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Exit Interview: Louis Grachos

Louis Grachos (photo by Max Collins)

The outgoing Albright-Knox director looks forward to his new job and back at 10 years with Buffalo’s premier art institution

In January, soon-to-be-former Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos will begin his new role as director of AMOA-Arthouse in Austin, Texas. The Austin museum is a newly conceived hybrid of Arthouse’s Jones Center, located downtown, and Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) at Laguna Gloria Park, a Mediterranean-style villa on 12 acres of Lake Austin shoreline. It is now one institution capable of programming multiple venues and an opportunity to engage a wider audience.

Artvoice spoke to Grachos as he straddles his decade at the AKAG and his future in Austin.

AV: How did the opportunity in Austin come about?

Grachos: I had gone down to visit a collector in San Antonio and en route I flew into Austin. It was a conversation there, with the AMOA-Arthouse chairman Mickey Klein, who asked me if I knew anyone who would be interested in the director’s job. I gave him some names that I thought would be of interest. It wasn’t like I was looking for a job in Austin, but the more I learned about the position and researched the city, the more I became interested.

AMOA-Arthouse at the Jones Center.

Okay, I’ve heard a lot about Austin, the mythology around it—film, music, new media, SXSW. I was attracted to the fact that it is growing on all levels: The university continues to grow, the music scene continues to grow, and the art scene is starting to bubble up. I thought, “This could be interesting. Maybe I should apply for this job.” That’s when I submitted and decided to really explore it. I interviewed once and got good feedback from the search committee.

I went down again about six weeks later and it became more real. Austin was almost the opposite compared to what we have here in Buffalo, which is an historic institution with a great collection and a rooted community.

There is another important part to my decision, and I want to be certain the people of Buffalo understand that my leaving is a good thing. When you’re in the creative field, whether it’s music or anything, it’s important to refresh your whole outlook and environment. People who get too comfortable in positions like mine usually become stale. You have to move on for the good of the institution and for yourself, as well. What a museum director leaves behind is their stamp of exhibitions and acquisitions, but you don’t want to do that for too long; eventually the museum needs refresh the position. I really worked hard here, I worked 24/7, and I feel that we were able to advance the gallery in good ways. The next director will lead [AKAG] somewhere else, and that’s thrilling.

AV: How is the search going?

Grachos: I am not directly involved, but I know it is going very well. It’s an easy spot to fill, as it was 10 years ago when I came on, because of the great reputation that the AKAG carries. There were some great candidates, and now [the board] are in the final stages. But they still have to make an offer and get an acceptance before they can announce. Hopefully before the end of the year. These are good things for Buffalo to be anticipating.

AV: How would you characterize what you’ve done here in the past decade?

Grachos: Everything that we’ve done in the past 10 years is about ensuring that the collection is growing; we did that by deaccessioning, by being committed to bringing in private collections and donations, and we’ve made an effort to be current in all media, including new media and technology. We worked hard to bring video art into the collection. It may sound like a cliché, but the AKAG really is a textbook collection of late 19th- and 20th-century art, and it’s our job to continue that growth into the 21st century.

We took other important steps, too, like creating partnerships in the arts community with Beyond/In WNY, and making the gallery more available to the general public through our free Fridays. We’ve gone from serving 7,000 students to 18,000, increasing our commitment to education for young people.

The thing that was really important to me was to make the museum artist-centric again, as it was under Gordon Smith and Seymour Knox, when there was a lot of input from the artist. Going back to working with artists directly—that was a very big culture shift here.

AV: Do you feel the gallery is part of an ongoing dialogue of art?

Grachos: Yes, and the gallery has a strong record of that dialogue from the past 150 years. But the collection is not about everything in the history of art. We have our strengths and want to build off of those strengths. When I arrived the collection wasn’t even being used, they were just programming “blockbuster” touring shows­­—and that’s “blockbuster” with a small “b.” It was rare that living artists would be involved in an installation. When we were dealing with the opposers of the deaccession, one of our questions was “Are you willing to say we are a time capsule with a mediocre effort to grow?” I really pushed to make sure we had the resources to compete for aquisitions, and the deaccession of select works made that possible. The idea of buying an emerging talent for just a little bit of money is nonexistent today. A 27-year-old artist can now command six figures after a few shows.

