This episode features Louis Grachos, new director of Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse (currently known as AMOA-Arthouse). Louis has been an arts leader on the move. His career has taken him across the country—to New York, San Diego, Toronto, Miami, Santa Fe and Buffalo. Before moving to Austin, he directed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo for a decade. Cathy Byrd meets Louis in the KUT/NPR studio to talk about how he landed in Austin and what he hopes to do there.
Sound Editor: Eric Schwartz | Photos and Episode Sound: Courtesy AMOA-Arthouse
CATHY BYRD: My guest today is Louis Grachos, new director of Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse (today known as The Contemporary Austin). Louis’s art career has taken him across the country to New York, San Diego, Toronto, Miami, and Santa Fe. Louis directed the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York for a decade before he moved to Austin. Louis is no stranger to the American Southwest. He was director/curator of SITE Santa Fe for seven years. But still, how did he end up in Austin?
LOUIS GRACHOS: During my years at SITE Santa Fe, I learned a number of things about New Mexico and the great culture of the Santa Fe region. But I also felt the wonderful enthusiasm and support of many great Texans. So when this opportunity came up, I was delighted. I was also really fascinated by the challenge of coming here to work on what was essentially a new museum program brought about by the merger between Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse. I love building, I love being part of organizations and projects that are new, and it is an exciting challenge for me.
CB: The Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse is also known as AMOA-Arthouse. It’s a hybrid institution with a hyphenated name and two venues. One is a villa situated at the edge of Town Lake, and the other is a modern building in downtown Austin. Is there any advantage to this disconnect?
LG: I think the uniqueness of both sites really inspires artists to create work. The Jones Center is a historic building that has been retrofit many times over its history. It has been both a theater and a retail store. It was recently redesigned by Paul Lewis, a terrific architect based in New York. It has a texture and a feel to it that lends itself to experiential art, art that is about installation or differentmedia. It’s a flexible building on that front. But the fact that it’s in the heart of our city is really impressive. Laguna Gloria is one of the great sites to visit in the Austin area. It’s really very impressive to be around water. To have such a beautiful experience with nature and with art is a great opportunity for us.
CB: What’s the trick to directing such a complex institution?
LG: My challenge is to think about an organization that is one institution with multiple sites. If we think about this as an opportunity to function as a museum without walls, then we can really encourage collaborations and do projects even beyond those two sites.
CB: The challenge seems to be much greater than the five-mile distance that separates the two venues.
LG: As I continued researching, it became very clear to me that historically in Austin there was not a museum with a definitive contemporary art program. The opportunity for us is to fill that gap and really create a program that you might liken to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia or in Boston, or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto. By that I mean it needs to be a program that brings education into the community in a very strong and deep way, that creates opportunities for artists and bringing artists of international stature to our community. I think that really feeds your community. It excites young artists.
CB: The world knows Austin for South By Southwest and for music and technology. What can bring national attention to Austin’s contemporary art scene?
LG: I’ve thought long and hard about that, and I’ve been talking to as many of my colleagues as I can about what we can do to really step forward in raising the awareness of this community as one that is filled with creative individuals, creative artists, creative musicians, performance artists, etc. Even before I arrived in Austin, because I had a feeling that this project would work here, I’ve been dreaming about creating a multisite, citywide experience that engages public spaces, public parks, all the things that are in the design phase— The Trail, the Waller Creek Project, Laguna Gloria, the University, the East Side Studio scene—to create an exhibition of international stature that builds off our city’s very festival-friendly position in the world.
CB: Germany has a great model for the citywide engagement that you would love to see in Austin: the Münster Sculpture Project.
LG: We need to think about the visual arts in a bigger way, in a way that’s more integrated into our city. The model I keep going to happens in Germany approximately every seven years in the city of Münster. The sculpture project there is remarkable in that it invites international curators to help select a show that sometimes has a strong theme and sometimes not such a definitive theme. The idea is to bring 35 or 40 artists to the community to build new projects in the city itself. It has now been done four times successfully. The city retains the projects that they thought were very successful, about 35 of them to date, and I think they will continue to grow the collection. Like Austin, Münster exploits the summer and fall period and encourages people to take a map and a bicycle that are provided with your tour ticket, and literally go to each and every site throughout the city. That’s the kind of program I can envision for us, because it would really take advantage of all those great opportunities out there.
CB: Is this a turning point for how the world engages with art in public space?
LG: Public art has gone through a cycle now where people are much more interested in engaging with art in public spaces. That’s a turning point, because it seems like there was a period where those projects were either difficult to execute or not as compelling. If you look at some of the lead programs across the country today, for example the Public Art Fund in New York or the Madison Square Park Conservancy program, art has really galvanized a neighborhood or an area, though in some cases it’s a moving target. The Public Art Fund does projects throughout the area. But you can see the impact, the positive impact that art can have on community, how it can attract cultural tourism. I think Austin is ready for it.