Exclusive: Women & Their Work buys a building of its own

For the first time in its 42 years, the non-profit arts organization will have a permanent home, on E. Cesar Chavez St. And that's after launching the capital campaign just as the pandemic hit.


With Austin’s cultural landscape battered by pandemic closures, a cratering economy, and an extremely uncertain future, one arts organization has remarkably good news.

After 42 years, Women & Their Work will have a building of its own.

The non-profit organization finalized its purchase today on a $3 million property at 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St.

The purchase price was met after the organization’s leaders raised more than $1 million in the last few months largely through small fundraising parties held entirely on Zoom. The organization also obtained a $1.75 million mortgage.

“We’re overwhelmed with how quickly and successfully this happened, especially given our current time,” said Chris Cowden, Women & Their Work executive director.

An additional $250,000 over the purchase price was added to the capital campaign total of $3.25 million to cover relocation and some renovation expenses. Cowden said about $230,000 is still needed to reach the campaign goal.

“We put down a contract on February 1,” said Cowden. “Even in the best of circumstances, we had to raise money quickly. But then COVID-19 came, and then the economy collapsed, and then there was social unrest. We didn’t know if we could do it.”

The Ford Foundation contributed $50,000. Texas donors include the Still Water Foundation, the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation and the Meyer Levy Charitable Trust. Women & Their Work board member and artist Kati Hernandez Cowles and her husband Jay Cowles offered a $100,000 challenge grant, and it was quickly matched.

“We can’t believe how donors responded,” said Cowden. “A permanent home means — in a word — everything. It means that the focus of our attention can be on women artists and the work they make and not on the vagaries of the real estate market. We will be free from the instability of ever-increasing rents and the threat of constant displacement.”

With the lease on its longtime location at 1710 Lavaca Street set to expire at the end of the year, the purchase comes not a moment too soon.

Most recently the location of Big Red Sun landscape design, the property at the southwest corner Cesar Chavez and Navasota streets is actually a 10,000-square-foot parcel with several buildings. In addition to the 2,400-square-foot main building, there’s a 1,200-square-foot house facing Navasota Street, and a large courtyard garden stretching along the property’s west side. (The house, main building and garden have been the same real estate parcel since 1890, according to city archives.)

The courtyard — seen here in use by the former tenant, the landscape design business Big Red Sun — opens to E. Cesar Chavez St. The house on the left is part of the parcel purchased by Women & Their Work.
The courtyard — seen here in use by the former tenant, the landscape design business Big Red Sun — opens to E. Cesar Chavez St. The house on the left is part of the parcel purchased by Women & Their Work.

“It’s flexible and versatile, there’s lots of possibilities,” said Cowden. “We foresee sharing or offering the space to individual artists and other groups for community meetings and other gatherings. We really want to explore the possibilities of extensive use of the outdoor area as that might be where more people are comfortable gathering once we are all able to gather again.”

Cowden said that a public opening of the new location will be announced later this summer. Of course much will depend on the course of the pandemic. “If gathering in groups isn’t possible, we will offer audiences online opportunities to see to art we install or perhaps offer viewing by appointment.”

Women & Their Work moved into its current Lavaca Street location in 1995. The one-story 4,000-square-foot storefront — once a drapery store in the 1960s and 1970s — is just two blocks south of the University of Texas.

It proved a decent enough gallery space though its ceilings were low and its internal footprint a bit limited for an ever-changing series of exhibitions, but as the surrounding area developed, it became harder for visitors to find nearby parking.

Then in 2017, the building’s owner sold to a developer with plans to put a high-rise hotel on half the 1700 Lavaca block.

As Cowden and the board started looking for an equivalent-size space, they quickly realized they were looking at a monthly rent of at least $17,000. And with a standard triple-net lease agreement — which passes on property tax increases to the leaser — renting would leave the non-profit, like so many in Austin, vulnerable to displacement once again.

“We’d see our rent rise no matter where we landed,” Cowden said. “We realized how vulnerable we would be to displacement — again. But if we owned, as a non-profit we don’t have to pay property taxes which will allow us to put that money back into supporting artists and developing our audience.”

The organization had about $150,000 in hand for a new building when Cowden and crew began looking for a property in 2018. But even in the best of circumstances, purchasing property as a non-profit is a tricky challenge.

“It’s really hard to raise money for a building when you can’t show anybody a building,” said Cowden. “And then it’s really hard to buy a building when you don’t have the money.”

The hunt eventually turned up 28 possible sites. Yet many were outside the city’s central core and far from public transportation. And most needed considerable renovation or even to be torn down entirely, expenses that would balloon the size of a capital campaign.

“It seemed like each place we looked at was more of a hovel or a teardown than the last,” Cowden said.

