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Contemporary’s downtown museum gets new look, spaces


As part of $3 million renovation, museum unveils major installation on Congress Avenue.

With a flourish, the Contemporary Austin ratcheted up to a new level recently

A $3 million renovation smartly retooled the museum’s downtown Jones Center, a project that included the unveiling of a major outdoor installation that now graces the building’s rooftop at Congress Avenue and Seventh Street.

Now, 7-foot-tall letters rim the Jones Center’s updated rooftop and read “With Liberty and Justice for All.”

In daylight, the iridescent, mirrored surfaces of the sans serif letters oscillate with color, shifting between shades of blue, purple, orange and pink. At night, the letters are lit from within with LEDs.

The sculpture — called “With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress)” — is by Jim Hodges, a New York-based artist born in 1957 in Spokane, Wash.

Perched above Congress Avenue — a thoroughfare dubbed the “Main Street of Texas” — and just a few blocks from the Texas Capitol, the phrase from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance carries undeniable potency.

Yet Hodges deploys language on a conceptual and symbolic level. Hence “With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress)” is not a directive so much as it is an invitation to think deeply about the ideas behind America’s democratic experiment.

“The building is literally supporting this aspirational line we all grew up saying. (The sculpture’s title) suggests that the idea behind that line is something to always be worked on,” Hodges told the noted journalist Dan Rather in a live interview at the sculpture’s opening two weeks ago.

“Art is the perfect vehicle to deliver all of us to a sense of shared humanity. And the art institutions themselves (are) the most important and most vital places in a community.”

The Hodges installation is but a part of the renovation to the architecturally distinctive Jones Center. Most dramatic is a new 21-foot-high canopy added to the rooftop, where the museum stages film screenings and other events. The canopy offers shade and rain protection, augmented by weatherproof curtains on a track that rings the rooftop.

The 21,000-square-foot Jones Center underwent a $6 million renovation in 2010, a sleek and sophisticated transformation designed by LTL Architects of New York. The museum again turned to LTL’s Paul Lewis to design the recent renovation.

Inside, the museum’s first floor was opened up, offices were relocated to the Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria location, and about 2,000 square feet of flexible gallery space was created. In total, the Jones Center now has 7,000 square feet of exhibit space — a volume that allows the museum to host a new level of traveling exhibitions and organize larger shows.

Less visible are significant upgrades to the Jones Center’s humidity and temperature controls so that they now meet stringent museum industry specifications. And a heavy-capacity electric lift between the lower and upper floors allows the museum to move larger works of art.

The letters of Hodges’ installation were among the first artworks to make use of the new lift. So were monumental steel sculptures by Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, whose exhibit “Habitat” is the first to fill the newly expanded galleries.

Based in Warsaw, Sosnowska finds inspiration in the urban structures left over from Poland’s oppressive communist era — the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and 1970s characterized by a very stark economy of material.

In Sosnowska’s hands, though, mighty forms of steel and concrete seem to wilt. Long lengths of sturdy rebar crumple into an enormous tangle dotted with concrete plugs. A steel staircase seems to melt, twisted on its side as it lies limp on the gallery floor. (It also makes a nice complement to “The Stairs,” Sosnowska’s sculpture that’s on the ground of the museum’s Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria.)

In the newly expanded first floor, Sosnowska created “Antechamber,” a labyrinth of angled, zigzagging walls, covered on one side with fussy floral hand-block-printed wallpaper on the other side left raw and unfinished, with steel studs and Sheetrock exposed. The walls form triangular passageways that dead-end and several odd triangular rooms, each of which holds a single sculpture.

Sosnowska’s work is a poetic response to a formidable architecture style, offering an immersive faux built environment that both charms and confuses.

The museum funded its $3 million renovation with a $1.3 million grant from the Moody Foundation, a bridge loan and private donations, opting not to launch a public campaign.

The remodeled Jones Center and new acquisitions are just one part of the Contemporary’s continuing ascendant trajectory — a trajectory that’s included several major developments just this year.

In March, the museum formed a collaboration with the Waller Creek Conservancy, the nonprofit spearheading the transformation of the 1.5-mile stretch of Waller Creek downtown, to bring major public art to the developing creekside. The partnership was bolstered by a $1.1 million donation from the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation.

Then in July, the museum announced the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize, a world-level biennial award that grants an artist an unrestricted $100,000 as well as a solo exhibition. Rodney McMillian, a Los Angeles artist whose exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem garnered national acclaim last year, is the first recipient of the Booth Prize.

It’s a breathtaking set of accomplishments for one museum to have undertaken. But, as Hodges told Rather, arts institutions are the most vital places in a community.

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