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Louis Grachos, who transformed Austin's public art, leaving job

He led the Contemporary Austin through other big changes in his six years

Michael Barnes
Louis Grachos, executive director of the Contemporary Austin, walks on the grounds of Laguna Gloria. Grachos has announced that he's leaving Ausitn for a job in Palm Springs. [JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Louis Grachos, who launched the Contemporary Austin on a forceful new course during his six years as its executive director and CEO, has accepted the job of managing the larger Palm Springs Art Museum.

Among his contributions have been a complete rebranding of the Austin museum whose roots go back to 1916; a Museum Without Walls program that distributes art — such Ai Weiwei’s “Forever Bicycles” — around the city; a $3 million renovation of the museum’s Jones Center downtown; and a master plan for the museum’s Laguna Gloria property with its Marcus Sculpture Park on West 35th Street. Work on the park was made possible in part by a $9 million gift from the Marcus Foundation.

In May, the public can view a sleek new welcome center with chic gift shop and a café run by the Epicerie restaurant team, all part of the recently completed Phase I of the master plan.

For decades, Austin has sought a municipal art museum to complement what became the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. After at least three failed attempts to build large downtown museums, the Contemporary's predecessors struggled to define their place in the city.

Grachos will be remembered for solving that puzzle, not the least by focusing on contemporary art in mostly outdoor settings.

“From the moment I talked to Louis about coming to Austin, I thought his vision of a 'museum without walls' was exactly right for our city,” said major museum backer Melba Whatley. “He has taken the first critical step toward making that vision a reality. We will look back on his contribution as essential to our urban life here.”

He also oversaw the birth and expansion of the Suzanne Deal Booth-FLAG Art Foundation Prize. It generates as much as $800,000 a year in cash, travel, exhibitions and publications for one artist, instantly making it one of the richest art prizes in the country. Additionally, Grachos negotiated to transfer the Contemporary’s mish-mash permanent collection — remnants of its various predecessors, including the Texas Fine Arts Association, Arthouse and Austin Museum of Art — to the Blanton Museum of Art and, beyond that, distributed to museums across the state.

According to GuideStar, which collects data on nonprofits, the Contemporary reported almost $10 million in receipts in 2017, the last year available for numbers, while the Palm Springs museum clocked in at $16 million. Grachos will assume the role of executive director and CEO at that California museum in June. Meanwhile in Austin, a search committee will be formed to replace him.

“With the completion of Phase I of the Laguna Gloria project, the second Art Prize exhibition opening in January, and our program of exhibitions recognized nationally and internationally for its depth and vision, I feel that the Contemporary is on very solid footing as it enters the next phase of its development as a key destination for contemporary art,” Grachos said in a statement. “I am proud of what the Contemporary Austin now brings to this city. With a strong, creative and dedicated board of trustees and an outstanding professional staff leading the institution forward, I know that it will continue to be a source of pride for Austin and a leader in the field of contemporary art for generations.”