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Blanton's new director settling in

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Sitting in her sunny, white-walled office on a recent afternoon, Simone Wicha looks remarkably relaxed for someone with just a few months at the helm of one of Austin's largest arts organizations.

"This is the best job on the planet," she says about her new position as director of the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art. "An art museum is where I feel at a home; it's where I love being."

Wicha assumed her new post June 1 when Ned Rifkin stepped down after just two years on the job. (Rifkin maintains a professorship at UT.)

Previously, Wicha was the museum's deputy director for external affairs, overseeing most of the fundraising and administrative functions of the institution, which, since opening its new building in 2006, is now the largest university art museum in the country.

The Blanton offers free admission today, joining other area museums to celebrate "Austin Museum Day."

The citywide celebration of museums comes as the Blanton celebrates the opening of two major fall exhibits: a 400-year overview of French prints and drawings from its collection and a traveling retrospective of internationally acclaimed African artist El Anatsui.

Together, Wicha says, the two exhibits represent the breadth of what a university art museum can offer a community.

Raised in Mexico City with a Polish father and a Lebanese Mexican mother, Wicha has an academic background that might seem unlikely for the job: She picked up a bachelor's degree in mathematics from UT in the 1990s.

Yet she embarked on a career in arts administration, taking fundraising positions at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., then the Juilliard School and the Noguchi Museum in New York. Wicha joined the Blanton six years ago as development director, recruited to the job just as the new museum building was set to open.

The fundraising proved formidable. After years of being tucked away in obscurity on the UT campus, in 2006 the Blanton bloomed in a major new building of its own. But that blooming meant the budget nearly tripled, jumping from $2.6 million in 2000 to $6.1 million this past fiscal year. Though about a third of the Blanton's funds comes from UT, the pressure to raise millions more each year has proved arduous — especially given the economic downtown of the past several years.

But it has not been insurmountable. "I think it says a lot about how people value what we do," says Wicha of the Blanton's track record of growth in the past decade.

Now is a potent time for Wicha to join Austin's cadre of arts leaders. Stewardship at many other organizations is in major flux.

Austin's other two leading visual arts institutions — Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary arts center — are all but officially merged, a move that comes as result of some serious ups and downs at both institutions. And with AMOA now more than nine months without a permanent director and Arthouse's director stepping down next month, observers are keen to see what kind of director a new, unified art museum might attract.

The Austin Lyric Opera also currently lacks a permanent leader. And both the Long Center for the Performing Arts and the Paramount Theatre appointed new executive directors within the last few months.

There's a museum leadership vacuum at the statewide level, as well, with two of Texas' highest-profile museums sporting top-spot vacancies.

In the spring, Bonnie Pittman, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, announced that she would be stepping down from her post for health reasons. And garnering headlines around the country late last year was the news that Peter Marzio, the ambitious director of the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, died at age 67. In his three decades of leadership, Marzio catapulted the MFAH from a respected, if unremarkable, regional institution to an internationally buzzed-about destination now visited by some 2 million people a year. Along the way, Marzio quadrupled the size of the permanent collection, hustled up major new buildings to the museum complex and tipped the museum's endowment over the billion dollar mark.

In any museum, a dichotomy exists between the responsibilities that relate to art and those that deal with institutional business and management. Most of the successful museum directors of the past several decades have been trained as art historians.

But the era of museum directors like Marzio — charismatic empire-builders who needed to sell the idea of art to a generation not raised on a museum-filled landscape — may be past. As the business of exhibitions has sprawled out to more biennial events and temporary projects, curators have emerged as the prominent aesthetic adjudicators, highlighting artists and trends.

Perhaps nowadays a museum director must be a flexible, 21st-century CEO — someone akin to the chief executive of a high-tech start-up, a leader of a team of creatives.

"(Being a director) is a very different job than curating," Wicha says. "I've never pretended to be what I'm not, and I value having smart people around me and having them give me their thoughts and ideas."

Tops on Wicha's priority list is filling curatorial positions that have been vacant for a while, chiefly ones overseeing the contemporary and modern art collection, and the Blanton's noted prints and drawings collection.

"It's many voices and many people trying to solve the challenges of the future and all sharing the principal reason we all work here to begin with — the love the art," says Wicha. "I feel like I have a tremendous opportunity to do something good here."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

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