People of the Year 2013 | Louis Grachos

Executive Director, The Contemporary Austin

From the front lines of the Contemporary Austin, an intention to integrate art in the city.

On a recent afternoon, Louis Grachos sat behind his long desk, his hands carefully folded over each other, in his shared office configured out of a former storage/studio space at the rear of the Jones Center on Congress Avenue and Seventh Street. A vibrant Sol LeWitt drawing, “Wavy Horizontal Lines” (1996), hangs on the wall behind him. The nine-foot-long drawing—countless ribbons of brilliant colors—is at once an elegant study of fluid movement, inherent order, and quiet chaos.

In January, Grachos was hired as the Ernest and Sarah Butler Executive Director of The Contemporary Austin to lead the new configuration of Austin’s contemporary art museum—the merging of the Jones Center (formerly called Arthouse) and Laguna Gloria into a single artistic institution. “The exciting opportunity was taking the two organizations and coming up with a vision for a future,” Grachos explains. “That was so attractive to me as a project. How do we think about growing in the future? How will we contribute to the Austin community?”

Grachos has worked in the arts field since he graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in art history in 1979 and then completed a post-doctoral year at New York University. His passion and appreciation for art started at an early age when he attended Roden Public School in Toronto. “In those days, we were very strongly tied to the Commonwealth,” he explains. As a result, as a young student, Grachos had teachers who were from all of the Commonwealth, such as Australia, Pakistan, and Scotland. “I was lucky enough to have an Australian teacher who was wonderful in terms of sparking my interest in art,” he remembers. Field trips included treks to the Art Gallery of Ontario, artists’ studios, commercial galleries, and museums throughout the Great Lakes’ region. “It was the first grade when I saw a still-life painting, ‘Jar of Apricots,’ by Jean-Siméon Chardin at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” Grachos remembers. “I see that painting every time I visit that museum. People still don’t believe it because most of my career has been in the contemporary arts.”

Most recently, Grachos served ten years as the executive director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Last year, the museum celebrated its 150-year anniversary and is often regarded as one of the country’s great modern collections. “Being the steward of the history and that collection and advancing the museum at the same time with new acquisitions was thrilling,” he says.

Grachos likens his new role to leading a start-up, like when he was first hired as the director of SITE Santa Fe, where he led the renovation of a warehouse for exhibition space and orchestrated a highly successful international biennial. Upon arriving in Austin, Gracho’s primary task was coming up with a new name and identity for the museum. For this undertaking, he and his staff teamed up with DJ Stout at Pentagram to devise a new identity that is both clear and concise. And with the recent generous grant of $9 million from the Marcus Foundation, Grachos will have the resources to curate and shape a new vision for Laguna Gloria’s 12-acre grounds, with its 1916 Italianate-style villa, and transform it into a striking sculpture park. During the next decade, a series of commissioned artworks—both permanent and temporary—will also be created for the site. “This rhythm and compliment of commissioning both new work and temporary projects, I hope, will entice our community to return to Laguna Gloria frequently,” Grachos says.

Currently, as a part of the development of Laguna Gloria, Grachos and his team, along with Frederick Steiner, Dean of the Architecture School at the University of Texas, are conducting a search for a landscape architect. In addition, Grachos is looking to other great sculpture parks around the country and world for inspiration. For example, he plans to visit the deCordova Scuplture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. “As we move forward, we’ll continue the research with the selected architect and come up with a master plan,” Grachos explains. “I think Laguna Gloria deserves it. It’s been, in my opinion, under-utilized. We want to integrate all of this into a great experience for visitors.”

The Contemporary already has several curatorial commissions in the works: Orly Genger will be installing an enormous piece constructed from her trademark, repurposed lobster-fishing ropes, in the outdoor amphitheater at Laguna Gloria. A new show, “A Secret Affair,” will revolve around figurative art and include works by artists, such as Mark Quinn, Jim Hodges, Louise Bourgeois, Maurizo Cattelan, and Juan Munoz. There will also be a two-venue show with work by Do-Ho Suh, an internationally renowned Korean artist.

During the coming years, Grachos plans to be a vibrant and strong collaborator in the local art community. “What I have learned and enjoyed seeing is the strength and the new wave of the artist collective,” he says, referencing local spaces like Co-Lab Projects and MASS Gallery. “There is a lot of great energy out there—and we really want to be involved and engaged with that culture.”


Photography by Randal Ford

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