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A coffee with ... Louis Grachos, the new executive director of AMOA-Arthouse

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Louis Grachos finds Austin full of possibility and potential.

And he likes to frame his impressions of what will be his new hometown, and his ambitions for his new job, in the form of questions.

Earlier this month Grachos, 55, who is currently the director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., was named the new executive director of AMOA-Arthouse, the now-merged Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary art center.

On Monday, during a brief visit to town, he sat in Arthouse's library loft to talk about what he sees.

"Austin is a city that's very looked at by the rest of the world," Grachos says. "How would the museum work with that?"

How, for example, should an art museum dovetail with the festival phenomenon that now defines Austin's cultural and entertainment calendar? How to take advantage of Austin's ever-expanding population, its penchant for anything new, its spirited sense of social democracy?

"The first step will be defining a vision that's focused and makes sense for Austin," he says. "And there seems to be real excitement, support and demand for ingenuity here."

Grachos has been at the helm of the Albright-Knox for 10 years, during which he was credited for expanding the contemporary art focus and bringing the museum fresh international attention.

The storied New York institution couldn't be more different than AMOA-Arthouse. This year, Albright-Knox is celebrating its 150th anniversary. AMOA last year marked its 50th. And though Arthouse started as the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1911, it had little public profile beyond being an artists' organization until it moved downtown in 1998.

Also, the Albright-Knox has an iconic building in Buffalo's downtown.

By contrast, as a merged entity, AMOA-Arthouse is a bit oddly divided between Arthouse's urbane, renovated Congress Avenue building and Laguna Gloria, with its 12 acres of lakeside grounds and pretty but slightly quirky historic 1916 villa.

Last, the Albright-Knox has a critically recognized collection that is strong in postwar American and European art. AMOA has a modest collection of mostly regional art. Arthouse has no permanent collection.

"It's very stark," says Grachos of the differences. "But (AMOA-Arthouse) is something I have a DNA for, the potential of creating something new."

Again, more questions. Are the Laguna Gloria grounds ripe for sculpture and installations, permanent or temporary? How can the museum be a catalyst for citywide public art projects or events? How can the museum leverage the energy from the city's creative communities and from the University of Texas?

Grachos won't begin his new post full-time until January. But already he's considering where he and his wife, Ann Kippen, might live, and whether their son James, who will be headed to college in a year, will be joining them and perhaps attending UT.

"I'd like to live somewhere central, somewhere close to work," Grachos says. After all, he sees the long hours ahead. "I'm thrilled by challenge," he says. "And this is a place that attracts artists."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699