The Contemporary Austin gives new life to the place where it all began, Laguna Gloria
Austin hides its ghosts well, but if you know where to look, the spirits of the city's past residents still buzz about. They debate and dance around the Capitol as families and political advocates grace the lawn. With wispy, furrowed brows, they studiously walk across the University of Texas campus while current students keep pace in their fading steps. One studies the Contemporary Austin's newly acquired Paul McCarthy piece, a bronze sculpture of an imposing Snow White, in the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park, her ghostly face hinting at curiosity and excitement. She's gone before you can approach her. It was a glimpse of Clara Driscoll, a woman with a reputation that has stood the test of time.
Or it should have.
Somewhere down the line, Driscoll's remarkable history fell victim to cultural amnesia. If you know of her at all, it's probably through the Alamo, which Driscoll helped secure as a historical site, or the brief marker tucked away on the grounds of her old residence: the villa at Laguna Gloria. A Texan by way of Ireland, Driscoll was a woman who represented all the charming bawdiness and good humor of the state she called home. Her grandfather had emigrated from County Cork and fought to secure Texas' freedom in the Battle of San Jacinto. Her father and uncle, both Civil War veterans, began a multimillion-dollar ranching, banking, and commercial development business in Corpus Christi. Clara Driscoll was as Texan as they come and raised accordingly. She spoke four languages fluently and was educated in both New York and France. She published two novels before the age of 26. Her three-act comic opera Mexicana debuted in New York City and ran for 82 performances. In 1905, she handed over roughly $75,000 in cash to secure the land around the Alamo to continue its preservation as a historical site, a project that would carry on throughout Driscoll's life. She led the Texas Democratic Party as its national committeewoman for 16 years and was an ardent supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Upon her death, Time magazine was quoted: "Even for Texas, a woman like Clara Driscoll was something. .... Politicians soon learned to respect her: She could drink, battle, cuss and connive with the best of them, outspend practically all of them."
She was a philanthropist, creative, and trailblazer – and wanted to give that imaginative spirit to everything she touched. It's no surprise that her Austin legacy emerged as Laguna Gloria.
The property itself possesses a prestigious background. It was originally owned by Stephen F. Austin, but he never got around to developing it. Years later, the land fell into the hands of Hal Sevier, founding editor of the Austin American and Driscoll's husband. He and Clara designed the villa in the style of the country houses at Italy's Lake Como. They broke ground in 1914, and the villa was completed in 1916. Clara dedicated herself to the space, designing the varied landscaping motifs that still exist there today. In its heyday, Laguna Gloria hosted Texas' haut monde for political functions, dinner parties, and artistic salons, serving as the site for international events as well as respected community soirees. It represented the creative elite's ambition to bring old-world sophistication to the still-emergent state of Texas. It was Austin's aristocratic hub, and at its center was Clara.
In 1938, however, that all ended when Driscoll and Sevier divorced. Five years later, Clara gave up Laguna Gloria, donating it, along with $5,000, to the Texas Fine Arts Association, with the intent of having the land used "as a Museum to bring pleasure in the appreciation of art to the people of Texas." The TFAA had been established 32 years earlier to honor another famous Austinite, Elisabet Ney, with a mission to promote the arts throughout the state. Its early work involved preserving Ney's studio and sculptures, eventually birthing the Elisabet Ney Museum in 1929. After Clara's donation, the TFAA oversaw the Laguna Gloria property until 1961, when the association split. From that, Laguna Gloria Art Museum was born, and it took on as its mission maintaining the villa's grounds, as well as providing education and exhibiting art.
From the Sixties through the Eighties, Laguna Gloria was a busy site for not only visual art, but also film screenings, dance and theatre performances, and music concerts, much of which took place under the oak trees in the amphitheatre by the villa. Most notably, the LGAM hosted the annual art fair, Fiesta. The spring event begun in 1950 (which continues today as Art City Austin) brought the city's residents out to Laguna Gloria in droves and was a major fundraiser for the museum. With over 8,000 volunteers helping to put it together, Fiesta captivated Austin and its arts scene through the Eighties and into the Nineties. In 1983, the Art School's 4,100-square-foot facility was erected on Laguna Gloria's grounds and seemed to open up the potential for the villa's future. By that time, however, the museum had begun to pursue a dream of building a larger facility Downtown, and in 1996, in a step toward that goal, the institution relocated its primary exhibition space to 823 Congress and changed its name from Laguna Gloria Art Museum to the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA).
