When the Contemporary Austin called, sharon maidenberg wasn’t looking for a new job. She she was executive director at the Headlands Center for the Arts on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Headlands offers residencies and fellowships to artists in an enchanted location, operating out of historic Fort Barry in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
At first maidenberg only consulted with the Austin museum as it searched for its new executive director. But after a virtual meeting with the search committee, her interest was piqued.
“The Contemporary seemed poised at an interesting moment — established but not fully maximized,” maidenberg said. “It seemed an interesting space to enter and to help shape important decisions about the museum’s future steps.”
Maidenberg’s appointment was announced in February 2020, and she planned to assume the post that September. Then the pandemic hit. By the time she arrived in Austin the world had changed.
Getting to know a new staff, board and donors via Zoom or socially distanced meetings was an adventure, let alone moving your family across the country to a new city when everything is essentially shut down.
“Maximizing a situation or opportunity is something I just do naturally,” she said, during interview outside at Laguna Gloria. “And l love a challenge.”
With the museum and its programs largely on hold, maidenberg dug into the organization’s essentials. On her docket: refining the language of the museum’s mission statement, and adding a vision and value statement, all of which serves as the lens through which the museum considers what it does, and why. Now, the Contemporary prioritizes being socially mindful, and always welcoming.
“We are the contemporary art museum for Austin,” maidenberg said. “There’s so much we can do if we first build clarity of purpose and support for what a contemporary art organization can be.”
Board member Matty Wishnow was part of the group tasked with re-writing the vision and values statement as well conducting market research.
“When she arrived, sharon was getting an earful from everyone about these big bold things that absolutely had to happen,” said Wishnow. “To her credit, defining and refining who we are and why we do what we do became her priority. I commend her for that.”
Her arrival proved a good time to begin internal work at the museum too.
During his seven-year leadership, previous executive director Louis Grachos brought shape to the newly formed Contemporary Austin created in 2012 by merging the Austin Museum of Art and the contemporary arts center Arthouse. The Contemporary now had two very different facilities: A sleek downtown gallery building on Congress Avenue, and a 12-acre historic lakeside campus anchored by the 1916 Driscoll Villa with a thriving community art school.
Soon, Grachos announced a $9 million gift from the Marcus Foundation that launched the Marcus Sculpture Park at the Laguna Gloria site. The downtown Jones Center then underwent a $3 million renovation. Next, a comprehensive master plan for the Laguna Gloria grounds was launched (and is still underway) where an architecturally slick pavilion with a café and museum shop now greets visitors.
Grachos spearheaded an exhibition and acquisition program that followed the art world’s latest trends. Sculptures by blue-chip artists like Ai Weiwei, Jessica Stockholder, Wangechi Mutu, and Paul McCarthy now populate the Laguna Gloria grounds. And the large-scale public artwork “With Liberty and Justice For All (A Work in Progress)” crowns the Jones Center. At the same time, more than 700 works of art from the Contemporary’s permanent collection (much of it regional art sporadically assembled by the Austin Museum of Art over many decades) were deaccessioned, with the Blanton Museum receiving 200 artworks while 500 went to small Texas museums.
Yet for all the improved facilities and top-trending art, the Contemporary faced criticism for seeming exclusive, aloof to the local art community.
Moreover, in the wake of recent and increasing societal calls for social justice, museums everywhere now face scrutiny for their commitment to cultural equity and a greater accountability to their communities.
Maidenberg’s audience-centric vision for the Contemporary is the museum’s necessary next step, say its leaders.
A Contemporary board member, Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, is also curator emerita of the Blanton Museum. A respected and active leader within the Austin arts community, she has a keen view of the big picture.
“Louis culled the beginning of a national art vision from the remainders of Arthouse and the Austin Museum of Art, and made that come to life,” says Carlozzi. “But now it’s time for institution building.”
Carlozzi calls maidenberg “an art person with a sense of radical hospitality” who is “a really, really gifted administrator.”
“You don’t get those two things together in one person all that often. She is strategic, she is collaborative, she is decisive. And the organization needs all of that.”
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Growing up in New Jersey just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, frequent trips into the city and its museums were a matter of course for maidenberg. Later, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she majored in African and African-Diaspora Studies, coming to the study of art through an anthropological lens.
“Ultimately I’m interested in how humans tell the story of their own existence,” she said.
In her twenties maidenberg began styling her name lowercase in honor of Black feminist intellectual bell hooks, who did so herself to keep the public’s focus on her work.
Moving to the Bay Area after college, maidenberg worked at various contemporary arts organizations including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Southern Exposure, and New Langston Arts. While leading the Headlands Center, she tripled the budget, doubled the staff, and oversaw the development of a new program space.
“Living in a national park was majestic. And in terms of its direct service to artists, the Headlands was a very rewarding place to be,” she said. But she also itched for a challenge outside of an institution and a region that were comfortably familiar.
“Here (in Austin), I engage with so many people who are different politically and socio-economically than me,” maidenberg said. “Here’s where I can perhaps have the most agency.”
With her partner, composer Jared Blum, maidenberg, 44, settled in Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood within walking distance of an elementary school for the couple’s son Silas. After she’s put her son to bed, maidenberg signs in to an online Spanish language course.
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Board member Wishnow says maidenberg is the Contemporary’s “inviter in chief.”
“What we found (in our market research) is that the Austin audience wants a greater sense of welcome,” he said, adding that the public’s perception is that the Contemporary has become a place for too niche an audience.
Maidenberg, who has a bright and casually friendly manner, prioritizes the welcome. And it’s the local and regional public is the current priority.
“I love the idea that people from out of town might want to come (to the Contemporary) because they’ve heard how fabulous the museum is. But serving a local and regional audience needs to be the backbone of our organization’s goal in the immediate term.”
Maidenberg envisions the Contemporary maintaining the rigor, caliber and range of artwork already established. And she is particularly eager to engage artists who are excited about the opportunity to make something new and site-specific.
Recently, she unveiled a new series of temporary projects on the grounds of Laguna Gloria. First up was “Foghorn Elegy,” an installation of sculptures (some sound emitting) by Austin artist Steve Parker.
For the fall of this year, the museum is organizing an exhibition featuring seven women artists, a mix of regional, national and international. Maidenberg says it will be “a conversation starter around the role of women in the contemporary world.”
Says Carlozzi: “sharon’s excited about both the top-tier experimental work and the idea of celebrating local community. She doesn’t see the two as mutually exclusive and wants both those things to happen at the Contemporary.”
Despite pandemic difficulties, the Contemporary has already made a few radically hospitable changes. The weekly day of free admission has been moved from Tuesdays to more popular Thursdays, with the Laguna Gloria grounds open until 9 p.m. for happy hour. Free ‘Rooftop Sessions’ now happen monthly at the Jones Center, with free drinks, music and art programming.
With the departures of two top staff in the last year — Heather Pesanti, the museum’s lead curator, and Andrea Mellard, its well-regarded longtime curator of programs — maidenburg said she is digging into a restructured exhibitions and program staff.
The museum’s current annual budget is around $8 million, and maidenberg is cautious not to hint at unsustainable plans. Her immediate priority remains focused on caring about the experiences of people at the Contemporary.
Museums are about bringing people closer to art, maidenberg said. “And we are offering a clear invitation for the public to come.”