A Shortlist of the City’s Most Memorable Museums
Gaze upon objets from the weird to the sublime
By Mary Cantrell,
12:45PM, Thu. Jun. 16, 2016
Austin isn’t necessarily known for its world-class museums. But we are known for embracing our offbeat culture and working to preserve it. While you're Downtown, exhibits, galleries, and museums that represent this dedication essentially surround you.
Everything ranging from Sixth Street's Museum of the Weird, an homage to Austin oddities, to the Mexic-Arte Museum, rooms upon rooms of Mexican influenced artwork, help showcase our city as a cultural hub of Texas. These are some of the museums and galleries worth perusing during your time here, whether it be short or indefinite.
First, head down Fifth Street toward historic Congress Avenue to check out the Mexic-Arte Museum (419 Congress). Founded by three artists in 1984, the space preserves Mexico’s culture through traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American artwork. On display is the “Young Latino Artists 21: Amexican@” exhibit, which prominently features millennial artists. Religious iconography, pop culture references, and rich colors take on life in the Digital Age. On your way out, make a pit stop at the “Changarrito” cart, an annual project that features works acquired by the museum during artists residencies. Affordable paintings, serigraphs, sketches, and zines allow you to support Latino/a artists.
Typically, you would jaywalk over to the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center (700 Congress) on Congress to experience some of Austin’s finest modern art, but it's closed due to renovations and will not reopen until November. All is not lost, though: The Contemporary's outpost, Laguna Gloria (3809 W. 35th), is located just north west of Downtown. Take in some of Austin’s natural beauty on Lake Austin, while enjoying the large-scale permanent outdoor sculptures, such as a 30-foot-tall man made out of stainless steel, that make you feel as if you are in a futuristic metropolis.
If weaving through crowds on hot pavement is more your style, the Blanton and Bob Bullock Texas State History (1800 Congress) museums are located on the cusp of UT’s campus just up the street. Take the scenic route through the Capitol grounds, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you are face to face with a Texas-sized star. More than 7.5 million visitors have graced the massive exhibition halls since the 2001 opening. The Bullock is home to the 17th century French shipwreck La Belle, WWII aircraft the “Texan”, and countless relics from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Depression. A special exhibit worth noting this summer, Our Global Kitchen, focuses on how food systems influence culture, and allows visitors to interact with virtual cooking games. There may even be a square watermelon, or two.
Just across MLK sits the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E. MLK Blvd.), a more low-key option. While it is one of the largest university art museums in the U.S., with over 18,000 pieces, the two-story building – complete with cafe and gift shop – feels airy and well organized. Browse European art dating from 1450-1800, Latin American art post-1960, and American art of the 20th century. Also making an appearance are Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s Enlightenment prints, Los desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), and La tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting). And things are looking up with contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing’s iconic Book From the Sky, an instillation featuring hundreds of books and scrolls with hand-carved characters invented by the artist. Everything down to the museums atrium, a series of blue and white horizontal lines simulating water, is a work of art.
Tired out yet? Might as well grab a brew on Dirty Sixth to recoup, then hit up a couple more spots after you’ve gained your second wind. With a slogan like, “Unusual, Bizarre, and Freaky!” you have to know what you are getting into when you stumble into the door just off Sixth Street into the Museum of the Weird (412 E. Sixth). It’s dark, it’s dingy, it’s a damn good time peering at shrunken heads. It’s supernatural phenomena galore with the Texas Bigfoot, Fiji mermaid, and mummies lurking about. The $12 admission may seem a little on the pricey side for a place that honors itself as one of the remaining dime museums but it's worth it to gaze the legendary Minnesota Iceman creature in the flesh.
Lastly, if you find yourself in need of an Eastside retreat after the shock and awe of Sixth Street, the French Legation Museum (802 San Marcos) that sprawls along San Antonio Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets is a perfect fit with its hourly tours and picturesque grassy lawn. The oldest building in Austin (circa 1841), the French Legation used to serve as a home during the Republic of Texas era. Artifacts from the house and period pieces are on view in addition to the modern art pieces found on the grounds. Wind down on the front porch and experience one of the only protected views of the Capitol.
The 2016 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Convention takes place July 6-9 in Downtown Austin.