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Two Austin art museums approve merger

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Formalizing a process that began earlier this year, leaders of the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse voted Tuesday to approve the merger of the two nonprofit organizations, a move that signals a major shift in Austin's cultural landscape and ends a tumultuous chapter for both museums.

Attorney Darrell K. Windham has been appointed president of the new board, with art collector and philanthropist Mickey Klein as board chairman.

Jack Nokes, who has been serving as AMOA interim director since Dana Friis-Hansen left the job in January, will remain as interim director of the new organization until a director is appointed.

Windham said that, for now, little would be different at either Arthouse's Congress Avenue facility or at AMOA's Laguna Gloria site in West Austin.

He said a national search for a director is under way, with a decision to be made in the next three to six months. After a director is hired, a re-branding process will determine a new name for the united institution.

Exhibits and programs will continue as planned, Windham said, and no staff members at either Arthouse or AMOA will be laid off. Arthouse Director Sue Graze stepped down from her post last month.

Starting Jan. 1, Windham said, the budget for the new organization will be $3.2 million. Currently, AMOA has a $3.1 million budget and Arthouse is at $1.1 million.

"The new organization is completely debt-free," Windham said.

Late last year, AMOA became the most cash-rich arts institution in Austin when it ended its nearly three-decade bid to build a museum downtown and sold its vacant lot adjacent to Republic Square Park to Travis County for $21.75 million. AMOA had a previous endowment of $3.5 million.

An estimated $5 million from the sale will be set aside as seed money for a new gallery and sculpture park at the 12-acre Laguna Gloria site, and $15 million will be designated for an operating endowment, Windham said.

The board has also used money from the AMOA lot sale to pay off about $3.2 million of the remaining debt on Arthouse's architecturally ambitious renovation of its historical building at Congress Avenue and Seventh Street, Windham said.

Earlier this year, AMOA officials announced that Friis-Hansen had left as executive director and that the museum would not renew its lease at 823 Congress Ave., a gallery space it has rented since 1995 to have a downtown presence.

The decision not to build downtown ended an effort that included scrapping designs by two prominent architects and spending more than $16 million, moves that left arts supporters wary about the museum's ambition.

Meanwhile, after its reopening, Arthouse leaders signaled that they had difficulty raising money for increased expenses and that the new $6.6 million facility was not entirely paid for. The staff was trimmed, and the annual budget was reduced.

Windham said that though the institutions have served somewhat different audiences, there is sufficient overlap in artistic focus to combine the cultural profiles of AMOA and Arthouse.

"We feel like the mission of both institutions (is) complementary," he said. "And a combined audience will give us a new opportunity to serve a wider audience."

AMOA has a modest permanent collection and generally presents exhibits that span the past century of art. It also operates Laguna Gloria, a 1916 historical home on Lake Austin that shows small exhibits.

The Laguna Gloria site also has a community art school and a modest collection of outdoor statuary and sculpture.

Arthouse does not maintain a permanent collection and instead presents temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.

The merger reunites two organizations born as one a century ago, in 1911, as the Texas Fine Arts Association.

In 1943, philanthropist Clara Driscoll deeded her Italianate mansion, Laguna Gloria, to the association. Then in 1961, Laguna Gloria Art Museum Inc. became a separate organization.

When the association moved downtown in 1997, Laguna Gloria Art Museum changed its name to the Austin Museum of Art. In 2002, the association re-branded itself as Arthouse.

jvanryzin@statesman.com;

445-3699