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University of Texas opens space for artistic 'risk-taking'

Visual Arts Center underwent $7 million makeover.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
UT's Visual Arts Center has a new public entrance on the building's east side with a landscaped arbor framed by a contemporary portico of naturally rusted steel slats surrounded by windows.

When the University of Texas' Visual Arts Center hosts its open house on Sunday, don't confuse it for the art museum that formerly occupied the 13,000 square feet of gallery space in the Art Building.

Though the two-story space that recently underwent a $7 million renovation was once home to the Blanton Museum, it is now what university leaders liken to a laboratory for the visual arts. More than just a remodeling of existing space, the center represents a 21st-century type of university art school with students and faculty curating exhibits, artists-in-residence creating site-specific artwork and student museum-directors-to-be having a hand in program planning.

"The Visual Arts Center is not a museum," said Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts. "It's an experimental space for risk-taking, where visiting artists, students, faculty and other participants can take chances that could never be taken in a museum."

The renovation not only included a remodeling of the former museum space but also remade an additional 12,000 square feet into new studios for graduate students, a new office suite for the department's Mesoamerican Center and offices for the art department. The renovation has also opened up a public courtyard that was previously inaccessible.

The possibility for art experiments shows in the renovation. The formerly featureless expanse that defined the southern facade of the midcentury modern brick building now sports three large protruding glass windows. Each is rigged with a video projector and screen and will be a stage for video art projected outside every night.

Inside, five distinct galleries have been carved out from the previous configuration, each wired to handle the multimedia demands of today's contemporary art. New lighting systems, increased natural light and flexible display elements — including the means to screen films — have been added. The distinctive vaulted concrete roof design — a signature architectural element outside the building but previously hidden inside by a drop ceiling — now emerges as a prominent interior detail.

Perhaps the most significant architectural update is the new public entrance created on the building's east side. Where once a loading dock hulked, now a landscaped arbor framed by a contemporary portico of naturally rusted steel slats surrounds a gracious windowed entrance.

"A formerly impenetrable building has been finally opened up into a multifaceted, multifunctional" place, Dempster said.

To be sure, its location across the street from UT's Royal-Memorial Stadium puts the Visual Arts Center in a limelight of sorts when it comes to public exposure. Though it will have regular public hours Tuesdays through Saturdays, during football season, the center will be closed on home game Saturdays.

"We don't want to be overrun with rowdy folks or people just looking for a restroom," said Jade Walker, the center's director. (Today is an exception — the center will be open from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. for those who want a sneak peek ahead of Sunday's events.)

Nevertheless, visitors to the Visual Arts Center can expect to see multiple exhibits of contemporary art that will rotate on a rapidly changing schedule with new shows opening every four to five weeks. Although work by students, faculty and alumni artists will be featured, it won't be the center's exclusive focus. Projects and exhibits by contemporary artists from around the world are on the schedule as well as films, performances and lectures.

UT's Visual Arts Center

Where: Art Building, 23rd and Trinity streets

Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Admission: Free

Information: 471-1108, www.utvac.org

Grand opening

When: Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free

Schedule:

• Noon to 5 p.m.: Student docent-led tours

• 1 to 5 p.m.: Group drawing project hosted by Lucky Dragons artist collective

• 3 p.m.: ‘Geography and Eyewitness.' Curators Andrea Giunta and Roberto Tejada in conversation with artist Magali Lara

• 4 p.m.: Artist tour of ‘ZZZ's' by Ry Rocklen, artist-in-residence

• 6:30 p.m.: ‘Wrong Spectrum,' interactive musical performance by Lucky Dragons

• 8 to 9 p.m.: ‘Fade In,' video program

"The VAC is also intended as an Austin gallery that gives the local arts community common ground on the Forty Acres," Dempster said.

Lake Flato Architects of San Antonio designed the renovation. The university paid for the $7 million project from construction bonds issued by the UT System, Dempster said. "It's actually a very cost-effective solution by comparison with building a new building," he said.

Dempster said fundraising is under way for a $7 million endowment to support the operations and programs of the center. More than $1 million has been raised, he said.

When conceiving of those programs, department leaders sought to meet the needs of students destined for an increasingly complex and demanding museum profession, said Jade Walker, the center's director. For example, one of the center's galleries is reserved for an exhibit curated entirely by students. Budding art educators will get a chance to lead exhibit tours or design children's programs. Those enrolled in the department's fine arts professional development courses can opt for administrative internships at the center. And student artists will have the chance to help artists-in-residence create and install site-specific artworks.

"Running an art museum is like knowing how to use an entire box of different-colored crayons," Walker said. "And you have to be trained to use every one of those crayons."

The center is staffed by existing positions within the art department as well as graduate assistants, interns and some temporary positions, Walker said.

The art and art history department has 600 undergraduate students and about 180 graduate students. Tenure and tenure-track faculty in art and art history number 62.

With its towering two-story main gallery, the prominent quadrant of the Art Building was originally designed to house the University Art Museum when it opened in 1963. At the time, the newly established museum had a motley collection of about 400 objects. But by the early 1970s, the art department had a problem it would wrestle with for more than three decades: a lack of space. Then named the Huntington Art Gallery, the UT museum was bursting at the seams thanks to the acquisition of several large collections. Simultaneously, the growing art department had more demand for exhibit space for student and faculty shows and other departmental programs.

But it would take an additional 34 years for the space shortage problem to be resolved. After years of tussling over a design for a new building, the Blanton opened in 2006 in its own two-building complex on the south end of campus.

Now, the university not only boasts a comprehensive art museum that's the largest in size of any university in the country, but also a lively, and large, state-of-the-art gallery for students and faculty to creatively experiment.

The Visual Arts Center "is something the department of art and art history has been missing," Dempster said.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699