The Visual Arts Center (VAC), located in the Art Building at the corner of San Jacinto and 23rd streets, is once again the hub for contemporary art activity on The University of Texas at Austin campus, as it has been for almost 50 years. Serving as a site for collaboration, research, and education, the VAC is the primary location to showcase work produced by students and faculty in the Department of Art and Art History of the College of Fine Arts, along with many other contemporary arts programs. In the newly renovated galleries, a year-round schedule of exhibitions and accompanying programs will serve The University of Texas at Austin community, as well as the regional arts community.
The Art Building was designed by the architecture firm Page, Southerland, Page and was dedicated in 1963, the 25th anniversary of the founding of the College of Fine Arts. Funds to construct the building came from the sale of land donated by Archer M. Huntington in October of 1927 specifically to support an art museum on campus. Included in the design of the Art Building was a series of galleries which became the home for the University Art Museum. The museum galleries in the southwest corner of the Art Building displayed a distinctive roofline of vaults, and these galleries became the scene for contemporary art, scholarly exhibitions, and the museum’s growing permanent collection.
From 1965 until 1980, there was a series of improvements to the Art Building, including improvements to the lighting system in the gallery spaces and an extension that doubled the size of the building to include more classrooms, studios, workshops, and administrative offices for the Department of Art and Art History. During this period, the University Art Museum’s collections substantially grew, so the museum’s permanent art collection moved into the Humanities Research Center, leaving the Art Building galleries to be primarily used for temporary exhibitions. In 1980, the museum was renamed the Archer M. Huntington Gallery in recognition of the initial gift that established the museum.
In 1998, the museum’s name changed once again to the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, and momentum began to gather for a new building to be built on campus to house the museum’s collections. In 2001, the Blanton’s display of their permanent collection in the Humanities Research Center closed, and the galleries in the Art Building once again became the place to view the works of art acquired by the museum over the last 30 years. The Blanton’s collections remained on view until 2005, when they closed down the exhibition space to prepare for the move into their new building at MLK and Congress in 2006.
While the Blanton Museum occupied the gallery spaces in the Art Building, the Department of Art and Art History began looking for another location to exhibit works by students and faculty members. As a result, the Creative Research Laboratory was created off campus at Flatbed Press in East Austin in 2001. The Creative Research Laboratory (CRL) was a site for contemporary art and design, providing year-round scheduling of exhibitions and community programming by students and faculty in the Department of Art and Art History. The CRL was a venue that provided emerging artists a first exhibition space and seasoned artists a home base, while creating dialogues across communities, disciplines and foci. The CRL closed in May 2010 to prepare for the opening of the VAC as the primary exhibition and collaboration venue for the Department of Art and Art History.
Dark since the Blanton’s departure in 2005, the southwest corner of the Art Building is once again the Department of Art and Art History’s center for contemporary art and education. Since March 2007, the University has been working with the internationally renowned San Antonio-based architecture firm Lake | Flato to create an innovative renovation of the Art Building. The VAC space is the central component of this remodel, and Lake | Flato has breathed new life into the original galleries of the Art Building by opening up the previously enclosed spaces to daylight and creating unique opportunities to display new media. During the renovation, the architects discovered the previously covered vaulted ceiling in the galleries and they have restored it to its former glory, the concrete vaults now becoming a visual signature for the VAC. The renovation has also provided additional space for the Department, including more instructional spaces, graduate studios, administrative offices, and a central outdoor courtyard. In addition, Lake | Flato created a new entrance to the Art Building and VAC with the Kayem Arbor, providing an inviting new corridor for the public to access and enjoy the visual works on view inside.