With the mid-December news that the Austin Museum of Art will sell the downtown block on which it had planned for decades to build a new home, Austin's arts landscape ended 2010 with a sharper outline than it began.

AMOA's retreat might have forever quashed a vision that the city has been promised for years. (Museum leaders say, however, they are still considering finding a permanent, though less ambitious, downtown home.)

Nevertheless, 2010 emerged as a groundbreaking year for the visual arts, with two new important venues. On a prominent Congress Avenue corner, Arthouse reopened its $6.6 million architecturally forward-thinking and significantly remodeled home. And on the University of Texas campus, the new $7 million Visual Arts Center opened, smartly conceived from a part of the Art Building once home to UT's art museum.

Both openings brightened a year marked by a recession-related cultural downturn. Austin Lyric Opera had layoffs. The arts-centered New Year's festival First Night Austin was canceled. And the city's cultural funding, dependent on a tourism-generated hotel occupancy tax, fell 16 percent.

The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, with its significant permanent collection and scholarly goals, remains the anchor of the region's visual arts scene. But now Arthouse plays the role of contemporary provocateur and connector to today's international community, while the Visual Arts Center functions as the creative laboratory for UT's lively and extensive community of artists and art historians.

Arthouse

"Our building is now really a significant part of the civic fabric of the city," says Sue Graze, Arthouse executive director. Though it had called 700 Congress Ave. home since 1998, Arthouse remained somewhat off the radar to all but cultural insiders, even though its origins as the Texas Fine Arts Association make it one of Texas' oldest visual arts organizations. Although it does not have a permanent collection, Arthouse mounts a continually changing schedule of temporary exhibits of contemporary, international art.

Its ambitious yet select board saw potential in the much-altered building that had first been a 1920s movie house then was converted into a department store in the 1950s. Hiring critically acclaimed New York firm LTL Architects (Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis), Arthouse embarked on a $6.6 million renovation, re-opening its doors in mid-October with three times the space inside as was previously accessible.

Now, the building acts as a beacon with a distinctive new entrance accented by a dramatic awning that reaches out toward Austin's most symbolic avenue. Its exterior is perforated with 177 laminated green glass rectangular blocks that grab the light during the day and glow at night. And an enormous second-story window doubles at night as a screen, turning the corner of Seventh Street and Congress Avenue into a video art viewing destination.

Inside, the expanded and transformed galleries feature edgy contemporary art, much of which is commissioned by Arthouse specifically for its new space and all of which changes on a fairly brisk schedule.

"Our interest has always been to raise the bar of cultural sophistication in Austin, and there's no question our building has done that," says Graze. "And a great building entices people to visit us. And once here, we're pushing people to consider new ideas of what art is."

Though the recession hit just as the Arthouse project was due to break ground, the board elected to move forward and cleverly leveraged the downturn. The $4.3 million spent on construction was 25 percent less than originally projected.

"We're just really getting started," says Graze. "But if we want Austin not to be a relic, if we want it to continue to be a vibrant place for culture, Austin has to step up to the plate."

Visual Arts Center

UT vastly solidified its role as an anchor of Austin's visual scene when it opened the Blanton Museum's two-building $83.5 million complex in 2004. Finally providing a home for its significant permanent collection, the Blanton provides a scholarly foundation.

This year the Blanton's newest director, Ned Rifkin, a seasoned professional with a national reputation, marked a year on the job and unveiled an ambitious five-year plan. On the slate: fundraising for acquisitions, streamlining exhibits and altering the exterior of the traditionally styled buildings to better identify the Blanton as an art museum. Already, new banners adorn the outside of the Blanton, and an innovative temporary installation on the outside grounds is planned this spring.

And now, just as a research university has labs for scientific investigation, the VAC offers the same to the visual arts.

Renovating a 25,000-square-foot venue in the Art Building that once housed the Blanton, UT's College of Fine Arts unveiled the Visual Arts Center in late September. The university paid for the $7 million project from construction bonds issued by the UT System.

The VAC is specifically not a museum that aims to compete in any way with the Blanton. Instead, it offers exhibits by students, faculty and alumni artists as well as site-specific projects by artists-in-residence and student- and faculty-curated shows. An online art journal is set to launch this spring, and video art is projected at night to passersby from three large windows.

"The VAC is a space for experimentation and new ideas and ways of thinking about art," says director Jade Walker. "We're unique to Austin in that we present both (UT's) talent and also contemporary, experimental works."

About 6,000 have visited the new facility since it opened, and its reach has extended not just to other areas of campus, but beyond. For example, the center has started cooperating with the new W Austin Hotel downtown, which will display some VAC-generated projects.

"Our gallery is on the radar for people in the community," says Walker. "And we're looking forward to plugging ourselves into Austin in so many more ways."

Both modestly sized projects that came in on time and on budget, Arthouse and UT's Visual Arts Center brought important signs of growth to Austin's currently parched cultural landscape this year. And long-term, they magnify the importance the visual arts have on the city's profile.

jvanryzin@stateman.com; 445-3699