Laguna Gloria’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park Realizes Inherent Essence of Austin’s Art Identity
by Macy Ryan
If we are lucky in life, we get to observe those rare and historically significant moments of destiny being actualized, of evolution taking shape, where a metamorphosis lends progress to the human condition. If we are truly lucky, we get to actually participate in one of these transformational events. Such is the case with the creation of the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. Here, we have the opportunity to experience the sublime with the marriage of art and nature, the true calling of the Austin Art Scene.
We are now at a special moment in Laguna Gloria’s history when it is evolving to take advantage of this beauty by creating The Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park.
People love Austin because it’s an outdoor city, a city in which nature plays a starring role. Infinite resources are devoted to taking advantage of its beautiful environs and its weather, which is generally mild in the winter and quite striking in the fall and spring. No other town boasts more outdoor festivals – music, food, film, you name it. It’s a place where the environmentally conscious flourish, and where outdoor living and architecture are pronounced. Porches and patios are found in most residences and have extended to many businesses, including a large contingency of restaurants and bars. There are plenty of trails, as well as a huge outdoor fitness community dedicated to running, walking, hiking, cycling and climbing, not to mention the alternative activities that pave their own way here, like X Games-style skateboarding and dirt biking, breakdancing and even Segway Tours. People come to Austin to be outside in Austin. So what better avenue for art in Austin than the great outdoors?
Laguna Gloria has long been a luscious outdoor setting, with elements of the grounds dedicated to the visual arts. The Villa is an artistic and architectural icon, and the Art School has been educating the Austin community for years. When Arthouse at The Jones Center, the Austin Museum of Art and Laguna Gloria were merged to form The Contemporary Austin, a very dedicated effort was made to ensure that Laguna Gloria be advanced in the newly created organization. The scope of its development grows out of the knowledge that its landscape is not just enjoyed at weddings and events, but is a constant fixture of serenity, escape and unity with nature. “What we did learn in my research is that the grounds are used by the birding community, by the naturalists who enjoy hiking, and by those who just seek a place to get away from the pace of urban life,” says Louis Grachos, the Ernest and Sarah Butler Executive Director of The Contemporary Austin. “We’re not that far from downtown Austin. People forget that. It becomes almost like a sanctuary for art-in-nature.”
The sensory and visceral experience of visiting Laguna Gloria entails being overcome by its natural beauty and luxuriating in elements that don’t feel forced or formal in design. We are now at a special moment in Laguna Gloria’s history when it is evolving to take advantage of this beauty by creating The Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park. The development is a destined manifestation of the property’s inherent character. “It’s an opportunity to find a way to really make it work better for a 21st Century community and also make an effort to really engage some of the best artists, the strongest artists in the world, to come and do projects, whether they’re temporary or permanent,” says Grachos. The Sculpture Park will enhance the ability of Laguna Gloria’s visitors to feel a connection to nature, to discover and appreciate a landscape that’s truly unique to Texas, and to discover the Art School in a way that makes it feel interesting to create art and to learn about art. These elements work together to offer a distinctive experience.
This deepening of Laguna Gloria’s identity and the revelation of the intrinsic character of the Austin art stage define an art movement toward natural settings. “There’s such an exciting moment in art today where, more and more, almost every artist I respect and follow gets very motivated by projects that would relate to nature, that would be in the outdoors,” observes Grachos. Projects in nature pose a different kind of challenge for artists, and this makes their work exciting, adventurous and innovative. When art interacts with outdoor spaces, whether it’s in an urban setting or in a natural setting that has great physical beauty like Laguna Gloria, the art is more accessible to the broader community. This can have the symbiotic effect of making the community feel more open, accepting and often appreciative of the art. The Sculpture Park includes projects that are both site-specific and previously imagined, that are sometimes temporary and sometimes permanent. As time goes on and the program is conceptualized long- term, the Park will undergo a metamorphosis based on what is learned about how visitors discover art in a way that’s completely in sync with the landscape, rather than having areas of sculpture that exist in a more formal way.
Grachos’ great challenge is to always be able to connect or complement the art in the Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria with the art downtown at The Jones Center. Part of The Contemporary Austin staff’s curatorial process is also to seek out artists who they think can make an important contribution to the community. “As we’re thinking about our curatorial texture and vision as we move forward, there are two challenges,” Grachos explains. “One is: How do we learn to use these two very different facilities to create one museum? And: Which artists do we think will have the most impact in our community and have the capacity to take on the project, to develop a project at the Jones Center while doing something significant at Laguna Gloria?” A major goal is to enable the community to discover sculptural art forms that are completely unexpected. To achieve this, they’re working with artists who are innovators and will bring new materials and new ideas to Austin, and they’re encouraging these artists to flex their skills and do some different work.
Grachos’ land stewardship program will bring forth the beauty, charms and accessibility of Laguna Gloria’s environs as never before, perfectly complementing the works in the Sculpture Park and forever intertwining art and nature – as nature becomes art, and art becomes nature.
Through Grachos’ research, he realized that The Blanton Museum of Art, The Harry Ransom Center and The Bob Bullock Museum are institutions designed to develop collections in a very encyclopedic way in all mediums. Finding no contemporary art program in Austin, Grachos sought to create something like the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego or the Contemporary Museum in Houston. “We really are interested in collaborating with our community and in dovetailing with what already exists, not trying to overlap into those areas. It became clear to me to have a contemporary program in the uniqueness of having a more traditional art space downtown, versus Laguna Gloria, which is obviously designed to have artists do their work in nature.”
As nature at Laguna Gloria becomes the setting for the art, it also becomes a major character in the presentation of the art. Thus, nature becomes a work of art itself. As such, nature must also be curated, edited, sculpted and designed, just like the artwork it contains. The land stewardship program is therefore as much of a priority as the selection of the artists and their works. One of the first things Grachos did when joining The Contemporary Austin was to commission a master plan for the landscape and initiate an exhaustive search for a landscape architecture firm. Because of the importance of grooming Laguna Gloria’s grounds, Grachos and his staff decided to proceed with the master plan before the architecture firm was selected. “We found it necessary to start working on that right away, so you’ll be seeing parts of the lakes and the lagoon that you probably wouldn’t have been able to see even six months ago because of the removal of invasive species,” Grachos says. “So it’s going to be an on-going process. One thing I’m learning about the stewardship of this property is that you have to be dedicated year-round to taking care of it.” Grachos’ land stewardship program will bring forth the beauty, charms and accessibility of Laguna Gloria’s environs as never before, perfectly complementing the works in the Sculpture Park and forever intertwining art and nature – as nature becomes art, and art becomes nature.
This is an art moment. The Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park is the conduit by which Laguna Gloria fulfills its destiny as a true outdoor art venue, and also by which Laguna Gloria fulfills the natural identity of the Austin art stage. The Sculpture Park is a beacon that signifies an evolution and advancement for the direction of Austin art that will enrich the perspectives of patrons for years to come. It is a beautiful sanctuary where not only art enthusiasts and nature enthusiasts align, but where anyone who appreciates the transcendental can take a breath of fresh air and enjoy the view.
In September 2013, the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation granted $9 million to The Contemporary Austin. $5 million of the grant will fund the commissioning and acquisition of sculpture and site-specific installations to be shown outdoors at Laguna Gloria at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park. Another $2 million will be dedicated to an endowment for the permanent maintenance and conservation of the works in the Sculpture Park, and the remaining $2 million will fund a series of commissions, exhibitions and public engagements for The Contemporary Austin’s program there.