From the Editor

by Wendy Vogel

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      Tracey Moffatt
      First Jobs: Pineapple Cannery 1978
      Archival pigments on rice paper with gel medium
      28 x 36 inches
      Courtesy of Artpace San Antonio and Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York

      Even the most optimistic supporters of Austin’s expanding contemporary art scene can admit that it is suffering some institutional growing pains. The Blanton Museum, under the leadership of new director Simone Wicha, is currently in search of a new curator of contemporary art. Arthouse has remained quiet about their new curatorial plan since their announcement about eliminating former Curator and Associate Director Elizabeth Dunbar’s position, citing budget difficulties. The Austin Museum of Art has not replaced former director Dana Friis-Hansen since his January 2011 resignation, even as the staff prepares to vacate their home on Congress Street. Speaking of relocations, it was announced this week that Friis-Hansen will assume the directorship of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan in July.

      And even bigger news about AMOA and Arthouse may be on the horizon. On May 27, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin of the Austin-American Statesman reported that the two art institutions have begun preliminary talks about a merger. Van Ryzin points out that Arthouse and AMOA both spring from the same arts organization, the Texas Fine Arts Association, and that this shared history could make the merger a natural fit. She adds that the potential institutional union has garnered support from at least one key figure, Arthouse board member and collector Mickey Klein. Says Klein, "We're in a small city with a limited base of donors for the arts […] We don't need competition. We need collaboration."

      In the midst of transitions like this, it’s tempting to try to assume an omniscient position, to create a meaningful abstract from disorder. We might try to craft a critical metanarrative, like video artist Tracey Moffatt does in her thematic videos. As Wendy Atwell describes Moffatt’s position in this issue: “Think Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life.” Yet it’s often more instructive to look at the facts on the ground.

      On Glasstire this week, Claire Ruud analyzes Arthouse’s strengths and weaknesses from the financial side of things against similarly-sized kunsthalles the Dallas Contemporary and the San Jose Contemporary. Take a look at her noteworthy observations and keep your eyes peeled for her upcoming articles on AMOA and CAMH.

      As for me, I don’t have an oppositional gut reaction to the potential merger between AMOA and Arthouse, nor do I presently have the answer of how to successfully negotiate combining the two organizations. However, the question does bring to mind the historical tension of collecting vs. non-collecting institutions of contemporary art. One of the first institutions to consider this question was, to no surprise, The Museum of Modern Art. As Rob Storr wrote in one of his earliest columns in frieze from 2005, MoMA’s founding director Alfred H. Barr initially preferred the kunsthalle model for the museum. He shared the opinion of his friend Gertrude Stein, who said “You can be modern or you can be a museum, but you cannot be both.”

      MoMA’s game changer came when Barr accepted the extraordinary Lillie P. Bliss bequest. Even then, in the Museum’s early days, Barr planned to deaccession works over fifty years old to the Met, a shaky plan that never quite panned out. Instead, the early modern collection became a worldwide treasure of tremendous import. Nearly half a century later, the idea of a semi-permanent collection would spark the interest of a visionary leader from a different generation. In 1978, New Museum founding director Marcia Tucker briefly considered building a collection that would be sold every ten years. Needless to say, the strategy was even more quickly abandoned.

      Both of these institutions show that collecting and contemporaneity need not be incompatible, but there must be some strong “editing” through a curatorial hand and collaboration with the board of what remains in the collection. If Arthouse and AMOA merge, my hope for the new hybrid will be that it will continue to support the historical range of AMOA’s programming while remaining committed to showing and developing outstanding contemporary art. If the decision to merge means programming less extravagant exhibitions and integrating the collection in new ways, that could only be considered a creative challenge. As non-collecting institutions like the New Museum have shown, fearlessness (and even flops) can be healthy for an organization. If we take just one example from this MoMA anecdote, it is the value of a collection may prove invaluable in the long run as new generations of scholars and historians shed new light on old gems.

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.


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