Are You Local? Crit Group Reunion Redefines What it Means to be an Austin Artist
Two-part retrospective exhibition brings local creatives together, and to the main gallery
A few months ago, I wrote an article for this paper in which I referred to an artist working in Austin as a "local artist" in the headline. Later, this artist generously shared the article on their personal Instagram, and an older, more established artist, who also happens to work in Austin, commented "Congrats...but you know I hate the term 'local' – you're Austin based!!!"
Of course, I had used the word "local" merely to underscore that this artist, who had recently won a big award, lives in Austin, not to pejoratively imply that their work was suited to the local level, as opposed to a national or international scale. But the brief comment made me ask myself, "If I had been writing for a New York City paper about a New York City-based artist, would I have called them a 'local' artist?" Probably not. So why was I comfortable calling an artist of exceptional talent, who, by the way, shows in cities across the U.S., a "local" artist? Are artists who live in hubs like New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Tokyo "above" words like local? What does that suggest about how people think of artists living in Austin, or any city or town outside of these so-called "centers" for contemporary art?
The Contemporary Austin is beginning to ask these questions as well. Their current two-part show, Crit Group Reunion, turns a long-overdue spotlight on the robust community of visual artists working in Austin, a move that strikes a deeper conversation about how major institutions should invest in the existing arts ecosystems in the places where they are located. In a first for the Contemporary, all of the featured artists are alumni of its Crit Group program, which was started in 2014 to give folks a chance to share their work and receive feedback, participate in professional development opportunities, and deepen ties within Austin's art community. Each year, less than 10 artists are selected to join Crit Group. Normally, at the end of the annual program, each cohort exhibits their work at grayDUCK Gallery in East Austin. This time, in another first, their work will be on display at the Contemporary's Downtown Jones Center gallery.
The first chapter of the exhibition, "Facing the World," which opened on September 11, loosely focused on how sheltering in place drew attention to the natural and domestic environments that surround us. The second chapter, "Facing Each Other," which opens November 20, will explore how compounding health and social crises changed the ways we relate to each other and see ourselves in larger social frameworks.
So what motivated a major institution like the Contemporary to suddenly show these Austin artists in the museum itself, as opposed to a smaller partnering gallery? Robin K. Williams, the associate curator involved with the show, explained that "COVID hit, and everything was thrown up in the air. ... The museum shut down, and it caused us to have to reconfigure the exhibition schedule." Williams also mentioned that as the museum was confronting these abrupt changes, it ushered in a new executive director, sharon maidenberg, in summer 2020, when protests following George Floyd's murder roused more acute attention to issues like equity and visibility.
These internal and societal shifts caused the institution, like many others, to confront which artists they had historically shown and why they were selected. Perhaps more importantly, they were also prompted to address which artists had been excluded from these opportunities in the first place. Williams recalled that the conversations occurring at the time generated strong feelings among the Contemporary's staff to produce an exhibition that specifically served the city of Austin. She noted that many of her colleagues shared the new leadership's goal "to see the museum become really strongly rooted in the local community, to the same degree that it has been functioning on a national and international art scale."
Authentic community service had always been at the heart of Crit Group, so highlighting this program seemed like an actionable, meaningful way to express the institution's renewed commitments to local and regional artists and audiences. Williams said that bringing the artists together for the show "reactivated the community building that was part and parcel to the whole ethos of the program itself."
As planning began, the curators made a decisive effort to listen to and address artists' evolving needs. Williams and Crit Group co-founder Andrea Mellard began the process by hosting reunions of each cohort over Zoom, followed by individual studio visits with all 52 of the artists in the exhibition. During the process, the curators listened to artists describe newfound difficulties – like decreased job security, loss of studio space or time, and increased family care responsibilities – but also unlikely reprieves, like less social obligations and more leniency with deadlines.
Williams stressed that "everything was pretty stark" in summer 2020, when these conversations were occurring: "A lot of museums, and especially smaller institutions, had to cancel shows, which meant that artists who had shows on the books suddenly didn't anymore." The prospect of having an exhibition open in fall 2021, when they imagined the severity of the pandemic would be declining (in reality, the show's opening coincided with a COVID surge caused by the Delta variant), became a hopeful beacon on the horizon to look toward.
Nearly all of the work featured in Crit Group Reunion was made during 2020, meaning it ran the risk of being just another pandemic group show, one of those forced, underdeveloped, and at times, painfully disjointed group exhibitions that institutions seem to think will provide some profound reflection on the last 20-odd months. However, most of the collection does not address the pandemic at all, but is rather, to use Williams' words, "conditioned by that moment in time."
As artist Virginia Lee Montgomery approached her contribution to the show, she wanted to create a gentle, immersive piece that described the experience of being freed from home confinement. Over the course of the pandemic, Montgomery raised luna moth caterpillars in her Hyde Park studio. As she observed them between remote work sessions for her day job, she realized the moths were a "wonderful symbol to embody hope, metamorphosis regeneration, and emergence." Montgomery then produced O, LUNA! a striking four-minute video in the exhibition, which shows the moths through their maturation, performing delicate functions like ringing bells and interacting with an insect-sized camera that Montgomery made specially for them.
This spirit of generosity, wonder, and empathy also surfaced for Steve Parker, who produced a sound performance at Laguna Gloria in tandem with the Jones Center exhibition. Parker has degrees in music and mathematics, and before Crit Group, had never shown work in an art gallery. When I asked Parker about what he was thinking as he designed the Laguna Gloria performance, he brought up Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess, mystic, author, and composer, who "was interested in the potential for sound and its healing properties ... and how the practice of listening deliberately can be an act of self-care." Parker reflected on the healing potential of music as he created Foghorn Elegy, the first large-scale performance he's conducted since the onset of the pandemic. He says, "I just really enjoy making art with other people, and this is, I think, going to be one of those experiences that is really powerful."
Crit Group was conducted virtually in 2020, and the Contemporary is still evaluating how and if they should continue the program, or perhaps modify it in the future. However, the artist alumni said it had been invaluable to them. Montgomery described it as "a way of quite literally sharing the knowledge that we each gained from being, in many instances, lifelong practitioners of art." She explained that a viewer "might not necessarily look at an artwork on the wall of the gallery and [think], 'Oh, this is made by someone who has invested a lot of time, energy, education, schooling, and decades of participating in a rigorous subculture to make it [happen].'" Crit Group acknowledges the "subterranean labor" that artists engage in, and that seems to be part of its unusual beauty and functionality.
The retrospective has personal significance for Dawn Okoro, whose colored pencil self-portrait will be included in the second chapter the reunion. She recalled her own experiences visiting the Jones Center in the early Aughts: "I remember looking at the artist's work and thinking, 'Wow, how can I get my work here?'... It seems like you have to go and show in New York or internationally before you can come and show here." After participating in Crit Group, and then going on to show in New York and internationally, Okoro said that having her own work in the Jones Center "feels like things have come full circle for me."
Crit Group Reunion celebrates the vital cultural contributions of visual artists living in Austin by placing their work in a premiere space in the highly trafficked Downtown. Particularly in a city better known for its more established music and film cultures, an exhibition like Crit Group Reunion has the potential to put Austin on the map as a major visual arts destination. The show, and the program that inspired it, offers a prime example of how an institution can lift emerging artists into much greater visibility. After all, the artists in this show are not just "local." They're Austin-based.
Crit Group Reunion, “Chapter 2: Facing Each Other” is up Nov. 20-Jan. 16 at the Jones Center, 700 Congress, thecontemporaryaustin.org.