Naked City

New Directions for AMOA

Austin Museum of Art
Austin Museum of Art (Photo By John Anderson)

The Austin Museum of Art chalked up another loss late last week with the resignation of Executive Director Elizabeth Ferrer, who will leave her position July 31. Ferrer's announcement did not come as a complete surprise, given the rumors that had been circulating for weeks about her impending departure.

The resignation follows a round of staff layoffs and other changes taking place under the new leadership of chief executive Bill McLellan, who is trying to rein in costs, establish a secure direction for the museum, and keep the AMOA afloat in these economically hobbled times (see "The Art of Saving AMOA," July 13).

"While these changes are going on," Ferrer wrote in a press statement, "I thought it would be in the best interests of the Museum to let [McLellan] know now of my plans to leave AMOA. Although I might have waited a month or two to make this change, I care deeply about the museum's success, and I felt that it would be a disservice to the museum to delay this announcement."

Ferrer did not disclose her job destination but said she had been recruited to interview for another position in California about six months ago. "Returning to my home state of California for these interviews helped me put some of my personal and professional goals into better focus," she wrote. Ferrer is expected to announce her plans in about a month. She referred further Chronicle inquiries to McLellan.

"She's had a great impact on, not only the museum, but the entire arts community," McLellan said of Ferrer. In the meantime, McLellan has named Dana Friis-Hansen, AMOA's curator, to serve as acting executive director until a permanent director is named. Friis-Hansen will continue leading curatorial efforts and take over the museum's educational programs, while McLellan will oversee AMOA's financial picture as well as management of the art school. The interim position could lead to a permanent one for Friis-Hansen if, after six months, both Friis-Hansen and the board decide he's the right candidate for the job, McLellan said.

Friis-Hansen is widely respected as a contemporary art curator, and AMOA enthusiasts are hopeful that he will rise to the challenge of director. Before joining AMOA in the fall of 1999, Friss-Hansen served as senior curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Prior to that he was an associate curator for a contemporary art advisory office in Tokyo.

Like Friis-Hansen's arrival in Austin, Ferrer's 1997 entry was also welcomed by the Central Texas arts community. She brought with her a reputation based on solid credentials and New York contacts. She had worked for the Americas Society of New York as director of the visual arts department and curator of the Americas Society Art Gallery. Her decision to hire Friis-Hansen in 1999 marked a turning point for both the museum and Ferrer. The move was interpreted as Ferrer's signal to the art world that she was committed to developing a high-caliber art museum in Austin.

At the same time, fundraising for the $65 million museum project seemed an almost effortless process, with 2000 marking AMOA's most prosperous year. But the generosity stalled with the downturn in the economy and AMOA officials admittedly didn't respond fast enough. By most accounts, AMOA observers agree that McLellan's business experience as a 3M executive and nonprofit background with LifeWorks, a youth and family service group, could be a godsend for the museum. But nobody envies his position.

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