What move of Contemporary Austin collection means to Blanton Museum

2:00 a.m. Wednesday, May 31, 2017 Local
Brian Fitzsimmons
The Contemporary Austin, whose downtown location is shown above, is transferring most of its permanent collection to the Blanton Museum of Art. CONTRIBUTED BY BRIAN FITZSIMMONS

In an updating of the historic roles of Austin’s two largest art museums, the Contemporary Austin is transferring virtually all of its permanent collection, which has more than 700 works of art, to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas.

The Contemporary, which has less storage, exhibition and educational capacity than the Blanton, will focus instead on collecting more pieces for its ambitious 14-acre Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, using a $9 million grant from the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation designated for that purpose.

The collection moving to the Blanton was started in the 1960s and includes prints, photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, glass and textiles dating back to the late 19th century. Much of it will become part of the Blanton’s permanent collection, while other pieces will be offered to other Texas museums.

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Among the renowned artists represented are Ed Ruscha, Alexander Calder, Georges Braque, Judy Chicago, Sol LeWitt, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra, as well as celebrated Texans such as Robert Rauschenberg, Luis Jiménez, Julie Speed, Charles Umlauf, Lance Letscher, Keith Carter, Michael Ray Charles and Margo Sawyer.

Only the Contemporary’s outdoor sculpture will remain at Laguna Gloria.

Louis Grachos, executive director and CEO of the Contemporary Austin, said he consulted with artists, collectors and past museum leaders to make sure the move was right.

“I feel confident that this transfer reflects the best, most ethically sound manner in which to secure the future of this rich collection,” Grachos said. “The Blanton is equipped to properly store, preserve and present these works in a traditional museum setting.”

Some of the wisdom of the move arises from considerations of space. For temporary shows, the Contemporary has about 8,000 square feet of interior exhibition space at the Jones Center downtown, while the Blanton can put together at least 27,000 square feet.

“The transfer is a great service to artists and the art-loving public,” artist Margo Sawyer said. “Finding the right home for our work means continuing — even deepening — the dialogue between us as artists, our creative output, and new audiences who may now continue to view, study and interact with our work.”

The Contemporary’s story goes back to 1911, when friends of the late sculptor Elisabet Ney organized the Texas Fine Arts Association. It picked up steam in 1943 with Clara Driscoll’s donation of Laguna Gloria to the group. Other progenitors include the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, the Austin Museum of Art and ArtHouse at the Jones Center.

It became the Contemporary Austin in 2013.

Along with the sculpture park, the Contemporary will concentrate on its “museum without walls” concept, a strategy that includes teaming with groups such as the Waller Creek Conservancy to present major public art, such as Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s “Forever Bicycles,” which will be celebrated with family-friendly activities on the Waller Creek site from 10 a.m. to noon June 3.

The Blanton, which owns more than 18,000 objects, traces its roots back to the Huntington Art Gallery — seeded by philanthropist Archer Huntington in 1927 but not opened at UT until 1963 — and the Michener Collection, as well as other major assets.

Although steeped in art history, the Blanton consistently shows contemporary art, such as the current exhibition of work by conceptual artist Nina Katchadourian.

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“This historic transfer will enable the Blanton and the Contemporary — two important and complementary arts organizations within our city — to continue to build our distinctive missions,” said Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton. “It will enhance the Blanton’s contemporary collection, allowing us to better serve our visitors, while also ensuring proper long-term stewardship of the works and enjoyment by future generations.”

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