Art HouseAustin, a city well known for indie music with two big festivals,South x Southwest and Austin City Limits (ACL), already has a great cultural outlet. It’s known for being one of the fastest growing cities in the US and is the home of University of Texas, one of the largest campuses in the country. Aptly nicknamed ‘Silicone Hills,’ it is home to innovative technology companies such as Dell and Motorola. Along with being known as a liberal oasis in the Texas desert, Austin is poised to become a new hot spot for contemporary art.

In recent years, many Austinites have also adopted the unofficial slogan “Keep Austin Weird;” this refers partly to the eclectic and liberal lifestyle of many Austin residents but is also the slogan for a campaign to preserve smaller local businesses. Of note, in the Austin airport, no chain restaurants are allowed, only local restaurants…a great spot to score last minute BBQ at Salt Lick and ice cream at Amy’s Ice Cream on your way out of town. My cousin’s favorite is strawberry mixed in fresh vanilla (the best vanilla!)

And I feel that the following statistics say it all:

  • According to the Nielsen Company, adults in Austin read and contribute to blogs more than those in any other U.S. metropolitan area.
  • Austin residents have the highest internet usage in all of Texas.
  • Austin was selected as the No. 2 Best Big City in “Best Places to Live” by Money magazine in 2006, and No. 3 in 2009, and also the “Greenest City in America” by MSN.
  • According to Travel & Leisure magazine, Austin ranks No. 1 on the list of cities with the best people, referring to the personalities and attributes of the citizens.

Within this, I was amazed and excited to learn about their visual arts offerings. Some of the spots were already on the scene, such as the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA), which had a Top Austin Artists exhibition when I was there and the BlantonMuseum of Art, committed to collecting Latin American Art, has a rotating exhibition schedule with some of the top artists working today and a semi permanent installation by Teresita Fernandez in the main hall of their expansive building. Others are burgeoning contemporary art centers, ready to be discovered. Here is my short list of what excited me the most about Austin’s contemporary art scene…

Arthouse at the Jones Center

What an architectural feat! Arthouse at Jones Center recently finished a $4.3 million dollar expansion of an existing space on Congress Avenue, the main drag leading to city hall. The design allows for much usable space, over 20,000 square feet, while also including many touches of character, most specifically the original Queen Theater’s large stucco murals, the original wooden ceiling, exposed steel trusses and central staircase. The bottom three steps are cased in concrete, while the rest of the stair is Ipe wood and dramatically suspends up to 35 feet. All of these multiple levels lead to a fantastic rooftop outdoor space perfect for concerts and gatherings. During my visit, there was a major installation by the London based artist, Graham Hudson, who created a usable rehearsal studio. As Austin is a music mecca, this became incredibly well utilized and was overall an ambitious installation.

University of Texas Visual Arts Center

A part of UT, this nonprofit has a large exhibition space for graduating art students in addition to hosting an artist residency program. They invite the artist to live and work in Austin for a period of time, to use their facilities to create a new project to be exhibited in their space. This coincides with having the artist-in-residence lecture and interact with the students. Right before I visited, Amanda Ross-Ho had been there and received a wonderful response for soliciting the students’ help with a major project that was then exhibited in the space.

Pump Project Art Complex

With all that I mentioned about Austin’s independence and experimentation, it is not surprising that even the artists based in Austin are entrepreneurial. In this vein, Pump Project Art Complex was a fantastic venue to meet local artists and view their work. As an entrepreneurial project, this is an artist run studio space that the participating artists built and then host open studios.

And nearby, we visited my favorite non profit art space – Colab Space – simply a live-work space, run on a shoestring budget, with ample exhibition space, and a large yard for the spillage from parties. This is the next hot spot for any young artist wanting an interesting opportunity to create and exhibit work in a city that feels like ‘whatever happens is the best thing that ever happens.’

I could go on about the food for a very long time, as that is another area that Austinites do incredibly well. But I will leave you with what I found to be a once in a lifetime food experience – the Trailerpark Meat and Homemade Donut stands.Gourdoughs is the spot for homemade donuts – my favorites were Mama’s Cake (yellow cake batter filling with chocolate fudge icing); Son of a Peach (peach filling, cinnamon, sugar, and cake mix topping); and Granny’s Pie (caramel, pecans, banana & graham crackers.) Both stands were sold out by 9 pm. If not, it would be the best late night food ever. Yet, even a dinner time extravaganza was a huge hit!

Women and Their Work

Women & Their Work is a visual and performing art organization located in Central Austin that serves as a catalyst for contemporary art created by women living and working in Texas and beyond. For over 30 years, W&TW has brought groundbreaking art to Austin, with exhibitions, performances, literary readings and educational workshops.

During my visit, I saw the work of Beili Liu, The Minding Project. Both provocative and engaging, the installation was successful. Following is the description: In an ambitious, large-scale installation, Beili Liu creates an atmosphere of beauty and danger. Suspending hundreds of dagger sharp Chinese scissors from the gallery ceiling, Liu immerses viewers in an environment that suggests distant fear and looming violence. The hovering cloud of shears is softened, however, by Liu herself who will sit beneath the countless sharp blades of scissors and perform an on-going simple task of mending. This mended cloth will grow in size throughout the duration of the exhibition, taking over the large area of the floor beneath the scissors. Liu’s quiet task of mending moderates the menace the scissors evoke and suggests the power of silent persistence in a simple action.

With the lush landscape in the background, great food for the belly, the contemporary art scene in Austin provides a cultural nourishment, and from I what experienced, is ripe for more…