AV: What was AMOA-Arthouse looking for in a director?

Grachos: They wanted someone engaged in contemporary art, who would not look at the two facilities and see it as a problem, but as an asset to start thinking about for the future; someone interested in collaboration, with a willingness to think a little bigger in deciding what to do with Laguna Gloria and Arthouse. I think initially they thought it would be a younger person, but the more we talked the more we realized the things that really excite me are just what they were looking for.

I had a great board meeting where I laid out an approach and a vision that we could start working on, not a prescribed vision, but certainly ideas—some of the same things I was engaged with here in Buffalo, like working on commissions and more public oriented art. Those are things I hope I can continue, not only at AMOA-Arthouse, but throughout Austin.

AV: What is the concept behind this hybrid museum and what did it exist as previous to the merger?

Grachos: Essentially what happened is the AMOA had a property downtown they’d ambitiously hoped to build on, which they instead sold to the county for an incredible sum of money; that is what allowed this to become one organization with an endowment. Arthouse’s Jones Center was run by Sue Graze; it was much like Hallwalls in Buffalo, centered around new work, film and video, and artists in residency. AMOA was directed by Dana Friis-Hansen. Laguna Gloria has an extraordinarily successful art school on the villa grounds, and it also drives revenue through rentals. Those are the two places that I have to work with.

We now have a 30-person board that is a hybrid of both organizations. They came together, came up with bylaws, and came to terms with how they were going to work together.

It’s exciting to have a dialogue with the board and staff about some ideas that I’ll bring to the table. I want do a lot of the same things I’ve done [with the board] here, travel with them, visit collections, and build a strong contemporary art program for the city. It should be a great complement to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, and will also be supportive of the younger organizations. That’s where I’m going to channel all my energy as soon as I get there in January. Even though there is history, we’re essentially starting from the ground up.

AV: You’ve worked at the Whitney, a highly established museum in New York, SITES Santa Fe, the AKAG, and now AMOA-Arthouse. That’s a broad range of institutions.

Grachos: What is consistent in each place I’ve worked is a commitment to living artists, and I think I brought that to Buffalo. If you look at my history, this is what I’m most comfortable with. I never had any ambition to be the director of the MOMA or the Metropolitan. They are very impressive jobs, they are challenging jobs, but it’s not what motivates me. I like a more streamlined and open environment, and that’s what I saw in Austin.

The difference here [at AKAG] is there is a collection to manage. It has a great 150-year legacy, it’s solid, but what I’ve started to miss is the necessity to get out and meet artists, create projects, and work with curators. There is an element of that here, but most of my creative efforts, after Extreme Abstraction [in 2005], were focused on making decisions about the shows and building out the collection.

As an intern at the Whitney, I had this simple experience of listening to the curator talk to Ellsworth Kelly about his installation and saw this incredible bond happening.

I realized it wasn’t about history for me, it was more about what’s happening today.

In October, we had four performances [at the DECADE gala], and to facilitate artists in creating new work was really rewarding. The bonds between curator, artist, and director really become lifelong relationships, and that is something I carried to Buffalo and will carry to Austin.

AV: How do you think AMOA-Arthouse will differ from AKAG as an institution?

Grachos: I think initially it will be dedicated solely to a vibrant contemporary program and will be focused on current artists in a much stronger way than at AKAG. Here I’ve had the responsibility to steward a collection; working with living artists is a part of the program here but it’s not the center of it. I think in Austin it will be the center of the program.

At AKAG we have this great collection and you can just open the doors and have an instant treasure, whereas when you operate an organization like AMOA-Arthouse, you have to work hard to develop a programming rhythm that will capture the imagination of the community. Hopefully that will create a following and a financial support base, which I have already seen in other parts of Texas.

