Many museum directors might be intimidated by the challenges presented by the freshly merged art entity called AMOA-Arthouse.
Once composed of two distinct museums with asymmetrical aspirations, the Austin museum is now a uniquely positioned body with one focus, a 30+ member board and two glorious art spaces.
It might be enough to send many directors into a panic. But to Louis Grachos, the easy-going and highly accomplished incoming Executive Director of AMOA-Arthouse, this unique situation is the perfect opportunity to forge a new vision for the museum's future and to incorporate the museum smack dab in the middle of life in the city and in the state.
"It's an interesting and exciting challenge to create a new model and figure out what the newly merged entity will be able to accomplish," Grachos states with an optimistic smile. "I see this as a chance to forge a unique identity for Austin and its art scene, but also for Texas as a whole."
Before he starts at AMOA-Arthouse part-time in November, Grachos will wind down his decade-long tenure at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where he has transformed the city's engagement with the world-renowned collection of modern and classical art through creative programming.
By shaking off some of the cobwebs and employing new educational tactics, the gallery has welcomed in a whole new generation of young art goers and taught them how to appreciate the gallery's impressive historical collection. "It’s really a remarkable story about how that collection came together, and I love to think about how that lesson could be applied to a new setting," Grachos reflects.
On the other side of the coin, Grachos has also served as the curator at the sleek warehouse-style SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, which focused entirely on contemporary art. The flexible space shares a lot of similarities with the "blank slate possibilities" of the Jones Center, so Grachos views the two contrasting spaces of AMOA-Arthouse as familiar assets with plenty of potential.
"Laguna Gloria and the Jones Center are so distinct, they have such a huge variety of potential shows between them that could invite collaboration with the city in a very public way." Looking around the Jones Center, he gestures towards its massive windowed walls: "I mean, the position of this museum — in the middle of downtown — is just beautiful."
Grachos is especially excited for the "festival culture" in Austin, the allure of innovation that continuously draws in the best and brightest from around the country for music, film and outdoor activity. What locals grumble about clogging up the freeways four times a year, Grachos sees as limitless collaborative potential.
"It's thrilling to be a part of a city that is so fluid and dynamic and growing that it always attracts creative people, whatever field they're in," he says. "Down the road, maybe there's an opportunity to have a program, like SXSW, that would bring that same kind of international status to the city's great new art."
Continuing this grand-scale thinking, the new director is already looking at how to establish AMOA-Arthouse's place amongst the great art programs around the state. "I wonder, where does Austin fit into that legacy of contemporary art in Texas?" he asks. "I would like to grow on the excitement of Marfa, the legacy of The Menil program in Houston, the growing museum culture in Dallas-Fort Worth, and Artpace in San Antonio. That’s a great challenge to figure that out and work with the staff and the board to come up with a model that’s not a traditional model for a contemporary art museum."
Integral to his approach in developing this new model are his promises of collaboration and learning from his peers. Before taking the job, for example, Grachos says he did his reserach and asked a number of colleagues about their knowledge of Texas art, Austin culture and the AMOA-Arthouse merger.
"I believe strongly in learning the context of a situation, learning from those around me," he states. "I can't just parachute in to a situation and start telling everyone how it's going to be. I have to learn what the community wants and how to engage them. And there are, thankfully, so many people here to help me get acquainted."
Specifically, Grachos expresses interest in learning how to connect the various art communities across the city, including the University of Texas and its "young dynamic" as well as the growing art scene east of I-35.
"Philosophically, I think it's important for young artists to always have something to react to — that will always happen and it's healthy," he states. "But I also think we can build bridges and be always aware of what art is being made in the city. I've always believed in having 'artist-centric' programs in my museums that put the artist at the center of the creative process, and I will continue to maintain that."
Grachos also plans to establish an "aggressive" commitment to maintaining relationships with Austin area schools and hopes to engage the city as much as possible through public art projects and partnerships.
"I'm really very excited about getting to meet as many people as possible during this first year," says Grachos, who will begin full time as director in January of 2013.
"As I settle in and learn about the community, it will be very important to forge a vision that is clear and engaging for everyone. That is something I have to put a lot of energy into: what this could be. Hopefully, it will be something that will gain the support of the community. It feels like a really good time to create a model that really integrates that."