THE FIRST WEEK OF MARCH was a tumultuous one for the Austin Museum of Art. It began with the tearful surprise resignation of executive director Daniel E. Stetson, who broke the news at an impromptu staff meeting late in the afternoon on Friday, March 1, at the Italianate villa that houses the AMOA. By the next morning, a deluge of calls and faxes to the museum’s board was under way, and within the next few days, a veil of silence had descended over the city about why Stetson was leaving, where he was going, and how the museum would respond. Then, at a special meeting on Thursday, board members—in an effort to resurrect their languishing downtown museum project—announced that they had leased temporary exhibition space a few blocks from the Capitol and had created a task force to raise a $500,000 operating fund. It was a note of optimism, but once the dust settled, the AMOA was no closer to creating the great gathering place for art and artists that Austin has sought for decades.
Indeed, the events of that week tended to reinforce the notion that Austin is incapable of accomplishing what Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont have done: build an art museum that can house major shows and a permanent collection. The irony, of course, is that Austin views itself as a garden of culture, precisely the kind of community that should have a dominant art presence; it has a greater percentage of artists in its labor force than any other Texas city and both a major university and a thriving music community. Yet it depends on a converted two-bedroom home with only two thousand square feet of exhibition space.
Not that it isn’t an exceedingly nice two-bedroom home. Since the sixties, Austin’s art patrons have gathered at Laguna Gloria, the graceful former residence of benefactress Clara Driscoll, which was built in 1916 and donated by her to the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1943. Located on a narrow verdant peninsula between Lake Austin and the eponymous lagoon, the structure is undeniably charming in appearance; but just as undeniably, it is logistically impractical for large touring exhibitions. Not only is its parking limited, but because it is tucked away in a tony West Austin neighborhood, its location reinforces the sense that it is just a playground for affluent whites.
During the boom years of the early eighties, Austin’s civic leaders decided it was time to give the museum a more dominant presence by moving it downtown, where it would be owned by the city and operated by the Laguna Gloria organization. Several years of planning were followed by a referendum in 1985 in which Austinites approved by a 67 percent margin the sale of bonds to finance the proposed structure, to be designed by venerable architect Robert Venturi. The 85,000-square-foot building would have put Austin on the art circuit for touring shows and provided space for a permanent collection, as well as an auditorium, educational facilities, and offices. Half a city block was donated by a developer for the project, which would co-exist with a new skyscraper.
To get a sense of what Austin wanted to accomplish with the new space, consider what happened earlier this decade in Seattle, whose art museum was moved downtown to a building also designed by Venturi. “The facility the museum had operated in for more than sixty years was in a park away from the center of the city,” says Jay Gates, then the Seattle museum’s director and now director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “The new building was an immediate critical and popular success.” In fact, revenues and membership grew dramatically, the latter swelling by 10,000 within months of the new museum’s opening. And Gates says the downtown facility “really revived what had become a slightly dog-eared part of town.” A large residential, commercial, and retail development sprung up on an unsightly vacant lot across the street, and now there is talk of building a new concert hall nearby.
Unlike Seattle, Austin hasn’t built its downtown museum, even though more than ten years have passed since the original plan was approved. Why? Critics and supporters of the AMOA cite three reasons.
Money. The collapse of the state economy in the mid-eighties was perhaps the main cause of the collapse of the downtown effort, and it manifested itself in two ways. First, the bust precipitated a decline in city revenues and support of the arts, which in turn sparked the so-called Art Wars. Feuding arts groups representing African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women—fearing the loss of their own funding—attacked the downtown plans. “When the pie got smaller, everybody panicked,” says Jack Nokes, the director of the Texas Association of Museums and a former director of administration at the AMOA. As a result, the project was put on hold, and the developer who donated the land subsequently went bankrupt. By 1988, a new mayor and a more fiscally conservative council had been elected to office, and they proved skeptical about the new museum’s pros-pects for funding its share of its operating budget. The next year, council members voted 4 to 3 to cancel the downtown project. The land reverted to the donor’s creditors; most of the funds raised by the bond sale were put in escrow.
A second way in which the bust affected the downtown project is that the disappearance of public money forced the AMOA to look for private funds to help pay for future plans—and private funds were hard to find. “There is a weak tradition of arts philanthropy in the city,” wrote Dallas Morning News architecture critic David Dillon in 1990, “and no cadre of supporters who, when the chips are down, can take on a major civic project and get it done.” Six years later, Dillon’s words still ring true. “We don’t have much old money, and we don’t have any big foundations,” explains AMOA board member Alfred King. “The high-tech people