The Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin is on land Stephen F. Austin once selected for his homesite. The Mediterranean-style villa overlooking Lake Austin was built in 1916 on twenty-eight acres and served as the residence of Clara (Driscoll) and Henry H. Sevier until 1929. Clara Driscoll, who dropped her married name after her divorce, conveyed the property to the Texas Fine Arts Association Holding Corporation in 1943. In 1961 the management was assumed by Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Incorporated, which also served as the Austin chapter of the Texas Fine Arts Association until 1979. The TFAA Holding Corporation and Laguna Gloria merged in 1966, retaining the name of the latter organization. The TFAA maintains its state headquarters on the museum grounds, retains two representatives on the museum board of directors, and organizes two to three annual exhibitions at Laguna Gloria.
Although Laguna Gloria has acquired a small permanent collection of contemporary art, the museum has emphasized art exhibition and education rather than acquisitions. Laguna Gloria presents eight to ten exhibitions a year, most of which focus on American art since 1900. The museum has presented exhibitions of internationally renowned artists, particularly those who work with challenging concepts and media, such as Carl Andre (1978), Christo (1979), Robert Smithson (1981) and James Rosenquist (1990). Since 1979 Laguna Gloria has supported local artists by mounting the New Works series of solo and group exhibitions featuring works in all media by Austin's most innovative artists. The museum has also recognized leading Texan artists by organizing major solo exhibitions for Luis Jimenez (1983), Robert L. Levers, Jr. (1991), and Carmen Lomas Garza (1991), among others. Each year the museum hosts two or three juried exhibitions organized by the Texas Fine Arts Association, which emphasizes talented young artists, especially those experimenting with new techniques. The museum also organizes an annual family exhibition, usually a group show organized around such themes as Feather, Fur, and Fin (1990), which featured art on animal subjects by Donald Roller Wilson, Earl Staley, Claudia Reese, and others. Family exhibitions are accompanied by an interactive children's gallery that offers activities and games keyed to stimulate and enhance children's responses to art. Laguna Gloria shows frequently include an educational exhibit for children.
In 1963 Laguna Gloria established an art school, which by 1991 was one of the top ten museum-affiliated schools in the country. Each year approximately 2,500 students enroll in noncredit courses in painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, or pottery. The school has also offered courses in art history and special interests such as collage, jewelry-making, and book-binding and has an active Potters Guild. Other educational activities at Laguna Gloria include docent tours, lectures, film series, and music, dance, and drama performances, most of which are scheduled to enhance the educational value of the museum's exhibitions. The museum further serves the Austin community with outreach programs such as "Hands Out to Children," in which museum staff members make art materials available to children at parks, malls, and other public places. Laguna Gloria has served children in economically disadvantaged areas with "Seeing Special Things," a three-step program that involves an introductory classroom lecture, a field trip to the museum, and a follow-up art project.
A thirty-five-member board of trustees and a thirteen-member executive committee guide the long-term development of Laguna Gloria. Trustees are elected to three-year terms on a rotating basis. Past directors of the museum have included Laurence Miller (1974–90). In 1991 the museum staff consisted of seventeen full-time employees, nine part-time employees, and forty-five art-school instructors. The city of Austin provides a substantial amount of Laguna Gloria's funds, as does Fiesta, an annual two-day juried fine-arts festival. The museum also receives grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other foundations and corporations. Private contributions, membership fees, the museum shop, the art school, and other fund-raising events also contribute to the museum's budget, which was $950,865 in 1991. Laguna Gloria is a member of the Texas Association of Museums, the Museum Store Association, the American Association of Museums, and the American Arts Alliance.
In 1981 the museum staff, then under the directorship of Laurence Miller, began investigating the possibility of building a new museum in downtown Austin. Museum board member and developer John Watson and his partner Jim Casey supported the initiative by donating funds and a tract of land at Fourth and Guadalupe streets, and in 1985 Austin voters approved $14.7 million in tax-supported bonds for the construction of a city museum. The following year the city and Laguna Gloria executed two contractual agreements, in which the city agreed to assist Laguna Gloria in construction of the new museum and to lease the facility to Laguna Gloria for ninety-nine years. The city also gave Laguna Gloria the exclusive right to operate the museum, promised to reimburse the museum for a major portion of its operating and maintenance costs, and guaranteed the museum from city general revenue an amount equal to 20 percent of the cultural-arts portion of the city's hotel occupancy tax for each year of the lease. Robert Venturi, a leading postmodern architect, designed plans for a handsome limestone and granite building that would have been more spacious and more accessible than Laguna Gloria's original facility. But plans for the new building were crippled by the economic slump Austin suffered in the mid-1980s and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Watson-Casey development firm, which jeopardized the museum's title to the proposed site. Public concern developed over Laguna Gloria's ability to meet its share of the construction and operating expenses, and in February 1988 a group of local artists filed suit against the city and museum. The plaintiffs protested that the city council had awarded management of a public museum to a private institution without receiving bids from other arts organizations, that the city's payment of guaranteed yearly funds would deprive smaller art organizations of equal access to limited funds, that the city failed to present its proposed agreements with Laguna Gloria to the Arts Commission, and that the city had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. In December 1989 the city council voted to end the project and in settlement reimbursed the museum $702,000 to cancel outstanding contracts for the construction and operation of the proposed museum.