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Creating a Space for Shared Exploration with the Austin Visual Arts Association

By David Boegaard

The difference between a good city and a great one is often the quality of the arts. Artists bring culture and a dynamic of innovation, as well as an insistence on making spaces beautiful. Public spaces benefit from public arts, and private individuals have the opportunity to display within their home and office the original works of artists.

Moreover, the addition of active artists invigorates a community, creating playful tensions and forcing people to reconsider calcified views. For many decades, the Austin Visual Arts Association (AVAA) has been operating a co-op that helps the city of Austin to foster and support artists, while helping connect artists with the larger community. They do this through offering galleries, events, studio spaces, and areas for artists to gather to share ideas.

One of the oldest visual arts organizations in Austin, the AVAA was founded 38 years ago. The organization is composed of both working artists and local art supporters. From the beginning, the AVAA wished to break the traditional model that divides the work of the artists from the gallery, leaving artists to labor in relative obscurity while galleries control access to the public, and take a substantial cut of sales. Instead, the AVAA was established as an artist co-op gallery and studio.

Artists participate directly in the running of the AVAA, and artist-volunteers staff most of the necessary positions. Eliminating the middle-man also benefits artists directly. "Our artists receive 100-percent of the sale," says AVAA Director, Kelli Montgomery.

The AVAA gallery exhibits works by artist members stretching across all genres, from painting to photography to multi-media sculpture. "Some of our annual exhibits include 'For the Love of Art,' 'The Figurative Show,' 'AVAA's Membership Show,' 'Greater Tomorrow Youth Art Exhibition,' 'WEST Austin Studio Tour,' 'The Photography Show,' and much more," Montgomery describes. But AVAA goes well beyond merely offering gallery space.

One of the most central features of the Austin Visual Arts Association is the way it brings artists together for collaborations and idea sharing. Art can often be an isolating work, but many of the world's most admired works arose in visual dialogue between artists. To help facilitate that kind of dialogue, AVAA created a networking structure that would provide the greatest possible dynamism among artists. "Our artist networking structure involves a community environment where artists can get together and talk about creative ideas and projects, create and show their works, as well as collaborate and support each other in their artistic pursuits," says Montgomery.

Of course, artists don't just need a place to show their works, and a little community for encouragement and inspiration. They also need a place to work! That's why AVAA has created designated studio spaces that are available at discount rent for members. "The studio spaces at both of our locations are used by individual artists in both private and open studios to create art in a quiet, safe, creative and supportive environment," notes Montgomery.

Many community members seek to involve themselves more deeply in the artist community, or just to develop their own latent, artistic talents. AVAA as developed a Life Drawing program that has drawn in the community for more than 16 years. "We provide a community-based drawing program where artists at any level may join us for a 3-hour life drawing session with a nude model," Montgomery explains. "The sessions are run by AVAA volunteer coordinators and are offered for only $5."

The AVAA has grown in reputation and membership since the days of its founding, and today it serves to bring together a broad cross-section of the Austin community, including many prominent artists. "We have an active membership of 200+ artists, some of whom are emerging artists," says Montgomery. "Others, who began their careers with AVAA are now prominent artists, arts leaders and mentors."

For new arrivals to Austin, the easiest way to experience the Austin Visual Arts Association is to go see one of their exhibits, or attend a reception or event. "Our exhibits and receptions are welcoming to the public and often include local musicians playing at the openings to create an enjoyable community art event," says Montgomery. "We try to keep that creative, funky Austin vibe alive that makes Austin so unique."

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