, and gallery space. This time, Zach went to San Antonio, engaging Overland Partners (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) as the design firm, with Rick Archer as architect. The estimated cost is $20 million (an additional $5 million will be raised for an endowment and operating reserves), and in the 2006 city bond election, the project won voter support to the tune of $10 million. In March 2007, Zach announced that the new theatre's stage would be named the Karen Kuykendall Stage, in honor of the Austin native and actress.


State Theatre

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

719 Congress

Project proposed in: 1996

Architect: Sinclair Black

Original cost: $1.9 million

Revised cost: $1.9 million

Current status: completed 1999 but currently awaiting additional renovations

The State, a movie theatre that dates to 1935, was a candidate for renovation in 1985, when voters approved $2 million in bonds for the adjacent Paramount Theatre to turn the faded cinema into a performing-arts venue. Unfortunately, the Paramount's financial troubles and the Eighties bust derailed the plan right away. Then in 1994, Live Oak Theatre director Don Toner got a hold of the empty building, made $130,000 in improvements to it, and lobbied City Council for the leftover bond money to make more. In 1997, he got it and redesigned the auditorium, added classrooms, and opened the basement to the adjacent Reynolds-Penland Building, which Live Oak had acquired, where it put a rehearsal hall, dressing rooms, and scene and costume shops. The renovated theatre opened in 1999, with Live Oak changing its name to the State Theatre Company. The space remained a vital producing venue until June 2006, when a city water-main break flooded the State, causing several hundred thousand dollars in damage and forcing the theatre to suspend production indefinitely. Repairs have been delayed because of construction on the Reynolds-Penland Building, which was sold by the Austin Theatre Alliance (a union of the State and the Paramount) and is being developed at 721 Congress. But Executive Director Ken Stein reports that the State recently has completed a state-regulated mold-remediation process and an engineer's facility assessment of the theatre's mechanical systems, necessary for solving the building's electrical, plumbing, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning/ventilation issues. Stein estimates that $750,000 is needed to upgrade the facility.


Mexic-Arte Museum

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

419 Congress

Project proposed in: 1998

Architect: not chosen

Original cost: $7 million

Revised cost: $25 million

Current status: under study

Mexic-Arte was the first museum to take up residence on Congress, landing its home on the corner at Fifth Street in 1988, but it was almost booted from the Avenue during the recent boom. In 1999, developers envisioned an office tower that would consume all of Block 42 from Fourth to Fifth, including the building housing the museum, and the building's owner was all too happy to sell. Fortunately, local politicians and other fans of the museum found a way for Mexic-Arte to stay where it is. Instrumental in working out a deal was Will Wynn, at the time both a council member and a partner in the development of Congress & Fourth (now Frost Bank Tower). The city gave the museum $740,000 to buy the building from the Block 42 Congress Partners. However, the building has long been in desperate need of renovations. In exploring options for its future, Mexic-Arte has proposed constructing a new, 40,000-square-foot building on the site of the Mexican American Cultural Center. As part of Proposition 4 in the 2006 city bond election, the project won voter support for $5 million toward the cost of a new $25 million facility.


