Not a Pretty Picture

After the resignation of Laguna Gloria’s executive director, Austin art lovers are asking yet again: Is the city incapable of having a first-class museum?

April 1996By Comments

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 are busy making money and inventing new things. Most of them haven’t reached the point where they think about their corporate responsibility to Austin.”

Management. In its 22 years, the museum has had two directors. Laurence Miller, who hired on in 1974, was savvy and politically astute, a man who moved comfortably in the upper ranks of Austin society. He was passionate about art and promoted Laguna Gloria as a venue for the work of nationally prominent avant-garde artists. It was under Miller’s leadership that the museum concocted its expansion plans and made the bold move of securing Venturi’s design services. But Miller’s ambitions, which helped convert what was almost a private art club into a more stimulating and provocative institution, distanced the museum from Austin’s politically influential minority communities (even though in his zeal for contemporary American art, he exhibited many minority artists). A weary Miller left the museum in 1990, and today, at 51, he runs ArtPace, the San Antonio contemporary art foundation endowed by picante sauce heiress Linda Pace.

Daniel Stetson, then 35, arrived in Miller’s wake to find uncertainty about the museum’s future. Energetic and enthusiastic, with an avian countenance and disheveled strawlike hair, the native of upstate New York had previously worked at two Iowa institutions, where he had overseen the building of art collections and a new museum. “I knew there were many challenges in Austin, but I saw a lot of them as opportunities,” Stetson told me a few weeks before he resigned. “A lot of the criticism was valid and needed to be responded to. And, yes, the building did interest me. I believed that Austin—being the city that it is and the size it was going to become—deserves and will want a major museum.” In Stetson’s hands, the AMOA upped its revenues from $900,000 in 1991 to $1.2 million by 1995, and the institution returned to financial stability. But he never quite managed to attract the best traveling shows, so Austinites had to go elsewhere.

Stetson’s problem was that he possessed more exuberance for and knowledge of art than skills as a schmoozer. He was said to be better at working a city subcommittee meeting than a corporate boardroom. On his watch, the African American and Hispanic communities were fully incorporated into the AMOA’s leadership. But while he earned respect for his willingness to exhibit local work, Stetson, it was generally believed, didn’t have the moxie—or the leadership ability—to raise the money necessary to get plans for the new museum back on track. His defenders insist anyone would have had the same problem. “I almost die laughing when I read ads for executive director positions, because if they’re not describing God, I don’t know who they’re talking about,” says Howard J. Taylor, the director of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Art and the president of the Texas Association of Museums. “Stetson was frustrated that he couldn’t get the downtown museum built, but Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t get it built,” says artist Sharon Eileen Smith, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient who teaches at the AMOA’s  highly regarded museum school. But even Stetson acknowledged in a press release following his resignation that fundraising was not his strong suit. “My true love and interest,” he said, “is on the artistic side.”

Mission. When Miller began as director, the museum adhered to a strategy he describes as “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” in an attempt to make available a broad spectrum of fine art to the city. He decided to focus on post—World War II art because such exhibitions could be relatively inexpensive to mount and wouldn’t require elaborate facilities. “We became a receptive outpost for what was happening in contemporary art in the centers,” he explained. Today, according to its official mission statement, the AMOA’s objective is “to educate, entertain, inspire, and challenge [its] audience about visual art and its creative, intellectual, and culturally diverse aspects.” What kind of museum does it want to be? “American visual art significant to our time and region, inclusive of Mexico and the Caribbean,” reads the statement of purpose.

Yet since the bust, the museum’s board has had an austerity plan in place that includes restraints on staffing and programs; consequently, the museum’s visiting exhibitions have for years been mostly quiet, modest endeavors. “I find them very dull; I’ve almost stopped going,” says a practicing artist who teaches at the AMOA school. When I asked Austin painter and museum supporter Jimmy Jalapeeno to name the AMOA’s most impressive recent shows, he stammered and then cited the Betye and Allison Saar exhibit—from 1991. Even when the AMOA brought the celebrated Judy Chicago “Holocaust Project” exhibit to Austin in 1995, it had to lease space downtown to accommodate it. And the AMOA’s permanent collection has fared no better: The museum has fewer than two hundred works of art but not enough room to store them.

It all comes down to space. In order to become a first-class museum, the AMOA  needs the downtown building. The 1985 referendum authorized $14.7 million in bonds for the Venturi structure; of that, about $3 million was then spent on feasibility studies and design, engineering, and administrative costs. Inflation, design modifications to adapt the building to a new downtown site, and other factors make the museum more expensive to build today than a decade ago. How much more? The best estimate at the moment is $4 million to $5 million.

Prospects for the effort seemed to be improving. Last year, the AMOA won a handful of grants that enabled it to purchase half a block of land, which it in turn donated to the city in early 1995. The Austin American-Statesman endorsed the project and gave $50,000 to the cause. Then, in January of this year, the Austin City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to get moving on a feasibility study and an architectural redesign needed for locating the building on the new plot.

Theoretically, everything should move forward—but what of the $4 million to $5 million? It doesn’t seem like much for a city of Austin’s size. San Angelo, with a population of 88,000, raised more than half of the $7 million it needs to build and endow a new art museum in just nine months, and the balance is expected within the coming year. And when the Dallas Museum of Art constructed the $30 million Hamon Building, $20 million came in one fell swoop from Nancy Hamon, the wife of late oilman Jake Hamon. By contrast, the AMOA’s largest grant to date is $375,000—and it came not from Austin but from the Meadows Foundation in Dallas.

And what of a replacement for Stetson? No word yet from the AMOA board, which will soon begin a search. In the meantime, the Austin arts community is left to wait—yet again. “Beaumont has a wonderful museum,” laments former AMOA president Rebecca Cohen. “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

Geoffrey Leavenworth is a freelance writer based in Austin.

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