Picture This

A hip, art-loving city like Austin can't find a permanent home for its museum? Sad but true—but after two decades of big talk, it may finally get one.
SAVING FACE: New CEO McLellan was brought in to clean up a mess.
Photograph by Nils Juul-Hansen

SURPRISES ABOUND AT THE Austin Museum of Art—some pleasant, others not. A recent exhibition by the long-struggling and still homeless museum, called “The Road to Aztlan: Art From a Mythic Homeland,” ranks among the pleasant ones. The collection of historical objects from Mexico and the American Southwest, which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, represented a departure from the cutting-edge contemporary fare the museum’s temporary galleries on Congress Avenue usually deliver. It indicated that AMOA is serious about its pledge to expand the museum’s audience. New CEO Bill McLellan reported that more than a thousand visitors crowded into the leased space on the first floor of a downtown office building during the first week of the exhibition. He sounded relieved.

Yet I wonder if the museum’s leaders noticed how much Aztlan and the museum have in common. The mythic homeland of the Mexica (Aztec) people has been described as a metaphoric place, an illusory cultural homeland impossible to pinpoint in time or space. So, too, does AMOA remain an illusory construct. While most art museums define themselves through their building and collections, AMOA has neither a new building nor a substantial collection of its own. Despite a twenty-year effort to build a downtown showcase for the visual arts, it still exists only in temporary quarters and borrowed spaces and in the hearts and minds of the folks of Austin.

My own heart has held a warm place for the museum since I served as a member of the board of trustees and then its president in its early incarnation. I was therefore surprised when McLellan and others at AMOA objected to my writing about the museum’s recent history. They insisted that this magazine’s portrayal could make or break the museum’s current (and third) effort to build a downtown facility. Don’t you believe it! If the museum succeeds this time—and I have little doubt that it will—it will do so because museum leaders have finally grasped what everyone should have known all along. World-class art museums don’t appear fully formed, no matter how many dollars are spent. They evolve over time.

“A MUSEUM IS MORE THAN A BUILDING, it is more than the collection it houses, and it is certainly more than the entertainment it provides in an effort to secure its survival,” wrote Elizabeth Gill Lui in her book Closed Mondays. “It is indeed a metaphor for the place in each of us where we preserve those things most personal, most valuable, most simply beautiful.” Austin has a constituency for such a place: A recent poll commissioned by AMOA found that 82 percent of the respondents said they would visit a downtown arts facility should it be completed. Why then is Austin still the only city of size in Texas without a jewel of a building after two decades of program analysis, committee meetings, architectural hoopla, and fundraising? It looks to me like another example of Austin’s desire to play in the big leagues without learning the rules (which is evident in everything from high culture to urban planning)—plus a couple of runs of economic bad luck.

The first downturn came just as AMOA was getting started, in the mid-eighties; the second was brought on by the bursting of the high-tech bubble in 2000. Certainly the current economy and the events of September 11 have altered the environment for this and every other American museum for the foreseeable future. But AMOA’s worst problems were of its own making. During the prime fundraising years of 1995 to 2000, when Austin was enjoying one of the greatest booms Texas had ever seen, AMOA adopted and then misused an unconventional administrative system, ignored standard fundraising wisdom, overestimated both its physical needs and its ability to attract support, and turned its back on the community it purports to serve. The museum declined the use of city bonds that had already been approved by the voters, representing more than one third of its initial cache of capital-fund dollars. The staff managed to alienate donors and potential donors while board members neglected their staff-oversight responsibilities and passed ill-considered budgets.

At last new leadership has the museum on a different track. Current board chairman Lynn Sherman and president Bettye Nowlin are busy mending fences trampled by prior administrations. They are attempting to reconnect with the museum’s past and build on its numerous strengths—one of which, identified by the museum’s recent poll, is the old name “Laguna Gloria,” which the museum cast aside in the mid-nineties in its haste to move downtown.

For many years Austin’s community art museum took the name of the quaint villa that housed it. Once the home of Alamo savior Clara Driscoll, it was situated on a lush twelve-acre tract in West Austin. Its reputation rested then as now on the strength of exhibitions it originated or borrowed rather than on the smattering of objects it owned. Fiesta, an annual art show that used to be held on the grounds in the spring, brought thousands of visitors to the site. In the early eighties—about the time I served as the president of the museum board—the organization formally committed to moving downtown to escape the physical limitations of the West Austin site, which could not provide adequate space, security, or climate control for the art or easy access for audiences. The successful outcome of a 1985 bond election to provide $14.7 million for a city-owned downtown museum (estimated to cost around $16.5 million) confirmed the community’s support for a new facility. But the project came to a halt with the fall of oil and land prices that wiped out the local

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