Arthouse/Austin Museum of Art
Where once there were two, there's now one
Cue the wedding bells. They sealed the deal – "they" being the boards of Arthouse and the Austin Museum of Art, who, after months of exploratory talks about merging the two visual-arts institutions, voted on Nov. 1 to get hitched. What the new museum will be named is as yet undecided – the public announcement mentions a "thoughtful re-branding process" in the coming months – but maybe they'll consider the Texas Fine Arts Association since that was the name Arthouse went by for 91 years before its 2002 rechristening and it was from that entity that AMOA, or Laguna Gloria Art Museum, as it was originally known, emerged in 1961. Indeed, this reunification of the split entities makes their half-century apart essentially the world's longest trial separation.
The reasoning for the union boils down to money and real estate. Arthouse has the latter, a newly renovated prime chunk of Downtown property at Seventh and Congress; AMOA has the former, a $21.75 million windfall from the sale of the block where it had planned for 30 years to build its own permanent Downtown home. Arthouse gets the cash to both pay off its reported $3.2 million debt from the renovation and keep the remodeled space running (thanks to a $15 million operating endowment), and AMOA gets that permanent Downtown address it's desired for so long. What this means for art – which features prominently in the names of both institutions, after all – isn't clear. The announcement doesn't speak to how the two museums will fuse their varying missions – AMOA's local focus vs. Arthouse's statewide reach; the emphasis on current, innovative contemporary art at Arthouse vs. AMOA's broader interest in art of the past century – or what happens to such institutional traditions as the Arthouse Texas Prize or the triennial "New Art in Austin" exhibition.
Indeed, it's telling that in the press release announcing the merger, the focus of the headline and first paragraph is that this move will save a million bucks in operating costs and launch the new venture with zero debt. Arthouse board member Stephen Jones does refer to a "forward-thinking artistic vision," but it's hard to know who's supplying this, since neither museum currently has an executive director driving the curatorial bus. The vision described in a FAQ on the website about the merger – 18.104.22.168/bridge/vision.html – focuses heavily on "fiscal discipline," "responsible financial management," and "financial stability." It isn't until the sixth bullet item that it's stated: "The new organization will be committed first to excellence in art." No, the signs point to this being about money.
Now, it would be easier to have more faith in this merger if money had not been such a major issue with both institutions in the past. There were AMOA's three failed bids during the past 30 years to raise money for its proposed Downtown home, a troubling track record exacerbated by the board opting to return to the city $14 million in bonds approved for the construction of such a Downtown facility, plus its financial difficulties that prompted layoffs and programming cutbacks over the past decade. Arthouse, meanwhile, had trouble covering the costs of its building upgrade and the doubled operating expenses that have come with it, resulting in layoffs and budget cuts and possibly contributing to the questionable rental of a gallery space to Warner Music Group during South by Southwest. How does adding together those two histories equal future fiscal stability? Even with that $21.75 million as part of the equation, the sum looks dubious. After all, look at what one of those boards did with $14 million just a few years ago.
Much of the merger's success – financial and otherwise – will depend on the new organization's leadership. That isn't necessarily the new executive director to be hired after a national search, although of course that person will have a crucial role to play. The boards of AMOA and Arthouse drove this move, and it will be their actions that determine whether this marriage endures.