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Artists protest recent moves by Arthouse

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Artists from around the state on Wednesday organized a protest and a prominent artist quit the Arthouse board of directors after the contemporary art center on Congress Avenue eliminated its only curatorial position and as it faces accusations of mishandling artists' work.

A group organizing on Facebook as "Artists FOR Arthouse" is asking artists who were invited to participate in Arthouse's upcoming "5×7" fundraising exhibit to pull their work out of the event. The annual exhibit — Arthouse's biggest fundraiser — invites artists to donate artworks made on five-inch-by-seven-inch cards, which are then sold for $150. More than 1,000 artworks were donated to Arthouse last year. The group's Facebook page calls for artists to withhold donating artwork or "submit a blank card or make the image into an expression of your dissent."

San Antonio-based artist Dario Robleto, whose work is in museum collections around the country, said Wednesday that he had resigned from the Arthouse board. Robleto declined to comment publicly other than to say his resignation was effective immediately.

"We respect Dario immensely; he has been a valued contributor, not only as a board member but also as an exhibiting artist," Arthouse executive director Sue Graze said. "We are deeply saddened (about the '5x7' protest), and I welcome any artist that has questions or concerns to contact me; my door is open."

On Monday, Graze told board members that the organization was eliminating its associate director/curator's position because of budgetary difficulties and that Elizabeth Dunbar, who held the post, was terminated effective immediately.

Graze's announcement came after Dunbar wrote a letter to the Arthouse board expressing her concern that Arthouse leadership had mishandled exhibits by Michelle Handelman and Graham Hudson, potentially jeopardizing the institution's credibility and possibly violating legal contracts.

Without seeking Hudson's consent, Arthouse allowed Warner Music Group to rent its galleries and to modify Hudson's exhibit "Rehearsal at the Astoria" for a corporate promotional event during the South by Southwest Music Festival. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 grants artists the right to prevent modification to their artwork.

In Feburary, Handelman's video exhibit, "Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume," was shut down abruptly during hours when Arthouse's teen programs were in session. Handelman was not notified of the action until afterward.

In an email to the American-Statesman for a story at the time, Graze said that "no one actually objected or complained about presenting the video" but added that she had decided to "do more due diligence about screening times and language we use to inform visitors about adult content of video."

The decision to limit viewing of Handelman exhibit's prompted the National Coalition Against Censorship to write a letter of concern to Graze.

Arthouse reopened its Congress Avenue building in October after a much-celebrated $6.6 million renovation. The refurbished, architecturally sleek facility expanded Arthouse's galleries by nearly threefold.

The Arthouse actions this week have reverberated through the arts community.

"Having a curator is central to how a contemporary arts institution is organized," said Andy Campbell, a lecturer in contemporary art at Texas State University. "It's hard to have an artistic through-line without a curator. And it's kind of insulting for those of us in the arts community to swallow the idea that a curator is no longer needed at Arthouse."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699