Asa Hursh has a full-hearted laugh that fills a room. His laugh comes easily, and with the same ease, Hursh can discuss the art market or art history and theory.
In August 2014, Hursh was put into the spotlight when he was announced as Art Alliance Austin’s executive director. Over the past year, he has integrated the organization into the community—and is continually changing it to create an organization that plays a clear role in strengthening Austin’s art community.
“The Alliance is a supporter, a connector, a creator of opportunities, an educator, and access point,” describes Hursh. “All of which is done with the purpose of exposing, strengthening, and growing the Austin art scene and the Austin art market.”
Before beginning the position in Art Alliance, Hursh was admittedly not an active member in the art community. His wife, Erika Patall, brought the family to Austin when she was offered a tenure track position in the College of Education at UT Austin (“the only one in the country in her field that year,” brags Hursh).
“Honestly, [my engagement was] passive and limited,” says Hursh. “We were in a new city, far from family, with an infant. My wife had a new job with the pressures of tenure. I was starting grad school and working part-time to contribute to the family budget.”
At that time, Hursh was pursuing two graduate degrees at UT Austin—a MA in art history and an MBA.
“I wanted to develop my skills in each area and blend them for arts management work. And I use the training from both programs on a near daily basis,” describes Hursh. “I’ve found that arts leaders (even in large institutions) tend to be more well rounded, because that’s what is needed for their positions.”
Hursh spent most of his childhood in Rochester, New York where his father teaches at the university level. He attended an arts magnet for middle and high school and completed a BFA in painting from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. After his undergraduate studies, Hursh grappled with one of the largest problems for new grads: how do you pay your rent and stay committed to your artistic practice?
“Do you take a menial job where you can think about your art while you’re on the clock?’ Is that better than taking a more lucrative job, but one that may be more mentally taxing? Do you figure out ways to sacrifice certain things so that you can live off next to nothing? These are real trade-offs that many artists make and they’re things that I was thinking about,” describes Hursh.
He began working in real estate and kept making art, at least for the first few years.
“It’s hard to have two distinct careers, it’s hard to have one that you’re good at. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at. I was under some romantic illusion that I could still make work, but after a while that stopped,” says Hursh. “I imagine that this is fairly common for studio art undergrads, but it happens at different times in your life. Where it doesn’t feel like you’re giving up on something, because you intend to keep it up, but that expectation is unrealistic, and it just fades away. You’re either in it 100 percent or you’re not. Some of the artists that I’ve seen develop into successful career artists had no out. I couldn’t imagine them doing anything else, and neither could they, so they just made it work. There was no exit door, no alternative route.”
These questions and this seemingly final decision weighs heavily on the shoulders of students who are trained to become artists. And yet, the training to make art or the study of art history shouldn’t block you into academia or commit you to the heroic attempt of becoming the next celebrity artist. The way artists, art historians, and art educators are trained is a specific way of looking that can be used in any field.
“But then something happened,” remarks Hursh. “I realized that I was really good at real estate, that I liked thinking about business problems, and within a couple of years I was talking to museum directors and curators to figure out how I could get back into the arts but from the non-artist side of it.”
Over his first year as Executive Director, Hursh added new programming (Art Breaks and the Art Bash) that connects alliance members to Austin-based artists and galleries. He also invited local galleries to participate in Art City (an annual event which attracts over 20,000 attendees). The alliance also launched a weekly events email to promote visual art events—which boasts a subscriber base of around 10,000.
“It’s all about managing growth. We’re a small nonprofit. And although we have a long history and we have supporters that have been with us for decades, we’re still functioning more like a start-up,” says Hursh. “We’re looking at a lot of new opportunities, partnerships, and ways that we think we can make the Austin art scene stronger. This past year was a good one. We’re growing membership, we’re adding revenue, and we’re adding a new program every three months. But our staff is still just three. I think that we’ll keep adding new programs and partners.”
Austin’s art scene may be lacking meaningful support for artists, a stronger gallery system, and an expansive collector base but if more people like Hursh—experienced organizers working toward long term goals—stay in Austin, a real shift may be afoot.
“If we can keep up, we’ll have a stronger, more sustainable and more influential role in the Austin art scene for years to come.”
You can read Hursh’s thesis, Erased, Spoiled, Obliterated, and Defiled: Young Artists’ transition to Maturity through Marking and Un-marking, from UT Libraries.
Join Asa at the ARTBASH on November 7, 2015.
Conflict of Interest Co-Editor Thao Votang volunteered for Art Alliance Austin from 2005–2008. She also sweated out a few gallons of water during the Austin Art Pavillion’s inaugural year.