The Art of Saving AMOA

Amid Layoffs, Reorganization, and Uncertain Funding, the Austin Museum of Art Tries to Regroup

AMOA CEO Bill McLellan
AMOA CEO Bill McLellan (Photo By John Anderson)

How many years does it take to build an art museum? In Austin, we're up to 18 years and counting.

The long-awaited Austin Museum of Art project, with more stops and starts on its record than another famously nonexistent landmark -- the new City Hall -- is on hold once again, this time the victim of a slimmed-down economy and a vision blurred by the big-hearted boom years. In the latest series of developments:

  • AMOA has laid off six people, eliminated eight positions, and consolidated other jobs.

  • Austin philanthropists Mort and Angela Topfer have temporarily withdrawn either part or all of their combined $6 million donation, citing dissatisfaction with the museum's design and AMOA's internal organizational structure.

  • Tom Green, president-elect of the AMOA board, has bailed, saying his executive responsibilities at Dell Computer Corp. leave him little time for civic leadership positions. Green has said he will remain on the board.

    On top of all this, the arts community rumor-mill is running at full throttle. One popular report holds that museum director Elizabeth Ferrer, who joined the staff in 1997, intends to resign soon. Ferrer did not respond to phone calls from the Chronicle.

    AMOA's new CEO, Bill McLellan, says he's heard the same rumors but that to his knowledge, Ferrer is staying put. On the other hand, McLellan says it's common for resignations to follow on the heels of staff changes and new additions.

    McLellan himself joined the staff only a month ago, replacing Bill O'Brien, who left in April. McLellan is a former vice-president of 3M Co., and more recently served as executive director of LifeWorks, a nonprofit youth and family organization. He acknowledges that he has his work cut out for him overseeing a staff of 50 and a budget of $3.4 million.

    He was on the job less than two weeks when he undertook some serious belt-tightening measures, which included the layoffs. "We had a board finance committee look at what we needed to do, and when we realized we didn't have the resources for the rest of the year, we began eliminating some job functions," said McLellan. "I really don't anticipate any more layoffs," the CEO added. "I know that Michael Dell said the same thing before [Dell Computers] laid off more people, but I will do everything I can to prevent that."

    McLellan diplomatically avoids describing the state of affairs at AMOA when he assumed his new position. "I think there's lots of room for improvements -- structural improvements, workload improvements, a real focus on strong planning, and arts acquisition." In short, he said, "a little reorganization is in order."

    Another source put it more bluntly: "He appears to be cleaning up a huge mess. He's had to move very quickly to try and straighten things out."

    By most accounts, McLellan is also trying to assuage some concerns of the Topfers, two of Austin's most celebrated philanthropists, who have made two separate $3 million donations to the AMOA project. McLellan said he has been in contact with Angela Topfer about the matter. "She's holding that gift in abeyance until her concerns have been addressed," McLellan said. Asked how much of the couple's donation is on hold, McLellan said, "You'll have to ask them." Neither Mort nor Angela Topfer could be reached for comment.

    Also, despite Tom Green's official explanation for withdrawing from his president-elect post, the prevailing thought is that he didn't want to get bogged down trying to straighten out the museum's problems. As one observer noted, the AMOA "is one screwed-up disaster." Green was out of town on business this week but commented by e-mail that McLellan "needs a 'fulltime' board chairperson who can work with him in doing what needs to be done -- getting a world-class museum of art built in downtown Austin. ... I intend to continue to help on the fundraising end, but increasingly find that I don't have the time to devote to the many other duties and responsibilities that Bill will need in a chairperson."

    Building a Building For --

    It's hard to ascertain the extent of the "disaster," or whether one actually exists. But everyone agrees that McLellan faces enormous challenges. He assumes the reins with strong backing from the board. "Bill McLellan is a dream find," said board member Eugene Sepulveda. "And he is making some tough decisions to ensure the museum's success."

    Board member and longtime arts patron Alfred King is similarly confident in the new chief's abilities. "What we're trying to do now is adapt to this new economic situation," King said. "I don't know of any new building project or organization that's not having to make adjustments."

    Still, at least three sources familiar with AMOA's history say it's unfortunate that McLellan and most of the current board members lack firsthand knowledge of what it takes to run a museum, much less build a new one. During rosier economic times, they say, the AMOA project rose in popularity, but the broad enthusiasm seemed more about a high-profile building and less about a community art museum.

    "There's a certain body of knowledge that exists in the museum world," one source volunteered. "It's not a mystery."

    McLellan concedes that he does not have a museum background to draw from as he tries to get a new building off the ground and operating on choice downtown property at Fourth and Guadalupe. He realizes, of course, that there's only an "outside chance" that construction will get underway this year. To accomplish his goal of seeing the project through to completion, he must first conquer the museum's long-running cycle of disappointments -- the Eighties bust, accompanying real estate woes, financial problems, internal strife, staff turnover, and cross-cultural art wars. Now, it's as if the AMOA has come full circle, and once more faces a similar set of challenges.

    At the same time, some outside observers say the AMOA leadership should rethink a matter of equal importance. They question the need for a $65 million, 150,000 square-foot facility -- a huge leap beyond the modest space AMOA currently occupies on Congress Avenue. "What are they going to put in it?" asked one. "They don't have a collection. And it takes money to build a collection."

    Moreover, the museum board's decision in 2000 to return the $12 million in bond money to the city (from a bond measure that voters had approved in the Eighties) is now being held up as an example of how the flush boom years altered logical thought. Said one knowledgeable source: "The money was coming in fairly rapidly and they, like everyone else, thought it would always be that way. In hindsight, it probably wasn't a wise decision [to return the bond money]. A lot of museums receive city funding, but I don't know of any museum that has ever given the money back." end story

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    Austin Museum of Art, Mort Topfer, Angela Topfer, Tom Green, Elizabeth Ferrer, Alfred King, Bill McLellan, Bill O'Brien, Eugene Sepulveda

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