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Brain Drain: on the unsustainability of an “Austin scene”

Brain drain


A pretty good (and ultimately frustrating because there are no
foreseeable solutions) discussion has been brewing in the Austin art
blogs, catalyzed by my entry about the reasons Austin isn’t that great
for art/artists. In case you don’t subscribe to The Young Republic or
ezimmerman, here is a CTRL+C CNTRL+V condensation of what I think are
the most relevant points:

The University of Texas art school is too stodgy. Here’s my
prescription: less painting, more video, more installation and more
cross-disciplinary practice in the undergraduate world. But that’s
wishful thinking for a University that crushed a Herzog and de Meuron
designed Blanton Museum.

Raymond in The Young Republic

A strong university art program can
undoubtedly help a cities art community raise the bar. It attracts
qualified and ambitious artists as both students and professors. A good
program brings energy, rigor, and sophistication to a city. But that
city has to respond and give something back, providing opportunities
beyond the university, or all of those artists, students, and energies
disappear. I can’t say that i disagree with Ivan’s assumption that UT
is a “hotbed for conventional thinking”, but the merits of those types
of blanket statements are limited as there are bright spots and
complexities in any program. Is there a mythical avant-garde alive in a
university basement somewhere?

– Eric at ezimmerman

We look to New York and Los Angeles as models because their artists
have a better chance to thrive. They thrive because there is enough
money, people and space in those cities to allow for more opportunity.
It is this opportunity that Austin sorely lacks. This is why the
battles outside of the University halls are just as fierce as those
within. We all fight over table scraps. We look to the University, and
the museums, as potential beacons to draw interest to our city, and to
educate future collectors. We want UT to look like UCLA, Columbia, or
Yale. We want AMOA to be our MoMA. We want these institutions to excite
people about supporting the visual arts, and to bring collectors to
Austin. The truth is that this model will probably never materialize.
UT is too conservative and sluggish at its core, and Austin lacks real
estate and money old enough to be spent on culture’s edge on the large
scale required to provide us all with local opportunity.

Raymond in The Young Republic

For similar reasons as Raymond I would
agree that it will be difficult for the big city model to ever
materialize in Austin, the necessary infrastructure and institutional
presence is simply not there. It also seems to me that the will
is absent as well. Sure there is fantastic energy here and things have
improved infinitely in the last couple of years, but Austin loves to
pat itself on the back, cheerleading for things that don’t always
deserve it while great things take a back seat. Without the will to ask
the hard questions and not be traumatized by the answers, raise the bar
a little higher, and put money where the mouths are things will
continue to motor along at the same pace.

– Eric at ezimmerman

i think the one thing that we
can do to change the money situation in austin, is reaching out and
dipping into the real coffers that are dallas and houston. i think the
texas biennial should be in houston not austin, and at the CAMH not
bolm. i think arturo is doing this with the Road Agent, and also with
DOMY being here. if we interconnect three growing art scenes within
texas, there will be more money to go around, which will create more
interest from the rest of the US.

Ryan, commenting in The Young Republic

It’s interesting that in the end most everyone (um, all four of us?) agrees with the larger
thesis in this discussion and only the specifics change. Personally, I
feel this very accutely, as a subset of the people making (as Raymond puts it) “work that
not physically exist,” the videomakers, performance artists and so on, who will end up leaving town in search of opportunities somewhere else, somewhere bigger.
In the end, the cycle will continue: entire groups of people will leave Austin or stop participating and will be replaced by younger, less jaded models lured by UT or St. Ed’s or wherever. Then they’ll coplain about things, hopefully try to change things, then get sick of it and give up or leave. The brain drain is here to stay…
There is a silver lining slowly developing though, clearly (for me) evident in the 2007-2008 Austin Critics Table Awards:

– Museum Exhibition: “Mike’s World: Michael Smith & Joshua White
(and other collaborators)
,” Blanton Museum of Art, curator: Annette
– Work of Art: Note to Self, Jill Pangallo, “New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch”
– Artist: Jill Pangallo
Three out of eight awards went to artists and exhibitions that were
mostly video/performance, and out of the remaining five awardees, three
has significant video components. So a case (or is it a blind hope? a
desperate wish?) could be made for critics as harbingers of what’s to
come in this town. But if the nine years I’ve spent in this city have
taught me anything, it’s “if you want something done, do it yourself”
when I feel optimistic, and “don’t hold your breath…” when I don’t.


*Brain Drain image found here

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6 Responses

  1. Tanana

    old money. People in Austin don’t really have vast art collections yet, so they are not donating works to collecting institutions. The rich are largely nouveau riche, who are just getting started, and are probably more interested in cars, bags and beauty treatments. I don’t think more (trendy) video art is going to make much of a difference. Time will tell. (and probably a great deal of time will have to pass) UT has a way better program and art collection than UH, so quit your whining.

  2. Ivan L

    “Quitting my whining” would mean that I’d given up trying to change something in this town or that I’d decided for some reason that the current state of affairs was ok with me. Since none of those things are bound to happen while I still live in Austin and I’m completely unprepared and unwilling to settle for crumbs and table scraps, I think I’ll continue to “whine” as often as I can make it sound cohesive.

    The problem of “trendiness” is certainly a valid topic, but flippantly qualifying video art as inherently trendy comes off as a little defensive and uninformed. In the same vein, most current work in painting or illustration or sculpture could be dismissed as trendy. Blanket statements on entire mediums are bad form, Tamana.

  3. Tanana

    I just don’t really get why you are banging that point so hard. (that there is not enough video in Austin) Seems to me there are many good artists working in many medias in A-town. UT is a good school, and truly visionary artists can fill in the blanks where their professors left off, whether or not they choose something super trendy and current like video or social sculpture or something more traditional like painting. Ultimately, I feel like Raymond, that the lack of old $$$ is what will keep Austin in this situation for awhile. It will take galleries and gallerists to be taste-makers, and to convince those newly rich people that they want to spend their money on something besides the obvious luxury items. That takes a lot of work. I’m not saying to quit whining altogether, just quit whining about UT.

  4. Ivan L

    I’ll admit that I’m totally biased towards video because because of my background programming Cinematexas and because it’s my primary medium (and first love). And I agree, video in itself is not the answer. I probably harp so much on it because it feels so distant from the expected “Austin style”: illustration and its spawn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, there’s some amazing art made in Austin using that style. I’d like to see more variety I suppose it’s what I’m saying, and I second salvo cheque’s question, where’s AMODA these days?

    It’s certainly true that the main “problem” in Austin is the very small pool of patrons/collectors. Amanda Douberly put it better than I can in the article salvo cheque linked to.

  5. David O

    Non-surly painters might just be able to create their own market regardless of people’s opinions of UT and fondness for video art. There’s money here, and people who like art. If we work really hard and don’t treat our patrons like garbage, we should be able to sell our work. As capitalistic as we wanna be, yo. Maybe you could make a video of us selling paintings?

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