Interview: Louis Grachos
by Claire Ruud
Louis Grachos is busy. Right now he has at least three full time jobs—the first at the Albright-Knox, where he is wrapping up a ten year stint as director of the venerable museum, the second at AMOA-Arthouse, where he has been named the first director of the recently merged arts organization, and the third preparing mentally and physically to move his life from upstate New York to central Texas and his work from a storied institution in the rust belt to a tabula rasa in America’s latest boom town. In the midst of all this, Louis and Claire Ruud made a mobile-to-Skype connection while he stretched his legs at a rest stop somewhere along I-90 on his way to a hockey game in Boston (his son’s). Before she had even posed a question, he launched right in to express his excitement.
Louis Grachos [LG]: We—my family and I—are really thrilled about this. It’s a unique opportunity in the museum world. Austin is such an exciting place and AMOA-Arthouse has such potential. The Jones Center and Laguna Gloria are two terrific and very different places, where different kinds of exhibitions can be generated. I’m up for the challenge of creating a unique program that will not only excite folks in Austin, but also get people to travel to Austin to look at contemporary art. The city is growing and thriving, and there’s a creative underpinning in Austin that is very attractive for artists from all parts of the world. It’s also very fluid. All the arts flow into one another—music, performance, the visual arts—obviously the activities at the University of Texas are also very inspiring and will hopefully provide opportunities for many collaborations. Austin’s a great place.
[CR]: I think we’re all excited that you feel that way about Austin. You mention about the growth here; I’ve been thinking a lot about Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point lately, because when the Blanton opened back in 2002 people were talking about this idea, hoping that a critical mass might have been reached. It seems in retrospect that we weren’t at some sort of singular tipping point then. Rather, it seems things are more cyclical with small cities, expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction. Still, I wonder whether we may be at some higher order “tipping point” than we’ve seen before.
[LG]: I hope so. The city has all the ingredients: a great intellectual community, a very spirited and engaged cultural community around music, film and technology; a great entrepreneurial spirit. In terms of working with Austin’s community and our artists, I want to be very strategic in bringing projects, ideas and artists that would be meaningful there. That’s something that I think about almost every minute now as I start connecting with the team in Austin to program and to think about exhibitions.
I’m committed to the idea that our organization can essentially operate as a museum without walls. We have these two really terrific locations. Laguna Gloria would be a great spot for site-specific work while at the Jones Center we can present exhibitions within the heart of the city itself. Art in public spaces, private buildings, parks and across the urban landscape, which is going through a real renaissance.
In many ways, I’m going to rely on my experiences in the past. SITE Sante Fe was essentially a clean slate when I moved there. The challenge was to create a mission and a program that were international in ambition but also completely relevant to Santa Fe. Context is really important to me, so I’m already working hard to learn as much as I can about Austin itself. I’m talking to colleagues about not only the visual arts but the live music scene and the tech industry. Before I start proposing specific programs, it’s really important to understand the history, the tone and texture of the city. I love what you’re saying about the tipping point. I believe AMOA-Arthouse can be a force.
[CR]: Louis, I’m going to challenge a couple of the things you’re saying to see where it takes us. First, I’m thinking about the festival model, the SITE Santa Fe example, the “museum without walls” idea. This model has been hugely popular over the past decade or two, but does it really make sense for museums—with large investments in physical buildings and land—to try to take up this model? AMOA-Arthouse has the overhead of the downtown location and Laguna Gloria that burdens a more integrated, mobile, or festival-like model.
[LG]: I think any institution, even if it’s a museum without walls, needs a home base, a starting point, the germ of a place. The Jones Center building has incredible potential and has been used in very interesting ways in the past. Say we were thinking about a major international exhibition of site-specific projects that would sprawl out into the city. The Jones Center then becomes a very important starting point. The content, the educational components, the premise of what we would be doing could be located there. You start from there and then spread out. That style of exhibition is a challenge, but Austin seems to be equipped for looser boundaries, as in festival programming. It seems to enjoy that role, and people from the outside want to come to Austin for that reason. Our programming can build on that.
I’ve lived in places where it could be really hard to get an audience to show up. People show up in Austin. There’s a constant influx of new people, new things, new organizations, new businesses. That always creates a dynamic that is really rich. In a much smaller way, Santa Fe in the 90’s had that dynamic. When we did the international biennial, we’d get visitors from Norway, we’d get visitors from Korea—it was almost startling. I’m not talking about great numbers of people, but those who were really engaged with art. People who travel to see contemporary art would make the effort to come to Santa Fe. The conditions in Austin offer that same potential.
It’s also important for me to understand Texas and its long history with contemporary art--- the Menil family in Houston, the museum and collecting culture in Dallas and Fort Worth, the great project in Marfa with Chinati and the Judd Foundation. Unique and ambitious visual art institutions, architecture and projects have been brewing in the state for a long time. People interested in contemporary art already travel to Texas. It’ll be important for us to create a reason for them to stop in Austin. In this sense, it’ll be important to talk to the Blanton about their programming and their philosophies so we can dovetail with them and other smaller organizations in Austin.
[CR]: Can you talk a little more about that—fitting into the visual arts landscape here? The Blanton has a strong curatorial team, especially with Simone’s new hires, and some areas of real strength in the collection. It seems like the VAC at UT is angling to fill the role that Arthouse used to fill in the community by supporting emerging curators, young artists and leaning toward an artists-in-residence approach. I’m interested in how you see AMOA-Arthouse fitting into that.
