All Over Creation: Follow What Leader?
It's a new era for Arthouse and AMOA, but who will guide them through it?
If you planned to close the doors on an era in the local arts scene, you'd be hard-pressed to do it this neatly. The same weekend that the Austin Museum of Art moves out of its gallery and office space at 823 Congress, abandoning its 15-year experiment in Downtown living, it opens a joint exhibition with its neighbor on Congress, Arthouse – a move that, if the rumors may be believed, could be the first step toward a merger between the two institutions. This comes a week after Sue Graze announced the end of her 12-year tenure as Arthouse's executive director, adding another big note of closure to this month's activity – one that, with Dana Friis-Hansen leaving as executive director of the AMOA this past January, feels like the other shoe dropping.
For both Arthouse and AMOA, this period – which began around 1995 – was all about finding their fortunes in the heart of the city. That year Arthouse, then still called the Texas Fine Arts Association, purchased the building at 700 Congress. The next year, AMOA installed itself in rented quarters to establish a presence Downtown before constructing its new digs on a block it had been holding on to, along with plans by legendary architect Robert Venturi, since the early Eighties. But that set of plans gave way to another and yet another as booms and busts put the project on a roller coaster and ultimately sent it off the rails. Late last year, AMOA's board sold its Downtown block and opted not to renew its lease on the Congress space. Meanwhile, the museum's sister organization – actually, AMOA split off from TFAA, but that's another story – slowly but steadily transformed the former dress shop/movie theatre into a decidedly contemporary showplace for contemporary art. In the end, one landed that coveted urban core address and one gave it up.
But you can't really talk about the Downtown Era without the directors who guided these institutions through most of it. In his decade at AMOA's helm, Friis-Hansen may not have made headway against the obstacles that kept the Downtown museum from being built, but he did much to stabilize AMOA financially, to present exhibits that people came to see, and to promote work by local artists, especially younger ones. He set a tone at AMOA that contemporary art is accessible and that it matters. Graze did much the same at Arthouse, and the headline achievements on her watch – renaming the organization, establishing the $30,000 Arthouse Texas Prize, exhibiting more forward-thinking conceptual art, and successfully completing the building renovation – reflected her commitment to contemporary art: showing it, promoting it, celebrating it. (To be fair, her controversial actions of this past spring – eliminating the position of curator/associate director and allowing Warner Music Group to rent and display materials in a gallery installation by artist Graham Hudson without consulting him – also undercut that commitment.)
So with Graze and Friis-Hansen gone, will Arthouse and AMOA (or whatever their fusion turns out to be) retain the character they developed during the Downtown Era? It's the same query being posed about Apple since Steve Jobs announced his exit. That's because we like to associate the character of an organization with the person leading it, and I'd argue that's even more true in the arts than in commerce. We think of an arts organization's work less as "product" than as "creative expression" – something that makes a statement and is intended to speak to the community.
The person who's making the choices about what work is presented, who makes it, what it says, and how audiences experience it, who is ultimately responsible for the level of artistry, is creating the identity for that organization. Just look across town at Stephen Mills and Ballet Austin, Dave Steakley and Zach Theatre, Michelle Schumann and Austin Chamber Music Center, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony, Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare. What those organizations stand for is bound with who their leaders are.
As the boards of AMOA and Arthouse ponder the new age they're entering without any such leaders, they'd do well to bear that in mind. I've no idea how much of this merger idea is driven by the balance sheet, but budgetary considerations aren't necessarily the wisest rationale for such an arrangement. For a lesson in that, all they need do is look across the street from Arthouse. Merging the Paramount and State theatres looked great on paper, but it's been a less than blissful union, even without considering the unexpected flooding of the State. Reconciling the different missions and philosophies of a producing theatre and a presenting theatre proved harder than expected. And the merged theatres still haven't resolved their identity issues 11 years later, as is clear from the recent rebranding exercise which downplays shows at the State Theatre in favor of the clumsy "Stateside at the Paramount" moniker. Arthouse and AMOA may both be organizations dedicated to showcasing contemporary art, but they still have separate histories and separate boards. And all the money they may save by getting hitched won't matter a damn if someone can't say what the showcasing of all that art means. For that, they need a leader.