But AMOA was not alone in looking to claim a Downtown art space. In 1995, the TFAA purchased a long-dormant retail store at 700 Congress with the intent of revamping it into a gallery space, or kunsthalle, dedicated specifically to contemporary work. In 1998, the TFAA opened the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, and four years later rebranded itself as Arthouse. Nine years passed with the two museums programming art within blocks of each other on the same street. Then in 2011, when Arthouse and AMOA celebrated their 100th and 50th anniversaries, respectively, the institutions announced their merger.
However, the union – or reunion, considering their status before the 1961 split – was marred with uncertainty that the two museums, which had separately experienced fiscal struggles and difficulty maintaining a donor base, would be stronger as one. It also raised questions about what kind of art the new institution would exhibit: established? experimental? local? international? It was decided that the main galleries would be in the Jones Center, but there was the lingering question of what to do with Laguna Gloria. While the Art School was still in operation, the villa remained undeniably sleepy, seeing more action as a rental venue for weddings than a vital gallery space.
It took the arrival of Louis Grachos for Laguna Gloria's potential to be revived.
A New Era
Grachos took the museum's helm in early 2013, after a 10-year stint at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. His road to Austin was an adventurous one, full of travel and a rich education in the arts. Grachos grew up in Toronto, the eldest child of two Greek immigrants. His love of art history began at an early age, as did his appreciation for hockey; both topics will stop Grachos dead in his tracks even today. (Any mention of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a surefire way to have Grachos break into a smile and an anecdote about his hometown team.) He began his studies at the University of Toronto but moved to New York in 1979, finishing his art history degree at NYU. It was there that Grachos' interest in the arts began to bloom. He found himself immersed in the city's dynamic creative culture. Soon after, Grachos moved to San Francisco, taking a position as a research assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, only to return to New York in 1982 for a position at the Whitney.
Grachos' early career is marked by notable institutions: Queens Museum of Art, the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami, and San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art. However, it was his appointment at SITE Santa Fe in 1996 – the same year that AMOA and Arthouse were emerging as key players in Austin's art scene – that truly cemented Grachos' status as a seminal force in the world of contemporary art. Grachos speaks fondly of his six years in Santa Fe, his eyes lighting up as he recalls collaborations with artists such as Pipilotti Rist and Jim Hodges out in the New Mexico desert. It is apparent that his stint at SITE Santa Fe was both exhilarating and extremely experimental, and helped push the limits of what Grachos deemed possible in contemporary art. His direction facilitated immersive installation work and integrated, multifaceted programming, uplifting both SITE Santa Fe's reception and his professional reputation. His expansive vision earned him the directorship of the Albright-Knox Gallery in 2002.
All of that talent and drive, however, is only part of what makes Grachos so compelling. He commands a room not by force but by genial magnetism. At an event, Grachos can be seen busily attending to his duties as executive director, occasionally with a martini in hand, while still personally addressing each of his guests. Ever the host, Grachos devotes attention to his audience, making everyone from the young artist to the senior patron feel welcome. He's a family man with a son, James, who attends UT. Grachos adds proudly that his son plays hockey for the university, and he does his best to make it out to games. He enjoys traveling whenever possible and seeks out studio visits in tandem with gallery exhibitions. Grachos chooses his words wisely and pauses concertedly when his thoughts seem to get away from him, but is composed when faced with a subject that eludes him. His inquisitiveness is insatiable, yet his temperament is always demure. He is a man capable of great warmth and generosity who truly believes in celebrating artists and their craft, whether they be found in a New York gallery or on the ice rinks of Toronto.
