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The Contemporary Austin's new director is listening, while analyzing the culture of the arts community

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
New director of the Contemporary Austin, sharon maidenberg, talks about making people feel invited at the museum's two sites and making sure what they experience is worth their time.

Imagine the test: You arrive in a new city to run a major art museum.

You must learn the history and culture of the city. You seek out its arts community, and, more pointedly, the museum's audiences, employees and backers. Crucially, you also want to learn about the audiences that are not showing up.

Right off, a pandemic hits. 

Venues close down. Shows must wait. You get to know the key people around town mostly via Zoom.

The Contemporary Austin's new director, sharon maidenberg, who uses lower case to spell her name, has spent the past year in motion. Sometimes that has translated into a decidedly slow motion.

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"I've been trying to listen," she says. "To meet people and understand what we, as a museum, have been to people. The history is so complicated."

Indeed, the Contemporary, which includes the Jones Center downtown and Laguna Gloria on Lake Austin, has evolved through many ownerships, names and missions. Those changes continue to confuse people, especially when they happen in quick succession.

The Contemporary Austin's Laguna Gloria is part of a long history of art in Austin.

"With audiences, you move slower," maidenberg says. "And triple-message. People don't know what we do. So you build relationships and trust over time."

Both of the Contemporary's sites are beautiful and essential, but both come with basic challenges.

Maidenberg asks about them: "Who feels welcome here? How do they understand what they find here? How does the content meet up with the visitor experience?"

Maidenberg's staff and various consultants are actively seeking answers.

"We are working in a more audience-centered way," she says. "It's not just about putting on good work. The museum has done good work; the programs are all very solid, on par with other strong American contemporary groups. It's about having that work resonate and impact those who come through. That's our 2.0."

The Contemporary's high-flying board hired the charismatic new director and CEO, formerly in charge of the Headlands Center for the Arts in northern California, in part because of her clear point of view, especially when it comes to the issue of inclusion. 

"It's going to be a bit uncomfortable at times," she says. "But we've just had 18 months of discomfort. In the end, we can't just serve the .01 percent of people who might be serious art collectors. As Lonnie Bunch from the Smithsonian recently said: 'Museums are not community centers, but a healthy museum should be at the center of its community.'"

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Maidenberg is curious how today's Austin can be a place of great wealth and newness, and at the same time remain open and casual, with a slowly growing sense of its deeper roots.

"Everyone is generous with their time and social capital," she says. "One thing I take from my Jewish culture is generosity. I encourage people to be generous to whatever they care about."

Like many groups that went relatively quiet during the pandemic — although Laguna Gloria's outdoor Marcus Sculpture Park was among the first venues in town open on a limited basis, and the Jones Center has been open with two terrific shows since January — the Contemporary plans to come back with a big bang in the fall.

The museum plans two high-impact shows for downtown, one on the art and music of the late Daniel Johnston that addresses mental health issues, the other a reunion show for more than 50 artists who have been part of the museum's "Crit Group." For the past seven or so years, these annual groups of seven to 10 artists have created work while interacting with each other.

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After that comes a big solo show of art by Tarek Atoui, a Beirut-born artist now living in Paris. As previously reported in the American-Statesman, the winner of the generous 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth/FLAG Art Foundation Prize is known for bringing together musicians, composers, designers and instrument makers in order to promote a fresh sense of relatedness.

In fall of 2022 — this is a bit of breaking news — the museum will stage a show featuring seven women artists. As usual with such shows, the museum will commission new work from the women for the grounds of Laguna Gloria, which has plenty of space left for well-considered art.

Maidenberg plans to continue to deepen partnerships with groups such as Austin Film Society and Fusebox as well as the Austin school district and the city's library system. She has instituted sold-out happy hours, which not only introduce the art, but create much-missed social spaces.

"Half the battle is making sure people feel invited," she says. "The other half is making sure their experience is worth being there."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.