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.

March 2002By Comments

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 banking and development sectors. The museum was not alone in this fate; a number of other projects across the state stalled in the late eighties. Most were revived and completed, but AMOA remains a work in progress.

In 1995 Laguna Gloria’s quest was also revived. Newly dubbed the Austin Museum of Art, it leased, renovated, and began presenting exhibits downtown in an effort to increase the museum’s visibility while a new fundraising campaign for permanent quarters got under way. Trustees once again set their sights on, and eventually acquired, a city block west of Congress Avenue, directly opposite a small downtown park. So far, so good—but around that same time the governance system of the museum was revised, with disastrous results.

Most art museums are run by one person, the director, in contrast with performing-arts organizations, which typically have two directors, one for administration and one for creative functions. Austin decided to adopt the performing-arts model, hiring a CEO for finance and administration and an executive director to oversee the artistic mission. This structure had been employed by a handful of art museums—including the L.A. County Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—only to be subsequently abandoned. But AMOA, despite its big-league ambitions, proved not to be big-league enough to attract and keep top talent. Its first CEO, Sid Mallory, left to take a position with the Dallas Opera. After another CEO came and went, the trustees hired a recently retired IBM engineer named Bill O’Brien, who had his own private consulting business and was willing to work only part-time. Meanwhile, AMOA had brought in Elizabeth Ferrer, an arts scholar with a particular passion for Mexican photography, who was hired away from her position as the head of the visual arts program at the Americas Society in New York. She was selected for her curatorial vision, not fundraising ability, but the lines of authority became blurred, and she ended up doing both—as well as overseeing the design project for the new museum building. Because of O’Brien’s part-time schedule, the development director, Molly Hipp, reported to Ferrer, whose responsibility was the artistic side, instead of to O’Brien, the chief administrator.

In their unbounded desire to hit the big time, AMOA’s leaders planned a project that cost nearly as much as the Houston art museum’s newest addition, although it was being proposed for Austin, a city where no privately funded performance hall or visual-arts space had ever been built. The vision was a multistory, architecturally significant edifice that would simultaneously accommodate technology-focused exhibitions (the better to woo Austin’s megarich high-tech crowd) as well as artworks meant to attract more-traditional audiences. And they were determined to build the entire facility at once, although there was little art to fill the galleries or storage areas. There would also be classrooms and orientation spaces, a restaurant, a gift shop, and offices and meeting rooms to comfortably accommodate a large staff. O’Brien immediately began reviewing benefits, raising salaries, and hiring new people. He and Ferrer wanted the new museum to be fully staffed even before it was finished. Accordingly, sixty people were hired by a museum with no permanent home and only five thousand square feet of gallery space. Between 1998 and 2001 the operating budget doubled, exceeding $4 million a year.

After setting aside plans begun by the Philadelphia firm of Robert Venturi in the mid-eighties, the museum hired another architect—nationally acclaimed, of course—Richard Gluckman, of New York’s Gluckman Mayner Architects, to design a museum to cover an entire city block. He produced a sleek design for a 146,000-square-foot building including 34,000 square feet of exhibition space. In 1998, flying in the face of conventional fundraising theory, the museum took its capital campaign public with less than half of the $65 million in pledges it would need in hand—roughly $30 million. This included the remaining $11.4 million of the city bonds approved in 1984 and $13 million in personal pledges from five Dell Computer executives and their wives: Michael and Susan Dell, Mort and Angela Topfer, Tom and Deborah Green, Kevin and Debra Rollins, and Tom and Lynn Meredith (the latter through a family foundation). There were also a number of six-figure gifts. But the ground-breaking has yet to occur.

THE MUCH-PUBLICIZED $65 MILLION capital campaign was not the only fundraising AMOA was conducting. The museum also sought an additional $25 million for endowments—the minimum required to support what would likely be a $9 million annual operating budget for the new building. And the museum launched yet another campaign, this one for $15 million to restore the villa at the Laguna Gloria site and to expand the facilities for the art school there. Before long the museum’s goals added up to $105 million, not counting a $12 million underground parking garage whose future revenues will pay off city-backed construction bonds.

Despite the flurry of activity bent on picking the pockets of Austin’s ubiquitous new millionaires, the museum neglected to stay in touch with the broader community it is supposed to serve. No trustee marketing and development committee was appointed to oversee community relations or fundraising for annual operating dollars, and so those functions tended to be carried out by staff. “We had a very difficult time getting board members to chair certain things,” says Hipp. A number of board members counter that Ferrer and Hipp didn’t relish the oversight such a board committee might have provided. In any event, news stories about the museum in the Austin press were few and far between after the initial campaign-related announcements in 1999. On the other hand, the museum paid copious attention to national audiences. Hipp says the museum hired Ruder Finn, the New York-based public relations firm that represented the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, “to get us that national highlighted focus. That’s how we got a piece in Newsweek and House Beautiful about Richard Gluckman.” That is also how Art in America came to run an article last April about AMOA’s scheduled May 2001 ground-breaking, which, of course, did not take place.

