Louis Grachos makes his mark on The Contemporary Austin
by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Leonid Furmansky
From Louis Grachos’s top floor office, inside the Driscoll Villa at Laguna Gloria, you can hear school groups assembling to explore the grounds. Students and teachers gather around Tom Friedman’s “Looking Up,” a giant stainless-steel figurative sculpture gazing skyward, and as they walk toward the lagoon, they’ll encounter Ai Weiwei’s recently acquired “Iron Tree Trunk.” Grachos, the Ernest and Sarah Butler executive director and CEO of The Contemporary Austin, explains it this way: “There’s an accessibility to art that’s placed outdoors that makes it so much more easy to approach and understand.”
Grachos’s understanding of making art accessible is part of how he ended up in Austin.
“Louis, I think, understood that this is a city that lives outdoors,” Melba Whatley, a trustee of the Contemporary and the founder and president of the Waller Creek Conservancy, says.
After spending seven years as the director of SITE Santa Fe and more than a decade as the executive director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, Grachos turned his eye toward Austin. In 2012, he accepted the role of executive director of the Contemporary and found himself leading the then newly combined AMOA-Arthouse, which in 2013 was reborn as the Contemporary Austin. With two unique venues — the over 7,000-square-foot Jones Center downtown and Laguna Gloria, nestled near Mount Bonnell — part of Grachos’s charge became developing a relationship and synergy between the sites.
For someone who trades in multi-million-dollar works of art, Grachos is affable and unpretentious, with an inviting way of speaking. “Louis is almost unique in that he is such an authentic person. He treats everyone the same,” Whatley says, “and he’s one of the few people in the world who can pick up the phone and get not one but two Ai Weiwei sculptures here.” (Weiwei’s “Forever Bicycles” is installed at the Waller Delta.)
Growing up in Toronto, Grachos was exposed to the art world early on, in grade school. On his first museum visit, to the Art Gallery of Ontario, in first grade, an oval still life of an apricot jar by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin caught his eye. “As a kid it just inspired me and I marveled at it, and I still go back and see that painting every time I visit,” Grachos says.
Later, at 13, on a school field trip to the Albright-Knox, a Jackson Pollock painting raised his interest in American abstract expressionists. The experience would prove especially fortuitous, as Grachos would later spend a portion of his career as the executive director of the gallery.
After graduating from the University of Toronto, Grachos went to New York and interned at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “There’s when I really understood I wanted to work with contemporary artists, artists that were alive and kicking,” Grachos says.
While at the Whitney, Grachos walked through an installation with the artist Ellsworth Kelly and a curator. “I just stood behind and followed and listened, and it was just so inspiring to hear the artist talk about why things needed to be together in terms of how they installed the exhibition of his work,” Grachos says. “Some of the discussion really excited me, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That was a turning point. It was a real eye-opener.”
Grachos’s Laguna Gloria office boasts a few totems from places he’s lived — photographer Jennifer Esperanza’s black-and-white photos of Kim Gordon and Patti Smith, from his time as the director of SITE Santa Fe; a collection of framed hockey pucks, hinting at his youth playing hockey in Canada; a print of a Deborah Roberts collage; a colorful Jim Hodges print reading, “Give more than you take.” “I’ve always tried to acquire work from artists who are living and working from wherever I am. That’s something I really think is important,” Grachos says.
Grachos’s breadth of experience puts him in a unique position to guide the Contemporary. In the downtown space, it means utilizing artist relationships, as he did with Hodges to erect his colorful “With Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress)” piece atop the Jones Center. Unveiled in December 2016, the piece helped mark the facility’s reopening after renovation, and in the aftermath of the divisive 2016 election, with its prominent placement on Congress Avenue, four blocks from the Capitol, it raised the building’s profile. While the work had been in development for a while, it felt especially timely. “It’s a phrase from the pledge, that in many ways means everything to everyone. It can be a political thing, but it doesn’t have to be,” Grachos says. While the Hodges piece is part of a three-year loan, Grachos is working to make it permanent.
He’s also putting his power behind transforming the Laguna Gloria space, shaping the vision for the site as a sculpture park — a place to experience art in nature. Phase one of the plan broke ground in March 2018, with $6.4 million, raised through private donations, allocated for restoring the shoreline, cultivating native plants, removing invasive species and constructing two welcome pavilions for visitors. The pavilions will be connected by covered walkways and surrounded by landscaped gardens. Artist Jessica Stockholder is at work on a piece that will be visible on approach to the grounds, inviting visitors in.
Over the longer term, the aim is for Laguna Gloria to be an exciting space for unique artist-driven works, a destination for visitors to Austin, and a place where the community can engage. And if this past September’s Museum Day is any indication, word is spreading.
“Museum Day drew about 1,000 people here, and 1,100 people downtown, so we’re starting to feel the community’s discovering who we are,” Grachos says. “I think part of that is people’s interest in global contemporary art, but also the uniqueness of experiencing art in the outdoors, in the natural setting.”