Then in January, the ideal place came on the market.

“We couldn’t have imagined a more perfect site,” said Cowden.

With its high ceilings, open floor plan and large storefront windows, the main building’s airy space is well-suited for the exhibition of contemporary art. Cowden said that the house has rooms perfect for use as offices and education programs as well as a video gallery. The courtyard garden provides even more opportunities for receptions, events, and performances.

The interior of 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St., seen here in use by the previous tenant. The 4000-square-foot building on the corner of Navasota St., was originally a grocery, opened in 1890 by August Kunz.
The interior of 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St., seen here in use by the previous tenant. The 2,400-square-foot building on the corner of Navasota St., was originally a grocery, opened in 1890 by August Kunz.

“The site and the two buildings really give us so many options for things to take place, inside and outside,” said Cowden.

Sensitive to the site’s East Austin location, Women & Their Work staff researched its history. It is not within what was once called the “Negro District,” the East Austin area defined by a segregationist 1928 urban plan.

A city directory from 1890 lists a German grocer named August Kunz as the first owner of a building at 1311 E. Cesar Chavez and a house 94 Navasota St. The Cesar Chavez building remained a grocery through the mid-1960s when it became a series of appliance stores. In 1992, it was left vacant by owner Louis Saldana. Big Red Sun began renting the site in 2011, and invested in some improvements.

After Women & Their Work leaders signed the contract in February, they began strategizing the $3.25 million capital campaign, planning intimate gatherings for potential donors.

Board treasurer Kelley Cooper McClure said there was one in-person reception in early March. Then the pandemic shut everything down.

“That reception was literally the last event I attended before we just stopped leaving the house. After that, we held events on Zoom,” said McClure.

McClure said that, surprisingly, the videoconferencing events offered the chance to really understand the role of the organization and its contributions that stretch back four decades, especially as its remained a relatively lean organization too, with a current annual budget of $900,000, and a staff of three full-time and three-half time employees.

“I think a lot of people didn’t realize how much (Women & Their Work) has done and for how long,” said McClure. “And it’s done it while always remaining in the black too.”

To date the organization has featured more than 1,900 women artists, many with solo exhibitions. It also serves as a non-profit fiscal sponsor for many individual artists, collaboratives, and smaller arts groups who do not have their own non-profit status.

Women & Their Work started in a very different Austin in 1978, when — riding the peak of the second-wave feminism of the women’s rights movement — it was founded by three women artists: Rita Starpattern, Deanna Stevenson and Carol Taylor. A college town with population of 350,000, Austin had a small, regional art museum in Laguna Gloria Art Museum, and UT had a gallery, but not a comprehensive art museum.

Yet the founding trio imagined a progressive, women-directed organization that promoted women’s cultural contributions as valuable artistic work, and that provided financial and technical support for women artists. The organization would adopt a broad but then-radical definition of women’s art that included performance art, filmmaking, theater, dance, literary readings, and music.

Its first home was a one-room office above the Revco drugstore on Guadalupe Street across the street from UT. And its first enterprise was a traveling exhibition of Texas women artists, curated by Marcia Tucker, then a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who would go on to found the New Museum. The exhibition, “Women-in-Sight: New Art in Texas” was the first statewide juried exhibition of women artists ever held in Texas.

The firsts continued when, in 1981, Women & Their Work was the first arts organization in Texas to be award a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in visual art. It garnered national arts press attention and the organization brought to Austin ground-breaking women artists: Adrian Piper, Bettye Saar, Suzanne Bocanegra, Okwui Okpokwasili, Urban Bush Women, and feminist art activists the Guerrilla Girls, among others.

In 2013, the organization launched one of Austin’s most ambitious and high-profile locally-produced public art projects with “Thirst,” centered on a drought-killed tree anchored in the center of the Lady Bird Lake.

Beili Liu "Thirst" installation
A 2013 project made possible by Women & Their Work, “Thirst” featured a drought-killed tree, a symbol the enormous loss of the hundreds of millions of trees lost in the Texas droughts. “Thirst” was a collaboration of Beili Liu, Emily Little, Norma Yancey and Cassie Bergstrom.

Artist Margo Sawyer, who recently re-joined the board after serving several years ago, said that Women & Their Work has proved critical for local and regional artists, especially when Austin’s museums now focus more on national and international artists.

“Women are still underrepresented in the art world everywhere. And in Austin and Texas, there are still many organizations and museums who don’t want to invest in the visual artists who are here,” said Sawyer. “It’s empowering and career-changing for many artists to have a solo exhibition at Women & Their Work. And now it’s empowering for the organization to have its own building.”

Said Cowden: “Owning a space means we can have some control over our fate which women have been attempting to do since, when — forever?”


Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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