sharon maidenberg discusses her goals of keeping the local community connected with the artistic world via The Contemporary Austin.

Photo by Ben Porter

By Brianna Salinas

Art museums are valuable cultural resources that offer themselves as vessels for transporting knowledge, inspiration and creativity. This much is true for Austin’s own The Contemporary museum, which enriches visitors with modern works of art. The Contemporary Austin has two locations, downtown at the Jones Center and lakeside at Laguna Gloria.

As of September 2020, sharon maidenberg is the director of The Contemporary. New to the role and to Texas, maidenburg looked for “opportunities to learn and engage with what Austin hoped for in terms of its contemporary art institution.” While originally from the East Coast, and having recently resided in San Francisco, maidenberg describes her new stomping grounds as “a lovely place to land. Austin has a really special, unique DNA to it.”

Taking the “Smaller Path”

About 20 years ago, maidenberg decided to “take the smaller path” by keeping her name lowercase for both aesthetic and conceptual purposes. maidenberg cited author and social activist bell hooks for the style choice. “[bell hooks]talked about it as trying to draw more attention to the individual and not the self-aggrandized version of ‘the capital,’ the big and flashy; it was more about democratizing.” She came across bell hooks while working on her undergraduate degree where she learned about how the arts coincide with political identities and activism.

maidenberg has made it her mission to raise “awareness, energy and enthusiasm for the work that The Contemporary is doing.” She describes The Contemporary as having “tentacles,” listing their ways of engagement with the community as “putting on projects, exhibitions, events, programs, getting people out to the landscape and giving people a reason to spend time in nature [at Laguna Gloria], the educational programs and art school.

“Often museums are seen as a passive experience,” she says. “You come, you look at art, you think, you contemplate, you go home. In our case, what fills my bucket is that you can come and look. But you can also come and make. You can come and have a picnic outside on Laguna Gloria and look at the sculptures. [Another] component is through our educational department, where we are working with the kids and families. We are doing a lot of work in the community around us to help people connect to the place, contemporary art and their own creativity. Those are some of the things that really help me stay connected and inspired. Knowing that we are spreading the impact of the power of art.”

In a Dream You Saw a Way Survive…

Looking forward to September 17, The Contemporary will open the exhibition titled In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and You Were Full of Joy. This new exhibit will feature eight artists from around the globe who use art to ponder how storytelling shapes our sense of self, community, history and national identity. “I look to art and artists to help me see the world differently,” says maidenberg. “They are producing something that is thoughtful, provocative and generative. This show has a lot of resonance and a lot of joy in the work.”

The exhibit will consist of installation-based work, color, media and text. “The show is coming at a moment where The Contemporary is re-engaging with itself as a platform and a space for meaningful conversation,” she explains. “We don’t all have to agree about everything. But let’s create a space where we’re raising challenging issues and questions and responding to the times we live in. Reflecting that back out to our visitors through the artists that they’re seeing. It’s a big, bold, exciting, ambitious exhibition.”

The People Make Art Possible

maidenberg believes the people of Austin are “hungry for discussion and debate that art makes possible.” The Contemporary looks to continue bringing in new points of view from artists around the world, to make these discussions possible. “[The Contemporary] has a history of supporting a lot of different artists and bringing a lot of different work to Austin. Having artists in conversation with each other does highlight what is happening on a local and global level. Bringing some of that to Austin will match the level of thought and intellectual rigor that is here. To broaden more conversations.”

The exhibit will run through the middle of February 2023 but will be “punctuated with a series of programs and events” during its time held at The Contemporary. With an exhibit like this up and running, maidenberg’s priority is to “keep inviting people back and engage with the work, having the artists engage in conversation, giving people different opportunities to witness the work…[and]thinking of it as a holistic experience for the community over a longer period of time.”

Connection with the community is not only important to sharon maidenberg, but to The Contemporary Austin as a whole. With maidenberg’s leadership as director of the museum, The Contemporary is only going to become more involved with the community. “My goal is to amplify the things we do. Because I think we’re a hidden gem that punches above its weight. If my goals are brought to life there will be a lot more awareness, energy and enthusiasm for the work at The Contemporary.”



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