Coming of Age: The Austin Arts Community

In 1968, I laughed in disbelief when a graduate student friend described the civil engineering project to which he was assigned … double decking IH 35. Now it is hard to remember when this major north/south artery was not upper and lower. My, how things change!

As the millennium countdown moves toward the year 2000, Austin is an exciting place with many changes on the horizon. While some long for the way it used to be, I find the city’s emergence from a laid back college town to a vibrant metropolitan community invigorating. Twenty years ago, the art community was limited, cultural amenities were rare. Today, the arts in Austin have truly “come of age”! In a few years, we will be in the throes of celebrating the opening of three new facilities for the visual and performing arts.

Within the first decade of the 21st century, our city will transform the cumbersome Palmer Auditorium into a world-class performing arts center. The aqua-tiled Palmer, both outdated and an architectural eyesore, brings to mind Larry McMurtry’s description of Houston’s famed dome as resembling “the working end of a roll-on deodorant stick”.

With the renovation of Palmer will come the end of one of Austin’s widest concrete expanses and the creation of an urban park along Town Lake and Riverside. Designs suggest that the park land can encompass the visual arts as well as theatrical and musical performances. Hopefully, in time, the bronze memorial to Stevie Ray Vaughn will be just one of many outdoor sculptures integrated with walkways along Auditorium Shores – sculpture which reflects the spirit of our city, its history and future.

Across the river in the soon to be revitalized central district, the Austin Museum of Fine Art will create a permanent downtown site on the block formed by 3rd and 4th Streets, San Antonio and Guadalupe. With the recent selection of New York architect Richard Gluckman, Gluckman Mayner Architects, the plans for the new museum should be ready for board approval by year end. Construction will begin in the year 2000 with 2002 being the projected date for the opening of the long awaited downtown museum and multi-use facility. What an addition this will be to city life … an art museum, library and cafe all under one roof!

Just north of the Texas State Capitol, long range planning will become reality when the University of Texas completes the new Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. Scheduled to open in late 2002, the new building will allow the museum to unite its permanent collection under one roof for the first time in its thirty-five year history. The University collection is known for its modern and contemporary American art, including the Michener Collection; a broad range of Latin American art; prints and drawings spanning five centuries. With the recent acquisition of the Suida-Manning Collection, the Blanton Museum gains international stature as home to one of the nation’s preeminent collections of Renaissance and Baroque art.

Continuing on an international note, the Blanton’s most recent news is the selection of Herzog and de Meuron as architect for the 100,000 square foot facility which will include state-of-the-art exhibition galleries and classrooms as well as research, conservation and storage areas. Respected for their elegant minimalism, innovative use of materials, and collaborative approach, the Swiss firm has most recently served as architect for the addition-in-progress at London’s Tate Gallery of Modern Art. When completed the new Blanton Museum – to be located on a prime site near the intersection of MLK and Speedway – will serve as a cultural gateway for the University, the City of Austin and the State of Texas.

In Austin, where state-of-the-art usually gives reference to an industry, innovation now abounds in the arts community. Propelled by momentum generated over the last five years, our city’s fine arts are positioned to take their place alongside technology and live music as Austin’s major calling cards. Perhaps someday, Austin’s arts offerings will even rival those of Fort Worth and Houston… a change we can all welcome!

Spring 1999