Brush away those January blues and take in some new vistas. Music may have put Austin on the map but the Lone Star capital has evolved into a magnet for the cool kids of design. The Danish capital, meanwhile, with its vibrant gallery districts and new international fair, has emerged as the hip heart of Nordic art. Emma Love in Austin and Clint McLean in Copenhagen report
The Inside Track
The urban-bohemian lifestyle on offer in Austin – the fastest-growing big city in the US – is attracting hordes of new residents, especially people from liberal, tech-savvy cities on the West Coast. With its roots firmly in music, the Lone Star capital and once sleepy college town had, by the 1960s, a reputation for helping talented rising-star blues, rock and country singers such as Janis Joplin find their voice. Next, the entrepreneurial tech start-ups, creatives and film production companies arrived (including legendary indie-film director Richard Linklater, whose Detour Film production is based here). And, in recent years, the SXSW music festival, which launched in 1987, has upped its game to add comedy, film and interactive segments to the line-up.
There’s also a thriving design scene, as evidenced everywhere from the curated fashion boutiques to the bars in clapboard bungalows. “Austin definitely has a specific design vibe, which comes from attracting folk from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco,” says Callie Jenschke, co-founder of Supply Showroom, a boutique that represents more than 35 international interiors brands. “There’s a modern, yet natural aesthetic; it’s laid-back elegance with a twist.”
Cool, compact and creative, this is a city that lives up to the hype. Trine Ross, an art critic and captain on the television show Kunst Quiz (Art Quiz), dates the ripples of today’s buzz back to the mid-1980s – a time when Denmark had its own ‘Young Wild Artists’, who transformed painting and arranged their own exhibitions. “Then in the early 1990s,” Ross says, “a very young Nicolai Wallner introduced the concept of the gallery, as opposed to art dealers, and this was the beginning of a whole new era.” A thriving gallery scene developed along with the country’s financial bubble, which was a blessing and a ‘Copenhagen Curse’, to borrow a phrase from Danish curator Lars Bang Larsen.
The meatpacking district, Kødbyen, underwent a revitalization and became a significant dot on the city’s art map. Another significant dot was added in 2011, when the Faurschou Foundation opened, showing art by Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono and Shirin Neshat, among others. In 2016, when Art Copenhagen celebrated its 20th anniversary, it was reborn as the host of two fairs – Select and CODE – creating a new stop on the global art fair circuit.
Liz Lambert, founder of the Bunkhouse group of hotels, transformed a former motel into the Hotel San José long before South Congress was the hip hangout it is today (that was in 2000: in 2008, she opened Hotel Saint Cecilia, San José’s younger, more rock’n’roll sibling). She later revamped the Austin Motel. While there are big names behind some of the city’s best-loved hotels and restaurants, no one figure dominates, however. Restaurateur Larry McGuire’s empire includes French-Vietnamese restaurant Elizabeth Street Cafe on South Lamar, chic Clarksville brunch spot Josephine House, and cafe and wine bar June’s. The lifestyle boutiques are all independent one-offs: Deeyn Rhodes and Lonzo Jackson own Nannie Inez, which stocks interior brands such as Hay and Jointed + Jointed; Michelle Teague’s JM Drygoods is inspired by Mexican homewares; and Jill Bradshaw co-owns concept store Friends & Neighbors. Laura Uhlir, stylist, photographer and owner of fashion boutique Olive, says: “Austin feels in flux. We’re standing somewhere between our scrappy DIY past and our big-city future, embracing clean-lined design but still loving a little grit, too.”
In this famed land of equality, there’s a community of contributors helping to evolve the art scene. Artists such as Olafur Eliasson, who enchanted New York with his waterfalls, and painter/sculptor Per Kirkeby, whose reputation was elevated by his 2009 Tate Modern exhibition, are putting Danish art in the headlines. Peter Ibsen, known for his tightly curated collection of black-and-white minimal artworks, is also the man behind the well-read websites copenhagen-contemporary.dk and sunday-s.dk.
Ibsen has also opened Sunday Gallery as a brick-and-mortar space as well as joining Mikkel Carl in curating the new CODE art fair. Christian Andersen is a leader in producing consistently challenging shows, which he does at his namesake gallery, as well as offering a strong stable of established Danish and German artists at his second space, Andersen’s Contemporary. Lastly, and not to be underestimated, is the effect of the Danish Arts Foundation. Among the top public funders per capita in the world, it earmarked 80 million kroner in 2015 for working grants to artists. That is out of a funding budget of 500 million kroner spent on programmes to artists, institutions and other cultural agents.
What’s hot and what’s not can change in the blink of an eye in Austin – once residential Rainey Street is currently one of the buzziest nightlife spots in the city; head for cocktail bars such as Half Step and the new Lustre Pearl, owned by bar maven Bridget Dunlap. For dinner, options include Filipino fare at celebrity chef Paul Qui’s slick flagship restaurant Qui; and pastrami at Launderette, steered by chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki, where wooden slab tables on cast iron legs are teamed with plush leather wall benches and an aqua floor.
After visiting the galleries in Kødbyen, pull up a bench at Warpigs brewpub and attempt to finish a giant Texas Smørrebrød – a meaty play on the traditional Danish open-faced sandwich. Wash it down with one of the house brews such as Tongue Worshipper or an excellent Mikkeller beer. If you don’t mind a little smoke in your eyes, Bo-Bi Bar in Indre By is a great place to strike up a conversation with some of the artists, writers and students that frequent the historic establishment. If it’s live music you’re after, Vega is the spot for great sound and cool bands.
The annual three heavyweight hitters – Austin City Limits music festival at the beginning of October, The Texas Book Festival in November, which was set up by Laura Bush in 1995, and SXSW in March – all attract huge international crowds. Quirkier celebrations include August’s Bat Fest, based on the 1.5 million bats living under Congress Avenue Bridge, which fly out at dusk, and Trucklandia in October, where food comes courtesy of some of the best food trailers in the city.
Art Copenhagen and the Nordicthemed Chart Art Fair, both of which take place in August, are the summer highlights on the contemporary art calendar. For something a little different, check out the International Performance Art Festival each April or the alternative art fair Alt_Cph each September for a look at some innovative artist-run initiatives. For a fun way to explore the city, visit the many locations involved in the Copenhagen Photo Festival in June.
Keep Austin Weird. The phrase that launched a thousand bumper stickers was first coined 16 years ago by librarian Red Wassenich when he phoned into a local radio station – but now it just sounds naff. The city has moved on.
Are you really the happiest people? It is well reported that the Danes have been rated the happiest people in the world a number of times but it is really getting tired. Now a mention of such surveys is prone to make Danes, who relished the attention initially, well, rather unhappy.
“Have you got your ticket to this month’s Camp Contemporary?” The one-of-a-kind, back to nature overnight arts festival is held at Laguna Gloria, The Contemporary Austin’s 14-acre site that encompasses an outdoor sculpture park and the Italianate-style Driscoll Villa and historic gardens.
“Hey, isn’t Lars von Trier Danish?” Danes know the name of every famous Danish person and are fiercely proud. Brush up on the big ones, like Helena Christensen, Viggo Mortensen and current chart topper Lukas Graham, and see if you can drop them into conversation before an eager Dane does.
Images courtesy of Getty Images
This story appeared in the autumn 2016 issue of Baku magazine.