Austin Museum of Art — Downtown

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

Fourth at Guadalupe

Project proposed in: 1996

Architect: None currently

Original cost: $60 million

Revised cost: $43 million, currently not established

Current status: on hold

The Nineties tech boom was supposed to allow the Austin Museum of Art to build the great Downtown museum it had failed to in the Eighties real estate boom. In 1985, AMOA (then Laguna Gloria Art Museum) had a site, a design by architect Robert Venturi, and approval by voters for $14.7 million in bond money to build a permanent facility Downtown. Then financial setbacks, internal staff changes, real estate troubles that led to AMOA losing the site, and cross-cultural art wars sank the project for 10 years. It resurfaced in the late Nineties, when AMOA acquired a new site (a block south of the original), opened galleries on Congress, and won back the city government's favor. The original site was reacquired through a land swap with the city, and New York architect Richard Gluckman was tapped to design a 125,000-square-foot facility, which AMOA confidently expected to open in 2003. The museum even returned $13 million in 1985 bond money to the city. But then internal politics led to board resignations, staff layoffs, the departure of Executive Director Elizabeth Ferrer, and the decision by patrons Mort and Angela Topfer to withdraw their combined $6 million donation to the Downtown building. Ferrer's successor, Dana Friis-Hansen, tried to keep the project alive with a plan to build the Gluckman design in phases, but when it was determined that the museum still would cost $9 million a year to operate – a far cry from AMOA's 2004 annual budget of $2.8 million – AMOA abandoned the Gluckman plans to focus on building a stronger institution. Over the past four years, AMOA has grown its annual budget to $3.2 million and started investigating the possibility of sharing its full-block site – valued at $10 million to $15 million – in a mixed-use project. At one point, AMOA was in discussions with T. Stacy & Associates, which also owns the 823 Congress site where AMOA – Downtown is headquartered, but now other discussions are under way. What AMOA would like is the ability to double its current space to about 30,000 square feet, with expansion options up to 70,000 square feet.


THE FIRST STAGE: Done and done


Austin Museum of Art— Laguna Gloria

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

3809 W. 35th

Project proposed in: 2000

Architect: Lake/Flato

Original cost: $10 million

Revised cost: $12 million, then $3.5 million

Current status: completed September 2003

At the same time that it was making its second attempt to build a Downtown home, the Austin Museum of Art renovated its original home, the 12-acre estate of arts patron Clara Driscoll. A proposed $10 million expansion with a new visitors' center including 2,500 square feet for exhibitions was scaled back to a $3.5 million restoration of the 1916 villa (by San Antonio firm Ford, Powell & Carson) and the surrounding gardens (by the Broussard Group and Land Design Studio). It was completed in 2003.


Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by John Anderson

21st at Guadalupe

Project proposed in: 1999

Architect: Lake/Flato

Original cost: $14.5 million

Revised cost: $14.5 million

Current status: completed May 2003

For almost 30 years, the Ransom Center's galleries largely were dedicated to displaying the collection of art that Mari and James Michener donated to UT in 1971. But the decision to build the Blanton Museum of Art and house the Michener Collection there freed the Ransom to reinvent its two lower floors. San Antonio firm Lake/Flato designed new galleries, permanent displays for the Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph, an events hall, a reading room, and a viewing room for art and photography. The makeover took 20 months.


Austin Lyric Opera: Mary Ann Heller Opera Center

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

901 Barton Springs Rd.

Project proposed in: 1998

Architect: Lake/Flato

Original cost: $2 million

Revised cost: $2 million

Current status: completed March 2000

After more than a decade without a home, Austin Lyric Opera acquired the former Barton Springs Bar & Grill building at Bouldin and Barton Springs Road – across the street from their new performance home, the Long Center. Architects Lake/Flato concocted a three-story main structure featuring offices and a rooftop garden connected to a one-story structure including practice rooms, a multimedia center for electronic music, a small recital room, and a large rehearsal hall. Construction took a year.


Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum

Austin's Cultural Makeover: The Next Stage
Photo by Bret Brookshire

Congress at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

Project proposed in: 1996

Architect: E. Verner Johnson and Associates

Original cost: $80 million

Revised cost: $80 million

Current status: completed April 2001

Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock devoted much of the last three years of his life to establishing a museum that told the story of Texas – and persuading the Texas Legislature to pay for it, which it did to the tune of $80 million. E. Verner Johnson & Associates designed the three-story facility with 41,000 square feet of exhibit space, a small theatre, and the city's first IMAX theatre. Bullock died before construction was completed but not before seeing to it that the finished facility would bear his name.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin arts construction projects, Ballet Austin, Mexican American Cultural Center, Long Center for the Performing Arts, Arthouse, Austin Children's Museum, Austin Museum of Art, Carver Museum and Cultural Center, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, State Theater, Mexic-Arte Museum, Zachary Scott Theatre Center

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