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Arthouse raises the cultural ante on Congress

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Sue Graze, Arthouse's executive director, said the building's $6.6 million renovation reflects the center's forward-thinking mission.

When Arthouse reopens Oct. 24 after a $6.6 million architecturally innovative renovation, leaders of the contemporary art center say they expect a whole new audience one that probably never knew about the nationally recognized organization that has called 700 Congress Avenue home since 1998.

In some respects, flying under the radar was acceptable to Arthouse's executive director, Sue Graze, even though Arthouse is the oldest visual arts institution in Texas, founded in 1911 as the Texas Fine Arts Association.

"We knew we always had an incredible downtown location, but we had an undistinguished building," Graze said. "We're a risk-taking organization that presents new art that pushes culture forward. But our building didn't reflect that before and didn't always allow us to present as much as we wanted. Now, it does. Now we can present that forward-thinking art in a proper context."

With the renovation, Arthouse will be far from under the radar. Its striking design literally shines, with its façade punctuated by nearly 200 green glass blocks that catch the light during the day and are illuminated at night. From a large second-story window, video art will project over Congress Avenue.

Arthouse's reopening caps a year of visual arts reinvigoration, including the recent opening of the University of Texas' $7 million Visual Arts Center and the arrival of seasoned leader Ned Rifkin as director of the Blanton Museum of Art.

Downtown advocates praise the project.

"It ups the ante for downtown," said Molly Alexander, associate director of Downtown Austin Alliance. "Arthouse is a small organization that takes a lot of risks. And now it's set the stage for other cultural institutions to re-think how they do business. I think (this building) changes the cultural landscape for Austin and shows that greatness can come in small packages."

Though once confined to a carriage house on the grounds of Laguna Gloria, Arthouse bought the Congress Avenue building in 1995, before the last real estate boom, paying $375,000 for the then-empty property and undertaking a modest renovation that made the first floor usable. By 2002, Arthouse supporters — a group of largely low-profile individuals — anted up to pay off the mortgage.

With the reopening, Arthouse will have 12 full-time employees, up from six, and an annual budget of $1.3 million, up from $600,000, with funding mostly from private individuals. But it's still a comparatively lean operation and has no permanent collection to maintain like a traditional museum would. The Austin Museum of Art has a budget of $3.1 million, and UT's Blanton Museum of Art has a $5.8 million budget.

Ditto with the capital campaign — it's also small and select. Of the $5.4 million raised to date, 93 percent came from individuals, with foundations accounting for the remainder. Though some donors are locally recognized arts philanthropists — Jeanne and Michael Klein, Julie Thornton, John Thornton, Melba and Ted Whatley, and Alexa and Blaine Wesner — many are not.

"This (project) was done with the support of a relatively small group of people who saw the genius of the niche that we fill in Austin, which is to present cutting-edge contemporary art," said Stephen Jones of Austin investment firm Jones Villalta Asset Management, who served as chairman of the Arthouse capital campaign. "We've always had a pretty low-profile group of core supporters. (Our donors) may have significant philanthropic capacity, but they haven't necessarily chosen to live their life in the headlines."

Jones quietly gave $500,000 in 1998 to have the building named Arthouse at the Jones Center in honor of his parents, Jon Rex and Ann Jones, who had spearheaded the creation of the Old Jail Art Center in their hometown of Albany, Texas. No city, state or federal money was used for the renovation, Jones said.

Jones also cites the benefits of Arthouse's low profile when it came to the architect selection and design process.

"I didn't mind that we were the best-kept secret in town (during the design process) because it allowed us to get a cutting-edge building built in Austin without a large group of naysayers spoiling our plans," Jones said. "We wanted something edgy, something that said, 'This is where cutting-edge contemporary art is happening.' "

Designed by critically acclaimed New York-based Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis Architects, the building on the northwest corner of Congress Avenue and Seventh Street — once the Queen Theater movie palace in the 1920s, then Lerner Shops department store in the 1950s — now sports a distinctive new entrance with a dramatic awning extending over the sidewalk. Perforating the building's exterior on two sides in an artful pattern, 177 laminated green glass rectangular blocks grab the light. To amplify its accessibility, Arthouse will be open until 9 most nights (and until 11 p.m. on Wednesdays) and maintain its policy of free admission to exhibitions. (Some special programs will have ticket charges.)

Inside, the space has been almost tripled from 7,000 square feet to 20,830 square feet. The first floor features a lobby visible from Congress Avenue via floor-to-ceiling windows, a gallery for film and video art and a new office suite for staff.

Most significantly, the second floor is now accessible, with a large column-free gallery, a community meeting room, a library-like lounge on a mezzanine overlooking the gallery and two studios for artists. A large second-floor window, leftover from the building's department store days, features a rear-projected screen to show video installations to passersby.

More dramatic still is the 5,000-square-foot roof deck. Made of îpe wood and illuminated from below by glass light blocks, the deck is equipped with a full-size screen for movie and video screenings as well as café tables and chairs for special events.

Jones said he wasn't deterred by the downturn in the economy that struck mid-way through the renovation. Instead of putting the project on hold, Jones and the building committee opted to go ahead for two reasons, he said: low interest rates on a construcion loan and low construction costs. By the time the project went out for bids, it came back about 25 percent less than projected, Jones said. The total construction costs were $4.3 million, or about $204 per square foot.

"It was a risk (to go forward with the project) but a very calculated risk to take advantage of the current economic situation," Jones said. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an innovative landmark building for Austin. We couldn't pass that up."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

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