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Sale of Austin museum lot shifts decades of downtown building plans

After spending millions on plans that never gelled, art museum officials say they'll look for smaller, central city site.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The announcement that Travis County has a contract to purchase a lot on the south side of Republic Square Park for $21.75 million caps another chapter in Austin Museum of Art's decades-long quest to build a permanent downtown museum.

County officials say they are looking to build a new civil courthouse on the property, bounded by West Third, West Fourth, San Antonio and Guadalupe streets.

Lynn Sherman, Austin Museum of Art board president, said the decision to sell the property after three attempts to build a museum on it for more than 30 years came after careful deliberation.

"The sale (of this property) will allow us to look for a more right-sized property, seed a new capital campaign and add to the museum's endowment," Sherman said.

Sherman, who has been on the museum's board for 11 years, said the museum has no immediate plans to build but would in the immediate future be looking at central downtown for a new location to purchase.

He said that the board this time would consider developing a new museum that would not be as big as the block-sized building once planned to border Republic Square Park.

Sherman added that the board has not decided how the profits from the sale would be allocated.

He said the museum was not in debt nor did it have a deficit in its operating budget and that monies from the sale would not be used for operating expenses at this time. The museum has an endowment of about $3 million, he said.

The lease on the museum's temporary downtown location on the first floor of 823 Congress Avenue, which it has occupied for 15 years, expires in about a year, Sherman said.

The museum's efforts to build downtown have been mired in problems since the early 1980s.

And recently, the museum's profile in the arts community has been challenged with the 2004 opening of the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art — now the largest university art museum in the country — and again this fall when Arthouse opened its remodeled contemporary art center on Congress Avenue at Seventh Street.

Originally known as Laguna Gloria Art Museum, the Austin Museum of Art started in 1961, occupying an historic estate on the shore of Lake Austin, a property the museum still owns and operates.

Museum leaders first proposed building downtown in 1983 when a private developer donated a block of downtown land.

A year later, the city was asked to form a public-private partnership to fund the project. And in 1985, voters approved $14.7 million in tax-supported bonds for the project.

But a booming real estate market went bust in the late 1980s and sent the project into a tailspin.

Plans by famed architect Robert Venturi were shelved after $3 million was spent on design and administrative fees. The city revoked its partnership in the project amid protest from other arts groups.

In 1995, the now-renamed Austin Museum of Art opened its downtown branch in a former bank lobby. At the same time, leaders kick-started another effort to build.

A $64 million capital campaign was launched with $13 million in pledges coming from a handful of Dell Computer Corp. executives, at the time the largest donations to the arts in Central Texas. Simultaneously, the museum returned $13.7 million in city bond money after museum leaders said they wanted control of their project.

Noted New York-based architect Richard Gluckman was hired to build a 144,000-square-foot museum that would occupy the entire block.

But by 2002, Austin's high-tech economy fizzled, then-Director Elizabeth Ferrer left the Austin Museum of Art abruptly, and supporters of the project retreated.

In 2004, the Gluckman plans for the new museum were scrapped. Of the $14.25 million the museum had raised for the project, all but $860,000 was spent on architect fees along with fundraising and marketing expenses.

In 2007, Austin Museum of Art announced that it was in partnership with Houston developer Hines Interests, which was to build a downsized $23 million 40,000-square-foot museum alongside a 30-story office tower on the choice downtown block.

But in late 2008 Hines opted out of the deal, citing the downturn in the economy.

"This time we're getting ahead of the economic cycle, not beyond it like in the past," Sherman said.; 445-3699