Austin’s Arthouse Eliminates Its Only Curator Citing Budget Problems

by Paddy Johnson on April 14, 2011 · 7 comments Newswire

Arthouse roof top

Austin is abuzz this week after Elizabeth Dunbar, the Associate Director and Curator of Arthouse, saw her position eliminated in a new round of budget cuts. The prominent contemporary art center moved into an expensive new building in 2010, and has played host to many well-known contemporary artists,  Javier Tellez, Jack Strange, and Cyprien Gaillard amongst them. According to Texas-based website Glasstire, future programming will be determined by guest curators and traveling exhibitions.

The decision to axe Dunbar’s position comes after she wrote a letter to the board expressing her concern that Arthouse leadership had mishandled exhibits by Michelle Handelman and Graham Hudson. During South By Southwest Arthouse rented its galleries to Warner Music Group and allowed them to modify Hudson’s exhibit without the consent of the artist. Earlier that month, Handleman’s video was inexplicably shut off during certain periods of the day, also without the artist’s consent. When asked, Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze claimed was not suited for the teens coming through the museum. The blog Austin Arts: Seeing Things reports that according to The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 artists have the right to prevent modification to their art work. Dunbar’s letter claimed the recent decisions made by Arthouse jeopardized the institution's credibility and possibly violated their legal contracts with the artists.

In protest to these recent events, the widely exhibited San Antonio-based artist Dario Robleto resigned from the board, longtime Arthouse staffer Jenn Gardner quit, and many artists are now pulling their work from the ‘5 x 7’ fundraiser. There is also a Facebook group generating a fair bit of discussion titled Artists FOR Arthouse. A few relevant comments:

This whole mess reminds me of a thought that occurred to me often while working inside arts institutions: Donors give for facilities, exhibitions, productions, education, programs, trips, and special events – but why not for the overworked, underpaid staff that make it all go? An allocation of an endowment or a corporate sponsorship to ensure positions are funded fairly and competitively would change the game for arts professionals – and the missions they serve.

In response to the comment about the 5×7 show benefitting education programs [no longer online]. But no one is cutting education programs or directors. I cannot remember my sources on this (anyone?) but recently education and outreach has become a larger part of the budget of arts institutions such as this over exhibitions. As in more money is spent for education about the exhibitions than on the exhibitions. Probably because it is easier to get grants and such for education programs. While I teach through these programs, I can’t help but wonder what the cost will be in this shift in priorities? Why even get youth excited about becoming arts professionals if there is nothing for them when they get into the real world? What are we teaching them if it is all art classes and no art?

No commenters have described Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze as responsible for the institution’s recent problems.


Will Brand April 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

It’s worth mentioning, too, that Dario Robleto has a show up at D’Amelio Terras until Saturday.

artchooser April 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm

AND that he hasn’t been San Antonio based for a while now…Houston gets to lay claim to him, presently.

Anonymous April 15, 2011 at 5:25 am

An institutional shift away from exhibitions and toward the promotion of education and membership departments has been at work for some time – this is nothing new. However, combined with the economic downturn, the downsizing of curatorial departments is a recent and saddening consequence.

Of course, I have personal interest in the curatorial field. I recently applied for a Curatorial Assistant position, interviewed with three members of the department, and then, five months after my initial application, I was told that there would no longer be room in the budget for the position. At least I couldn’t take the decision personally. The Curatorial Assistant position used to be a stepping-stone for young curators, but fewer and fewer of these positions have become available. Seen as an entry-level position, it’s no surprise that this position is one of the first to be cut. The problem for a lot of the other curators I know who have graduated within the past few years is how to gain experience – and a living – when the usual route to gaining work experience in a museum is no longer available.

kalalaumango April 16, 2011 at 4:16 pm

the art was not suited to the teens passing through the space?? if you’re running an Anaheim general audience animation why are you inviting that work to your space in the first place?? reconfiguring the artist’s work without their permission after curating was set?? i see. from above [“Donors give for facilities, exhibitions, productions, education, programs, trips, and special events – but why not for the overworked, underpaid staff that make it all go?”] GooD PoinT.

Mocary April 18, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Elizabeth did a fine job when she was the curator of the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. I’m very sorry to hear about this turn of events in Austin.
– Mo Dickens, Belger Arts Center

Save My Art May 26, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I am most curious as to what was ‘not suited’ for teens? in 2011 I hardly think that their isn’t anything that they haven’t seen.  Perhaps conservative Texans should stay out of the expressive art world

Floyd6401 December 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I lived in Austin for many years and always thought if an artist wanted to get ahead in the art world, this was one of the best place to be. Thanks to the political-correctness and
politics of a so called Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze, we all as artist are
loosing a great person in Elizabeth Dunbar. “The buck stops with Sue Graze.”  Why is there not more comments that she may be the only one in this whole wide world, responsible for all its recent problems..  This I think is worst then Elizabeth being let go.
Think about that.  Also I’m sure, an Assistant Curatorial at the Arthouse would in all probability do a better job.    

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