Austin’s Popular Gallery of Graffiti Searches for a New Location
Keeping HOPE alive
The art at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery was never meant to be permanent. Even the most elaborate and professional murals are covered, sooner or later, with new layers of graffiti. The gallery itself was never meant to be permanent, either. Now in its sixth year, the paint park will soon be moving from Baylor Street to a new location – though it has yet to find one.
Established in 2010 as a short-term experiment, the park has evolved into a local icon, the backdrop for countless selfies and a destination for tourists from around the world. Moving, says its founder, Andi Scull Cheatham, is the next step in its evolution.
"The property was always going to be developed," Cheatham says. "This project was meant to have a shelf life of a couple years, but once the owner saw how much it had been embraced and loved by the community, he's done everything he can to keep it going."
The property belongs to Vic Ayad, a principal with Castle Hill Partners, which is headquartered in the Texas Military Institute castle perched on the hilltop above the gallery. The paint park began when Cheatham approached Ayad about creating an art installation to promote positive messages on the site of an abandoned construction project from the 1980s. Ayad and his partner on the project, architect Dick Clark, had planned to build condos there, but the financial crisis of 2008 intervened and the plan stalled. They agreed to let artists associated with Cheatham's HOPE Campaign paint the walls for six months, assuming the next step would be construction. No one anticipated how popular it would become.
"As this thing took on a life of its own, it became a very important part of our local culture," Ayad says. Six months came and went, and Ayad, who had become enchanted with the daily flow of visitors and art, bought Clark out in 2013 so the park could stay. For Ayad, who lived down the street when he moved to Austin as a teen in the 1970s, the gallery brings back the psychedelic art that covered the walls of music clubs in those days. From his office, in a turret of the castle, he can watch people explore the gallery, paint the walls, and photograph the view of Downtown.
"How could you end that in good conscience, unless you just can't afford it anymore?" he asks.
Because while the park is free to visitors, it's not free to operate. Ayad says he pays about $100,000 each year in property taxes, insurance, and holding costs for the land. He and Cheatham's HOPE Campaign together have paid for trash collection, overnight security, and fences along the side of the property. Developers call him every week to inquire about the land, which, contrary to a popular rumor, is perfectly buildable. (Ayad once got into conversation with a gallery visitor who didn't know he owned the site, and who told him the property had a "weird water formation underneath it" that prevented anything from being built there. "He said, 'Why else would anybody who owned this be stupid enough to let us come paint on this site overlooking the city?'" Ayad remembers. "I told him, 'Yeah, that would take quite a dumbass.'")
And there's a second reason the gallery can't stay: "It's become so popular, it's not compatible with the neighborhood anymore," Ayad says.
On a pretty day, the site can attract more than a thousand visitors – families, elementary school classes, teens, Segway tours, buses of tourists. Volunteers help direct people and pick up trash, but they can't manage it all. Baylor Street and other nearby thoroughfares are strained with constant traffic, noise, and spillover graffiti from the gallery.
"I like what it is; I don't like where it is," says John Teinert, whose office is one block from the park. He says street parking was already at a premium and that traffic, trash, paint cans, and fumes from the site trickle out into the Old West Austin neighborhood. "I'm an advocate for the art park, I just think it needs a better facility," he says.
Cheatham agrees. "Vic has said he'd love for us to stay if we could afford to buy it," she says. "But if we as a nonprofit had $8 million, we would still move it. We would take it to a place that was bigger and would create the various amenities we know it needs." Those include restrooms, lighting, parking, water fountains – the features of public parks.
But where? For close to two years, Cheatham has been trying to find another location. She's met with council members and the Parks and Recreation Department to see if the gallery could be relocated to city land. So far, the options she's discussed with city staff have all hit a wall – and not one that can be spray painted. A site north of Lady Bird Lake near Downtown may be rendered moot by a traffic change; a site near the lake in East Austin is not ready to contract with specific nonprofits.
Of course, many of the visitors to the HOPE site think it's already a city park. Social media, which helped it become famous, has added to the confusion; Cheatham has counted more than 20,000 check-ins at "HOPE Outdoor Gallery," but the numbers would be higher if she added the other names people have given it: "Graffiti Park," "Castle Hill Park." Even Google Maps identifies the space as "Graffiti Park at Castle Hill," open 24 hours. (It actually closes at 9pm.)
Given the misconceptions about the place, Cheatham and Ayad speak carefully about its relocation. The pace of change in Austin offers a ready-made – and incorrect – narrative that a heartless developer is pushing the gallery out. That couldn't be further from the truth, says Cheatham, who calls Ayad an "angel sponsor" and "the pure essence of authentic Austin." Both worry about getting their message out to their constituency in a way that won't create backlash.
Once a suitable location is chosen, the HOPE Campaign will undertake a capital campaign to help fund the gallery's transition. For now, Cheatham is collecting input on a survey accessed from the gallery's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/hopeoutdoorgallery).
Ayad remains optimistic. "I'm confident that something is going to work out soon," he says. "The wheels are in motion, the karma is good, and God is smiling on the HOPE Outdoor Gallery."