Austin Contemporary on the Decline?

It’s been one year since I wrote Austin Contemporary on the Rise, and within that time the “mashup” of contemporary art and Texas politics came tête-à-tête, which has prompted my retort. One year ago, I was optimistic about the real possibility of Texas, particularly Austin—due to my perception that Austin was a liberal community, supporting contemporary art.

It would seem that the arts in Texas are going through a shift, and not all of these changes are contributing to the questionable decline of contemporary art. Ned Rifkin, for instance, resigned from The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas; as well, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Bonnie Pitman, will step down; and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is still searching for Peter Marzio’s replacement. Is Texas cleaning house for new players?

However, the incidents that caused an upheaval in the “Texas art scene” were primarily in relation to Michelle Handelman’s exhibit, which consisted of video installation of Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume, at the Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin. The details have been covered: Noah Simblist on Glasstire (Simblist also talked at Arthouse’s panel discussion), and the artist Michelle Handelman on …might be good. In short, the installation was shut down at various times (without permission from the artist); the head of the curatorial department, Elizabeth Dunbar, was asked to resign; and a panel discussion was held to discuss Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume called Inflammatory Images of Politics and Sex to rehash the whole thing. As well, Arthouse will not longer have a head curator position.

The Arthouse has not lost its curatorial department in total, however, as indicated by various rumors that I’ve heard around Austin. Rachel Adams, for instance, is still the Curator of Public Programs. Yes, the structure will be very different with no head of the curatorial department. And, as Executive Director of Arthouse Sue Graze mentioned, the venue will be rotating guest curators (which reminds me of a 2002, New York Times Article, “BEHIND THE SCENES; Independent Curators: Have Art, Will Travel” about the future of curators and arts organizations), and does smack a little of the board running the show.

Contemporary art means a lot of different things. Contemporary art often means pushing boundaries, especially in terms of postmodernism versus modernism. As well, in the 60s and 70s, we began to see challenging body art. Vito Acconci was no joke, and he masturbated in a gallery. Artists became fearless. (And, apparently Handelman’s piece pushed Texans right out of their conservative comfort zones.) Although a tamer version, Manet pushed artistic boundaries, too. Artists who successfully match artistic skill with a firm socio-political stance are supposed to be celebrated, not shut down!

However, apparently the left-leaning Handelman was too left for Texas, and her work was thus marginalized, some funding was pulled, and the head curator of the Arthouse was fired. Have we really backtracked to Duchamp putting a urinal in the salon?

Of course, contemporary art can be challenging. But, I thought we were ready for this, and, if we can’t handle queer art at the foremost contemporary art venue in Texas, then, where in Texas can work like Handelman’s be shown? I’ll be following up on this question in the coming weeks.

Clip from Dorian, a Cinematic Perfume by Michelle Handelman

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