What we have here [at AKAG] is a much-loved institution with a legacy and a history. In many ways my task initially was easier because it is a highly identifiable institution. But in Austin, if you were to ask someone if there is a contemporary art museum, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify one. The challenge for me is to combine the profiles of Arthouse and AMOA into a single, well recognized, contemporary arts institution.

Robert Irwin's "Niagara," exhibited in "DECADE: Contemporary Collecting 2002-2012," and now part of the Albright-Knox's permanent collection.

AV: In terms of commissioning artists, performance, sculpture, or any other art form, what is the basis for selecting an artist?

Grachos: It’s a combination of things. Sometimes it’s site specific, sometimes they fit the project, and sometimes there are other reasons. My observations are “Okay, is this an artist I really want to engage in a project because I see a lot of talent and potential?” I have a respect for all artists and for the creative process, and you can’t be instrumental for every artist, but you try.

They can be well established or young. For example, Garth Weiser, who we have collected. He’s in his late 20s and is really hitting a great stride. Or it can be a legend like Bob Irwin, who even at 83 is still creating vibrant and interesting work. Artists have to distinguish themselves to make their work visible to the curatorial world and the market, so they can sustain themselves and their work.

At SITES Santa Fe, most of our art handlers were aspiring artists. With every project there was always that edge of “Why this artist?” Inevitably during the project, the team would develop incredible respect for the artist because of the artist’s drive and ability to create an idea and execute that idea.

Those are the things that make distinguished artists who succeed, and by that I mean who get broader recognition and more opportunities. But it’s a tough thing—you have to pay your dues, and you have to make that commitment that you want to be that kind of artist. You can be a great artist living in Buffalo and find ways to sustain yourself and not care if you are in the international circuit showing in New York, Zurich, or Los Angeles.

AV: How does that apply to the art scene here in Western New York?

Grachos: There are some really great talents here, and artists are finding economical ways of living and working in Buffalo. It would be great if we had more galleries that were working on more of a national level and communicating with a broader base of collectors from other parts of the country. That would be a big step, and that is going to happen.

When I first moved here I also noticed that we weren’t going to enough studios, and that bothered me. That was something that probably prompted getting everyone together to think about Beyond/In WNY. Also, when I was interviewing, there was this kind of lonely regional Western New York show. The artists were fine, but you could tell the show wasn’t loved.

Whereas the new format in Beyond/In WNY really forced the curators to go to artists’ studios, and it really worked well. The artists fell into place for the show with remarkable ease. There was no arguing over which artists should or shouldn’t be included.

AV: What do you the think the AKAG can do to build on its international profile?

Grachos: You do that through different ways of organizing exhibitions. One thing I am leaving is The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery exhibit as a national tour. It will travel to the Denver Art Museum; Crystal Bridges, which is a new museum in Arkansas [built by Walmart heiress Alice Walton]; the High Museum in Atlanta; the San Diego Museum; the Vancouver Art Gallery; and Milwaukee. We have an ambitious program of touring shows.

Raising our profile through commissioned works—whether it is Jaume Plensa, Andy Goldsworthy, or Robert Irwin—reinforces a bigger tie to the art world. People are talking about Irwin’s work in other places and are coming to Buffalo to see it. It can work the other way around, too, when people living here see our Tara Donovan, and travel somewhere like Paris and see a Tara Donovan show, they recognize that we are connected to a much larger world of art.

To continue to publish is also important. Those are the key areas. Our collection is internationally known and that is a great feeling.

AV: How do you imagine you will engage the citizens in Austin like you have with the community here in Buffalo?

Grachos: There are many components to the Austin art scene, but it is up to me to figure out what we need to bring to the community both in terms of exhibitions and commissions. And we have to think about the philosophy behind our programming. You can bring an artist like Olafur Eliasson and have it make a real impact in the community, or a Robert Irwin, for that matter, where you’re contributing immediately by bringing some world artists to the region. If I can pull that kind of program together, it should get us moving in the right direction.

I am also hoping that my colleagues will be collaborative. There was an openness to it with everyone I have met so far. I would like to follow the model that we established with Beyond/In WNY. There’s Fusebox, which is a performing arts festival, the Co-Lab projects, which is a young emerging venue, and the whole East Side art scene, which is something I will look into carefully. There’s also the Texas Biennial, a statewide show, which is important. I don’t think there is any reason why we wouldn’t be involved in it. So those are the things I need to learn about real fast.

