Austin arts community powerhouse Judith Sims to retire

She shepherded activities at Laguna Gloria for almost half a century.

Judith Sims, a leader of Austin’s arts scene for more than 40 years, plans to retire from Laguna Gloria, where she runs the museum site and its art school, at the end of December.

“A powerhouse of the Austin arts community and our museum since its earliest days, Judith has transformed Laguna Gloria with her tireless advocacy and leadership over many decades,” said Louis Grachos, executive director and CEO of the Contemporary Austin, which operates Laguna Gloria. “It is with great appreciation and admiration that I congratulate Judith on her retirement.”

Sims, whose tenure reaches back before the professionalization of the local arts scene, will be named art school director emerita. She will continue for a year with the Contemporary in a consulting role. Museum officials have not said who will take over her duties.

“I feel that I’m just ready,” Sims said Thursday at her Laguna Gloria office, once founder Clara Driscoll’s office in the 1916 villa’s tower overlooking the lagoon, lake and the art school that Sims ran for decades. “It’s not so much an intellectual decision as much as a gut feeling. I’m ready for the next phase of my life. I want to see more of my friends, to travel more, to take a lot of classes and to embark on lot of personal projects.”

During Sims’ time as director, the Art School at Laguna Gloria became the city’s leading nonaccredited art school with more than 5,000 students and nearly $1 million in annual revenue.

RELATED: 100 years of art with Laguna Gloria, Clara Driscoll laid the foundation for art in Austin

Sims established an ongoing collaboration between the Art School and Austin Community College and led several capital campaigns to complete a permanent educational complex. She helped oversee the renovation of Laguna Gloria in 1999 and co-curated “The Territory,” a public TV video series that has aired statewide for 34 years.

Sims grew up mostly in Austin and studied at the University of Texas, University of Rochester and Harvard University. Shirley Bird Perry was a particular mentor during her time at the UT Student Union, when Sims was involved in the group’s film, art and speaker programs. After her time in the Northeast, Sims returned to Austin to offer her new skills in arts administration to Laguna Gloria’s forward-thinking director, Laurence Miller.

Sims is among the few employees of the museum to thrive as it evolved from its roots in the Texas Fine Arts Association, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin Museum of Art, Arthouse and, now, the Contemporary Austin.

These days, the museum operates a dynamic downtown venue on Congress Avenue and continues to mold the Laguna Gloria grounds into a destination sculpture park, while maintaining its Art School and its collaborative museum-without-walls projects.

“She is leaving behind a remarkable legacy,” said Chris Cowden, director of gallery Women & Their Work for 30 years. “She has been dedicated to arts education for audiences of all ages. Equally important was her preservation and restoration of Laguna Gloria. She has been an anchor of stability during a time of constant change.”

Since Sims came on board, Austin has become a radically different arts town.

“There are a lot more highly qualified people with deep backgrounds in all the arts,” Sims said. “I’m impressed by the growth of groups such as Big Medium (with its annual EAST and WEST arts tours). As we discovered all those years trying to build a downtown museum, galleries need museums and museums need galleries.”

Over time, Sims has gotten to know the grounds of Laguna Gloria intimately.

“At first, I was so focused on what I was doing, I didn’t notice so much,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful. Yet it was not until our 1999 restoration, while doing research and learning about the landscape, that I actually looked at the trees. Looked at the water. It was all there.”

Observers say few people have had as much impact on the Laguna Gloria site as Sims.

“Clara Driscoll built Laguna Gloria in 1916,” Grachos said, “but Judith Sims shepherded and cared for it for almost half a century. I know she will continue to serve our community in new and exciting ways in her retirement.”

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