Edifice Complex

Communities across Texas are out to buy themselves a masterpiece—not a painting or a sculpture but an exquisite museum by a big-name architect.

THINK FOR A MOMENT: What was it that caught your eye the last time you visited an art museum? The building’s pale limestone skin or an outdoor sculpture? The elegant lobby or the paintings on the walls? Chances are it was the building, not the art, that drew your attention. These days museums everywhere seem bent on building architectural icons rather than collections. In Texas alone more than half a dozen new museum buildings are expected to open in the next five years. 

Once upon a time, the primary mission of art museums was to collect, preserve, and exhibit art. Beginning in the eighteenth century, objects that had previously been reserved for the pleasure of private collectors—portraits in English country houses and French châteaux and sculptures in Italian gardens—made their way to new museums such as the Uffizi in Florence and the Louvre in Paris. Like the collectors who had created them, these institutions were polite but passive hosts. They didn’t keep score to see which blockbuster exhibition attracted the most visitors. They didn’t care.

But times have changed. Today’s art museums have become active suitors for the hearts and minds of their communities. They offer studio classes, performances, film screenings, and lectures. To accommodate these collateral functions, they are reconfiguring their existing space, adding on to buildings, and commissioning new ones. Communities in turn are being asked to contribute both private and public dollars to sustain their local museum’s ambitious goals.

The forces driving new museum projects are as diverse as Texas itself,” notes Texas Association of Museums director Jack Nokes. Some museums, such as the El Paso Museum of Art, which last year completed an elegant makeover of the 104,000-square-foot Greyhound bus station, and Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, which this month begins construction of a $36 million addition, expand because they need more (and better) gallery space to display their substantial permanent collections and house changing exhibitions. On the other hand, when the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts ( SAMFA) moves this month from its original location at historic Fort Concho into a $6 million edifice designed by New York architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the new downtown building will overwhelm the museum’s modest collection of contemporary ceramics and regional paintings. Similarly, the Austin Museum of Art ( AMOA), which intends to construct a new 125,000-square-foot building, and the Art Center of Waco, which is planning 20,000 additional square feet, possess very few objects of their own. These institutions rely on borrowing art for most of their exhibitions. For them, the museum’s architecture—the building itself—will become the core of their permanent collection.

Why the importance of container over content? SAMFA director Howard Taylor stresses that new museum buildings fulfill a civic responsibility. San Angelo’s museum will play a crucial role in revitalizing the downtown area, he says, linking the historic and cultural elements along El Paseo de Santa Angela, the city’s heritage trail. In the words of urban planner Frank Gray, who was a consultant on the project, “Museums provide a cultural well around which all citizens can gather and drink.”

Indeed, over the past thirty years, art museums across the country have come to look more like user-friendly community centers than the eighteenth-century museum model. They devote significant marketing dollars and staff time to outreach programs aimed at increasing both the number and the diversity of audiences. This is in part because private donations of art and money have been augmented (and in some cases replaced entirely) by the support of government entities as well as public and private foundations, which insist (and reasonably so) that a wide range of citizens be served. This ever-expanding audience is wooed with lunchtime gallery talks and movie nights, along with coffee shops and museum stores, all of which generate income. New buildings designed by brand-name architects garner attention from not only the local community but also the national and international press. 

What about the art? Permanent collections in Texas museums offer prime examples of everything from pre-Columbian to cutting-edge contemporary art. But monumental contemporary paintings, room-size sculptures, and video installations like Bill Viola’s The Crossing, which occupies an entire room at the Dallas Museum of Art, don’t fit against corniced walls meant for nineteenth-century paintings; they long for wide-open spaces. What’s more, wildly successful exhibitions like the recent Matisse and Picasso show at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum strain the ability of otherwise serviceable galleries to contain crowds comfortably. Representatives of the Kimbell have been talking for years about how to expand the museum’s function without destroying architect Louis Kahn’s masterpiece.

Culture is now a leading urban industry,” says New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. Muschamp is referring to the effect the new Guggenheim Museum has had on Bilbao, a Basque city in the north of Spain that was moribund until Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry’s titanium-glass-and-limestone showstopper rose along the shores of the Nervión River in 1997. The museum proved in one year that art museums with high-profile architecture have the power to reinvigorate cities in decline and lure thousands of tourists from across the world. Asked how art exhibitions will fare in Gehry’s flamboyant masterpiece, one well-respected architect reportedly said, “With a building this great, who cares? F— the art.”

Like the Bilbao Guggenheim, many of the six hundred new art museums built in this country since 1970 were conceived as art objects, prizewinning designs by the international architect du jour that would be immediately recognizable against a city skyline. In addition to being coveted by their community, these complex structures have become plum jobs for the architecture profession worldwide. According to David Lake of Lake/Flato Architects in San Antonio, art museums are “sexy projects” that give their architects more prestige than, say, mental health facilities. “These buildings have become art themselves,” he says.

Texas has long boasted some of the most architecturally significant museums in the country: The list of architects whose museums already dot the state’s landscape—Louis Kahn (the Kimbell), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the Houston Museum

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