AMOA-Arthouse at Laguna Gloria.

AV: Although Austin is a vibrant and burgeoning city, what would you say about the current state of the art scene there?

Grachos: There is no question that it needs development. Some people think every other city except Buffalo has money pouring into the arts, but it’s not like that. Every community has its issues.

In many ways the platforms for visual arts in Buffalo are well advanced and evolved, when you think about the contributions of Hallwalls, CEPA, Squeaky Wheel, Big Orbit, and the university art museums. Austin is a young scene when it comes to the visual arts, and I think the role I can play is to get a focused program going quickly. If we can establish a collaborative spirit with that growing, younger arts community, the better off we’ll be. It will be exciting to work with artists who have not yet shown there. I would like to engage artists who can take on simultaneous projects at Laguna Gloria and the space downtown, which makes a bigger statement for the artist and gives cohesiveness to the museum.

On the other hand, Austin does have some strong commercial galleries that you don’t see in Buffalo. Galleries like Lora Reynolds and Wally Workman have a profile like you would see in Chelsea in New York.

AV: Will AMOA-Arthouse have a show during SXSW music festival?

Grachos: Not this year. The following year hopefully. Historically during SXSW, Arthouse has rented the facility for an incredible amount of money to help with the budget, but there is no art during that time, it comes down and goes back up. Right now we have a Nick Cave show with Andy Coolquitt, and they come down right in time for SXSW. So we’ll have SXSW, and then we have a fundraiser, and then we restart programming right after. I’m going to experience it for the first time in March and really immerse myself into it so I can feel what it’s all about. I met with four people from SXSW just to start that relationship.

When there are opportunities to integrate music into our program we need to engage in that. I really respect Kim [Gordon] and Lee [Ranaldo] of Sonic Youth. They’re also artists, and they curate shows that are both visual and audio, and that’s the kind of thing I’m going to be looking for. But engaging musician/artists still has to make sense, otherwise it just becomes an event and you’re not really adding to the mission of integrating music and art, you’re just another venue.

AV: For 10 years you’ve worked with and relied on the support of your staff and curators here. What do you think it will be like to start fresh?

Grachos: It’s like getting to know a new family. The staff and curators here have been great, and I have great relationships. I will certainly keep in touch; I’ve always found ways to do that.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the staff in Austin. Because there were vacant positions, I had the pleasure of hiring a new development director and a new assistant right off the bat. It’s not a skeleton staff, but as we start moving certain areas are going to have to be enhanced and developed. We have to figure out how we are going to work the curatorial model. There are currently two curators, one that came from AMOA and one from Arthouse. I’m not a director who is removed from curatorial. I’m involved, and it’s the only reason why I do this job. I was heavily involved in curatorial and acquisitions here, and I will be in Austin, as well.

AV: Give us an idea of what some of your parting advice might be for your successor.

Grachos: We have a world-class collection, but we have to build or retrofit these building to make it a better museum experience. That is one of the bigger challenges we need to address in the next 10 years, and anybody coming into this role will recognize how important that is.

It’s important for the museum to continue to be a good collaborator and an accessible institution. And the final thing is to continue a commitment to growing the education department, because you have to be thinking about our future audiences—because if the schools aren’t doing it, we’ve got to do it.

In the end, we don’t want to define ourselves as a blue-collar, Rust Belt city that likes hockey and football. It’s got to be about a bigger aspiration of who we are as a city. That is happening, and the gallery has been really involved in a high level on that. We’ve done it with Beyond/In, free days, community days, good collaborations, and ARTschool. These are good things for the next director to grow and focus on. And that will make it a stronger institution. We have great board members and a great president, Leslie Zemsky, and a great new president coming, Tom Hyde. I feel good about where we are leaving the gallery for the next director.

Jessica Buscaglia has a degree in art history from Colorado College and also worked at various galleries, including the AKAG.

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