Contemporary Austin Goings & Comings

Judith Sims retires, Deming sculpture Mystic Raven returns

To give you an idea of how long Judith Sims has worked with the museum we now know as the Contemporary Austin, she had almost two decades on staff when the institution changed its name from Laguna Gloria Art Museum to the Austin Museum of Art, and that was in 1992. Now, 44 years after signing on with the museum, Sims is signing off.

Judith Sims (Photo by Chris Garza)

Needless to say, when Sims begins her well-deserved retirement at the end of December, no one else on the museum staff will have anything close to her term of service. Indeed, when the Chronicle profiled Sims back in 1996, she had already been employed there longer than anyone else. That story by Rebecca Cohen noted that when Sims was hired in 1973, she was one of only four employees at Laguna Gloria – and that included the groundskeeper.

More significantly, once Sims departs, no one else on the staff will ever come close to doing so much for the museum in so many ways and so many jobs. She's been the program director, the director of the art school, curator of video and film, senior director of education, senior site director at Laguna Gloria, and even acting co-director for a time in the late Nineties as a search was being conducted for a permanent director. She's been a major force in both preserving and evolving the Laguna Gloria property as the museum has grown and changed. Just look at her work establishing the art school in the early Eighties and on the Laguna Gloria Renewal Project in the 2000s. She's also been the key player in partnerships between the museum and other institutions that have yielded remarkable results: alliances with the Austin Film Society, the UT Radio-Television-Film Department, and other entities to screen films at Laguna Gloria for 15 years; the Art School's collaboration with Austin Community College that's lasted decades; the affiliation with Houston's Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP) that kept the independent short film series The Territory on the PBS airwaves in Texas for more than 30 years.

And that's just with Laguna Gloria/AMOA/The Contemporary. Sims has made an impact outside that institution as well. As Cohen noted, "She was a founding participant in Austin's Dance Umbrella, brought internationally-renowned dance artist Deborah Hay to Austin for her first performance here, and assisted at the birth of the venerable arts umbrella Women & Their Work." There's a reason that Sims was among the first dozen people that the Austin Critics Table inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame. She's made a profound difference in our city's cultural scene. Thank you, Judith.

David Deming's Mystic Raven in its new home in Pease Park.
Mystic Raven, 1983. Painted steel. Collection of The Contemporary Austin. (Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons)

Now, about the same time that Sims was getting Laguna Gloria's Art School some permanent digs on the Clara Driscoll estate, a new sculpture was being installed on the corner of Eighth and Congress, in the courtyard of what was then called First City Centre. The six-ton, 22-foot-tall abstract work, titled Mystic Raven, was the creation of David Deming, then a prized faculty member at the UT Department of Art and Art History, later the chair of the department, then interim dean of the College of Fine Arts, and, for all too brief a time in the late Nineties, the permanent dean. (He left Austin to head the Cleveland Institute of Art.) For about a decade, his massive rust-colored steel sculpture stood sentinel on the Avenue, then the property was renovated, and the owners decided to "evict" Deming's Raven. Ownership was transferred to the art museum, and the work itself was transferred to Laguna Gloria. It's lived there for most of the past quarter century, but now it's getting a new home: Pease Park. As the part of the Contemporary Austin's Museum Without Walls initiative, in which the museum connects people with art outside of its formal spaces at the Jones Center and Laguna Gloria, Mystic Raven is going on long-term loan to the city's Art in Public Places program, which has decided to install it in Pease Park near Lamar Boulevard and 29th Street. To mark its new lease on life, the Raven has gotten a new color scheme: basic black, perhaps to align it more with its avian namesake.

On Saturday, Dec. 16, the Contemporary Austin is holding a special ceremony to celebrate the installation of Deming's sculpture in the park. The artist himself will will be on hand, as will City Council Member Alison Alter (District 10); Austin Parks and Recreation Department Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley, Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation President Melba Whatley, and the Contemporary's Executive Director, Louis Grachos. Refreshments are promised. The event begins at 9am at 29th Street at North Lamar. For more information, visit

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Judith Sims, The Contemporary Austin, Austin Museum of Art, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, The Territory, David Deming, Louis Grachos, Art in Public Places, Pease Park

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