Dana Friis-Hansen isn’t a big fan of comparisons. Sure he’s heard the criticism before, how Austin’s arts scene falls short of those in Dallas or Houston. And while the executive director of the Austin Museum of Art readily admits those other Texas cities can boast more museums and a larger arts-going public, he’s quick to put it all in perspective.
“We have a different arts history than other cities,” contends Friis-Hansen. “And we bring a completely unique perspective – and a very open viewpoint – to art.”
It’s that perspective that filters every aesthetic decision, every program planned and every piece displayed at AMOA. And it’s a tall order.
When Friis-Hansen joined AMOA as chief curator in 1999, the museum, like the rest of Austin, was riding high on high-tech, and there was a push to create a new world-class cultural destination. The dot-com bust brought sobriety to that picture. But by 2002, with Friis-Hansen now at the helm as executive director, a new primary goal emerged: AMOA would become “Austin’s museum,” a place focused on what locals need and desire from the city’s primary visual arts center. This year, the museum unveiled plans for a new 40,000-square-foot downtown home that will double as exhibit and education space when it opens in 2010.
On a warm summer afternoon, Friis-Hansen moves quickly through the sections of AMOA’s latest main exhibit titled “Modern Art. Modern Lives. Then + Now.” The double-faceted exhibit juxtaposes the late 19th and early 20th century works of modernists like Picasso and Matisse with the works of contemporary artists. Contemporary art is one of Friis-Hansen’s specialties and his love for the genre becomes clearer as he explains the various sections of the exhibit he co-curated.
“Many people have heard of Picasso and Matisse,” he says as he walks through a collection of works on conflict and conflict resolution.
On display is a mixed-media piece by John Salvest, the symbolism palpable. Inside a wooden crate hundreds of matchsticks with red, white and blue tips stand upright, near-perfectly arranged to form the American flag. The nation’s banner as an explosive symbol practically leaps out to the observer.
“Artists today, they have their fingers on the pulse of now,” Friis-Hansen continues. “And that helps us provide different viewpoints for today.”
But art was not always the art enthusiast’s dream career. Intrigued by the “mysteries of the world,” Friis-Hansen went to college to become a scientist. But when he got there, he learned a life of science meant a lot of looking down the barrel of a microscope. Studying at a liberal-arts school, Friis-Hansen soon discovered that the way artists see the world lined up more closely with his own interpretation.
Through the years, he worked in museums from New York to Tokyo and Houston to Boston. It was partner Mark Holzbach’s business that initially brought the globetrotting couple to Austin. Friis-Hansen quickly came to appreciate his new home and the museum that was finding its way.
He was faced with an important decision in 2002 when the executive director position came open. “I knew I could be a good curator. I didn’t know if I could be a good director,” he admits, referencing the many business decisions that come with the job. “I love art and being a curator, but this was a tremendous opportunity to see AMOA rise to the next level.”
To compromise, Friis-Hansen made a deal with himself. He would take the director post but would also maintain the title of chief curator and either curate a show or publish a significant article each year in an effort to continue contributing intellectually to the field.
Now, a few short years later, Friis-Hansen is juggling AMOA’s existing exhibitions and needs with the creation of the new facility. It’s a lot of work, but he’s not complaining.
“I believe the content is more important than the container,” he expresses, putting the planned facility’s role in AMOA’s overarching mission in perspective. “But the container we’re planning is important because it will allow us to do what we’re already doing well even better and with more variety and diversity.”
The “container” will also allow AMOA to play an important role in the growing vitality of downtown Austin. With its move, the museum will take its place among a series of other fresh cultural and civic installations dotting downtown – from the Ballet Austin building and Austin City Limits stage to the Long Center and new central library.
“You’re seeing these major projects all happening within a 10- year period,” Friis-Hansen says, “and that’s what makes me feel comfortable saying that Austin is coming of age.”
UPDATE – In 2011, Dana relocated to Grand Rapids Michigan where he is Director & CEO of GRAM, the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Earlier this year, Dana lent his voice to Until Love is Equal creating this inspiring video advocating for marriage equality for all.