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Arthouse: Building a New Beginning

Photo © Michael Moran

The past few years have been a busy time for new (or renewed) contemporary art institutions in Austin. The Blanton Museum of Art opened a new and expanded building in 2006, a move that was finalized in 2008 when the second phase of construction was completed. The University of Texas’s Visual Arts Center opened this September in the old Blanton Museum space at the university. And most recently, Arthouse reopened after being closed for renovations for the past year.

All three are major institutions with contemporary art programming in a city that sometimes seems to be dominated by young artists and DIY alternative spaces. Of the three, Arthouse distinguishes itself by being not only dedicated exclusively to contemporary art but also a non-collecting institution independent of a university. This is an important step of growth for a city that has long been identified in terms of UT.

At a moment when most attention is focused on the new architecture, staff structure and programming of Arthouse, it could be helpful to take a brief look at its institutional and architectural history, especially since the New York-based architects Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis explicitly reference the history of the building in their design.

The newly renovated Arthouse is sited in a building in downtown Austin built in 1851. It was a drugstore, a theater and a department store until 1995 when the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA) purchased the building and in 1998 renovated the first floor with a design by Dallas-based Cunningham Architects, preserving many elements of the original building. The new building was followed by a new director, Sue Graze, in 1999 and in 2002 the TFAA changed its name to Arthouse at the Jones Center. In 2007, Elizabeth Dunbar was hired as its first full-time curator and in 2009 she was promoted to associate director. Most recently, Rachel Adams was hired as curator of public programs in addition to other hires that doubled the staff.

Photo © Michael Moran

The evolution of both the staff and the building reflects a greater professionalization as well as an increase in the number of exhibitions and programs that Arthouse will organize. In many ways this is in keeping with the growth of Austin as a city and cultural center. Arthouse has not only contributed a nice piece of architecture to the city center, it has also sought to connect the artists in Austin to a wider art world through programs like the visiting lecture series, which brings international curators to give public talks and do studio visits with local artists. Meanwhile, Arthouse’s Texas Prize recognizes emerging talent statewide. The Prize is a welcome addition to the support available for Texas artists. Along with the Art Pace residency program and Dallas Museum of Art statewide grants, it increases the options for artists and encourages them to remain in the state.

The design by Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis relates to this spirit of openness. The architects maintained the lobby’s storefront quality with a wall of clear glass. This sense of the entrance as aperture is followed through by both the exaggerated perspective of the signage at the door and the dramatic staircase behind it leading up to the second floor. This staircase is the most stunning aspect of the building. It is made up of dark wooden beams, spaced apart and cantilevered from the second floor ceiling. They also extend to become the surface of the front desk. The linear shift through both space and function is similar to the way that pathways become benches in New York’s High Line park, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The second floor’s main space has a moveable wall that traverses the length of a huge gallery, allowing the raw history of the building to be revealed or hidden, depending on the needs of the exhibition. In this case, the gallery is filled with Jason Middlebrook’s sculptures that repurpose elements of the old building to create tables, place settings and light fixtures that unfortunately obscure the Tony Feher commission in the rafters. Feher’s subtle, post minimalist intervention is a constellation of water bottles half-filled with clear liquid.

Photo © Michael Moran

The building’s roof deck visually echoes the wooden slats of the staircase, while the lights glowing in the deck’s surface reference the thin blue window slits peppered throughout the building’s exterior wall. Throughout the various opening festivities, this was the place to experience DJs and bands like MEN, sipping drinks and enjoying the evening air.  

There are six exhibitions up for the opening. Aside from Middlebrook and Feher, there are thick impasto paintings suggestive of mythical allegories by Mequitta Ahuja on the first floor and a video by Ryan Henessee back-projected on a large, second-floor window which imagines the past, present and future of 700 Congress Avenue—the site of Arthouse. There is also a hilarious video by James Sham in the elevator that involves a woman using sign language to translate DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” and finally, in a newly designated video gallery, is a mesmerizing film by Cyprien Gaillard.

Gaillard’s piece entitled Cities of Gold and Mirrors is perhaps even more emblematic of the complexities of architecture than Middlebrook’s installation, which most literally used the building as its material. Gaillard’s film, shot in 16 mm in Cancun, documents a modern day resort town, built on the ruins of a Mayan civilization, which has become the playground for American college students on spring break. It unfolds as a cautionary tale, highlighting the potential pitfalls that come with progress and growth. This is not to say that Arthouse has displayed any kind of disregard for the ecology that it inhabits, but when combined with the historical scope of Hennesey’s video, it puts the evolution of both a building and a city into wider perspective. This is a new beginning for an already accomplished institution; I look forward to seeing what lies in its future.

Noah Simblist is an artist and writer based in Dallas and Austin.

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