Perhaps a fully engaged trustee marketing committee might also have insisted that the Austin voters who overwhelmingly approved bonds for the construction of a downtown art museum deserved an explanation when AMOA voluntarily rescinded its right to use that money in August 2000. By doing so the museum relinquished more than one third of the dollars earmarked for the museum’s capital campaign. And it took this step without securing private donations to replace those funds. AMOA’s rationale—to avoid giving the City of Austin control of the museum’s exhibits—may, in the long run, have been sound. One shudders to imagine the Austin City Council meddling with exhibitions after the example set by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who threatened to cut off city funding for the Brooklyn Museum over a show of British artists, one of whom included elephant dung in a painting of the Virgin Mary. But neither the trustees’ decision-making process nor their underlying concerns were shared with the museum’s supporters (myself included), let alone the general public. Folks outside the inner circle could reasonably assume that the museum didn’t require community money to build the new building—not a smart message to send in the middle of a fundraising campaign.

Besides, why worry what the public thought when Dell was around? Dell executives certainly seemed eager to lead the way to a new era of philanthropy in Austin. And so the museum never bothered to commission a feasibility study to identify a broad base of donors for its new museum. David Gold, a chairman of the board in the nineties, credits AMOA with developing a “culture of philanthropy” in Austin where one had not existed previously. For the most part, however, the museum simply invited a slew of high-tech higher-ups and their spouses into the fold and confidently set their sights on the biggest, most magnificent, technologically advanced downtown facility anyone could imagine. In retrospect, Austin’s prevailing dot-com mentality was replicated by AMOA, with the same dire results.

By the end of 2000 the economy had begun to stall, the stock market was struggling, and much of Austin’s high-tech money was rapidly drying up or disappearing entirely. The museum staff, which had paid less attention to raising operating dollars than to the campaign, ran up a six-figure deficit. Fundraising slowed to a trickle. Dell’s Mort and Angela Topfer, the second-largest donors to the museum, withheld the annual installment of their $6 million commitment. “Accountability is the most important thing,” explains Angela Topfer. “We determined that they had not met the criteria that we wanted them to meet. To be perfectly honest, they missed eighteen months to two years of the best fundraising time there was in Austin.”

While Topfer and others laid blame on the staff rather than the trustees, it is important to note that the responsibility of the latter is to monitor paid staff and support their efforts or send them on their way. But the board couldn’t even find anyone who would agree to serve as board president. Instead, they altered the bylaws, directing O’Brien, their part-time staff CEO, to serve as the president of the volunteer board. O’Brien himself describes this as an “unusual governance structure.” Soon after, board meetings were reduced in number. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that a board composed of high-tech CEOs, experienced community volunteers, bankers, bureaucrats, and lawyers could remain so thoroughly unengaged during this most ambitious period in the museum’s life. They approved not one but two budgets that obligated the trustees to make donations to the museum and then failed to meet their own goals.

IN 2001, WITH THE MUSEUM facing a shortfall, two rounds of staff cutbacks occurred, one in April and another in June. O’Brien resigned quietly in April and McLellan, a former 3M executive and director of LifeWorks, which provides social services to Austin families, was brought on board in early June to clean up the mess. A month later Ferrer’s resignation was announced. Dana Friis-Hansen, who continues as the senior curator, became the interim executive director in August and oversees the artistic side. Molly Hipp departed after September 11, and her fundraising duties were reassigned. The staff is now half the size it was during O’Brien’s tenure. Also in late summer, the chairman-elect of the board, Tom Green, declined to move up as chairman, citing his need to look after business at Dell. Once again the board scrambled to find new volunteer talent.

This time, the museum got lucky. The next and, everyone hopes, final step toward building a downtown museum will be led by new board chairman Lynn Sherman, the executive manager of governmental relations and community affairs for the Lower Colorado River Authority. Working closely with him is new board president Bettye Nowlin, a self-described soccer mom with sufficient time and money (her husband founded a technology company) to devote to AMOA and a genuine passion for art. Sherman is someone who likes to assign numbers to the tasks before him. He had four goals back in September when he took office: poll the community, rewrite the museum’s mission statement, reduce the operating budget, and reduce the capital-campaign goal. With the help of his newly energized board and AMOA’s new top administrators, he says he has finished this initial work. The mission now is “to educate and inspire a diverse audience about the visual arts and their relevance to our time” without earlier language about “art of the Americas.” The operations budget has been reduced 38 percent and the capital goal has been cut by 50 percent.

Much chastened, AMOA at last is concentrating on having a museum that can grow into “world-class status,” as AMOA’s press releases like to say, instead of starting there. Richard Gluckman, the museum’s architect, went back to the drawing board to devise a way for his design to be constructed in phases, with a budget for the first phase not to exceed $40.6 million (not including the parking garage). The museum board is committed to raising $21.5 million to add to cash and pledges already in hand. Board president Nowlin serves, according to the bylaws, on all museum committees as a liaison to the board. On the acquisitions committee, she says she is learning a great deal about contemporary art. But at the same time, she and her husband, Bill, contributed $150,000 to support the Aztlan exhibition. She is equally generous with straightforward comments about AMOA’s future. “We need to grow up and learn how to be a museum,” she readily admits. “It’s going to take us a long time to get where we thought we already were.”

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