Though Grachos himself calmly segued into his role as executive director of AMOA-Arthouse, his arrival marked a dramatic change for the institution. After years of what was perceived as curatorial stagnancy, the museum was suddenly pushing forward with a new creative identity and putting plans into motion. There was a rebrand, which abandoned both old names for something more current: the Contemporary Austin. New staff was brought in, including head curator Heather Pesanti, who accompanied Grachos from the Albright-Knox.
For some, this new era felt tainted with the same intense growth facing the entire city. Critics claimed the change read as another transplant from New York arriving in Austin to shape the city to his liking, which would mean bigger but perhaps not better. Grachos' first exhibitions (intricate affairs with members-only openings and exclusive dinners) did little to ease those anxieties. Austin's citywide cultural growth thus far had yielded little more than flashy high-rises, increased congestion, and a skyrocketing cost of living, and Grachos looked to be one more outsider ready to bulldoze all that the local community had long fought to preserve in pursuit of something more glamorous. The thing was, though, at its heart, AMOA had always sought a bit of glamour with Clara Driscoll's gift, even when that glamour was buried under safe programming and limited scope over the past five decades. The museum was long overdue for a revival, starting back at the source. It was time to return to Laguna Gloria with Grachos as Driscoll's de facto heir.
Grachos was unabashed about his first reaction to Laguna Gloria. Deeming it an eyesore in serious need of an update, he made revitalizing the grounds one of the first projects for his team. Indeed, it was such a priority for Grachos that he moved his entire executive office and staff out to the site. He was quick to invite artists like Charles Long, Orly Genger, and Marianne Vitale to tour the grounds with the idea of installing work there, and he found many of them excited by the prospect because of how unique to Austin the museum's lakefront location is. Though change was coming quickly to Laguna Gloria, Grachos made one thing very clear: "Under any plan [we might conceive], we want to maintain the texture and vision that Clara Driscoll provided for the grounds. It's very important to do that. Although the programming inside the building will probably shift and change, the integrity of the architecture and the surrounding formal gardens will be intact. But by including [art], we can truly activate those spaces." And as artists began to work with the space, Laguna Gloria's overrun, dormant grounds became trim, neat, and outfitted with sculptures by some of contemporary art's most renowned names, such as Tom Sachs and Do Ho Suh.
In two short years, Laguna Gloria has been newly invigorated by the efforts of Grachos and his team. Liam Gillick's rainbow-hued Raised Laguna Discussion Platform (Job #1073) frames the villa's lagoon, once overgrown, and now neatly trim to frame the sculpture. Vitale's Common Crossings, steel sculptures made from train track junctions, now stoically anchor one of Laguna Gloria's clearings. John Grade's more recent inclusion of his Canopy Tower with its high Ipe wood paneling creates an elegant funnel amongst a grove's stately trees. Visitors can be seen strolling across the grounds, taking their time moving through the dynamic work. But it's not just the sculpture that is drawing new audiences. The Contemporary's education efforts include events like Second Saturdays and Teens Create! which seek to address and include the community's larger creative interests. The space has been transformed, and the progress has shown no signs of slowing down.
Grachos and the Contemporary's board have some grand proposals in the works, ones that would vastly expand the public's access to all of Laguna Gloria's grounds and make them more accommodating for visitors. Boston-based landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is developing a master plan for the 12-acre property. And Grachos has insisted on adding an artist residency on-site. Though small (Grachos believes only one or two artists would be able to occupy the buildings dedicated to the residency and studio space), it is a step that mirrors Driscoll's original ambitions of bringing an international creative community to Laguna Gloria and providing it a place to flourish. When asked what Grachos wants most to accomplish with the space, he smiles: "We want to advance the potential for Laguna Gloria."
However, it is the site's history that leaves the lasting impression. In a city that has grown so rapidly and has arguably stumbled in preserving its past, Laguna Gloria recalls a time in Austin when creativity was truly limitless. And as for Clara Driscoll, her legacy is shining ever brighter. Clara stands as a beacon for the profound good that can come from supporting a creative community and believing in the people that made her state so exceptional. That pride and community is what attracted people to Laguna Gloria from around the world – and it's time once again for that Texas spirit to harken creativity home.