[LG]: One of the things that I really enjoyed here in Buffalo was building collaboration. We took a very dry and unloved model—a biennial dealing with regional artists. I invited all of my colleagues in the area for a meeting and I asked if we could work together on curating a major regional show that would expand the notion of what the region means. It gave us the opportunity to cross the border and include southern Ontario, to capture some very exciting young Canadian artists. All in all, twelve organizations curated this much bigger show with twelve venues, and it was very successful. It’s happened three times so far, in ’05, ’07 and ’10. This is the methodology that I like to use. I’m excited by that kind of collaborative potential with my colleagues at The University of Texas and the ones I haven’t met yet. I’m interested in meeting artists that are already working hard in Austin. I know there’s a whole East Side movement, and I want to understand that and engage that community as well. I want to find good ways to collaborate with colleagues and the art community and I’m hoping to make that a priority.
[CR]: I’d say that the two biggest areas of creativity here in Austin are tech and music. How do you see AMOA-Arthouse fitting in there?
[LG]: I’m so happy you said that because we’ve entered an era, since the 90’s on, in which artists are utilizing and exploring technology in exciting ways. I’ve worked with many artists that are engaged in technology. Music is something I’ve always tried to integrate into my programs, as well. In Buffalo we have a jazz series, a real cutting-edge program that we’re very proud of. I’ve also integrated, not just in programmatic ways but also in fundraising, working with musical acts to build audience and show a cross-fertilization between art and new music. In Buffalo I’ve worked with Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Feist, Atlas Sound and The National. In Santa Fe I worked with Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. To me all of these artists and musicians are relevant to contemporary thinking and contemporary creativity. So I’m hoping I can create a meaningful program that would integrate music into the visual arts. Patti Smith is a terrific painter, she makes wonderful drawings and she does great photography. That’s an example of someone that crosses the line between music and visual arts in a very fluid way.
[CR]: What I’m hearing about the way you see AMOA-Arthouse fitting into the cultural landscape is that if the Blanton is the more academic space and the VAC has got the experimental, emerging art focus, AMOA-Arthouse could be more of a cultural hub, interdisciplinary collaborator and cultural producer.
[LG]: I do see us being involved in creating new work, commissioning work. Front and center will be the visual arts, but I think in today’s world, that means a lot in terms of cross-disciplinary planning.
[CR]: People sometimes talk about the music scene in Austin being an asset to the contemporary art world. I totally get that in terms of creative energy. But I'm starting to wonder whether it isn't also a liability because of competition for audience. My 30-something friends go out to hear live music all the time. People come here to hear music from all over the world. You've suggested that this culture of "showing up" for events that could translate into the visual arts. But with the quality and quantity of music so high, and the cost of attendance so low, how can visual arts compete for the attention of this audience?
[LG]: Good question, I think the tie-in needs to be absolutely authentic, for example musician-artists who engage and, in some cases, create visual art themselves. I have also met many musicians who get inspiration from art. Bradford Cox was very excited by the Albright-Knox’s Mirrored Room, by Lucas Samaras, and he photographed it. I also hope to introduce artists who use sound. I have just commissioned Susan Philipsz to create a new work for the Albright-Knox. I think there may be some good crossover with music lovers in Austin, especially those who are interested in new or "advanced music."
[CR]: I want to let you get back on the road. You have a game to catch! But first, two more questions about yourself. You’ve been at Albright-Knox for ten years, you have been very successful there, I’m sure you’ve had colleagues and headhunters calling you for a really long time, offering other opportunities. Why was this the right one?
[LG]: There are many reasons, but first of all the whole idea of potentially inventing a new model for the community through the merger of AMOA and Arthouse was very energizing to me. It was, and remains, a unique opportunity. It felt like this was a merger that people really wanted to make work and there’s a readiness to explore new ideas. That’s something that you just don’t have that often. For ten years now, I’ve run an institution that is 150 years old and has an incredible collection; it was such an honor and a privilege to do it and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But I love the fact that this opportunity is not quite, but almost, like a start-up. That to me is thrilling.
[CR]: Now to wrap up I’m going to ask a more creative question. If I wanted to read a book, or watch film, or visit a cultural space, or talk to someone who has really shaped who you are as a director, where would you send me?
[LG]: Great question. In terms of international thinking about the world and how things are changing, I would say Robert D. Kaplan. That’s not in a cultural arena, but more geopolitical. But in terms of looking at art, the most influential writing in the last twenty years, I would say, is Dave Hickey, who wrote The Invisible Dragon, and Air Guitar. I love the way Dave Hickey thinks about art. I love the openness. It’s almost like he creates a context for us as viewers to keep our eyes wide open.
As far who first interested me in contemporary art, it really goes way back to my high art school teacher, Stuart Aikman. He introduced us to the potential of engaging with art, even if you weren’t an artist. He taught us about great collections and traveled with us, a kind of unique experience when I look back. He was the one who brought our class to the Albright-Knox for the first time when we were thirteen years old. I had a chance to see the great Jackson Pollock in our collection. I had never seen a Pollock before then. He took us to all the regional museums in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Ottawa and Washington.
But the turning point for me was when I was interning at the Whitney. The curator Patterson Sims was working on an Ellsworth Kelly show. He invited me to walk through the installation with him and Kelly while they were still working on it. I was able to listen to the artist and curator make decisions—that was when I said, this is what I want to do, I want to work with artists in a very direct way. It was a transformative moment for me. Before then, I had no idea where I wanted to go in my career. But after that experience I said yes, this is it, I want to work as a curator, but I want to work with living artists. And, to this day, I still love providing a platform for artists to create.
Claire Ruud has an M.A. in art history from The University of Texas at Austin and an M.B.A. at The Yale University School of Management. She thinks a lot about feminism, queer theory and financing contemporary art production.