Change of Art

Just over forty years ago, Texas was the kind of place dismissed as hopelessly provincial and culturally mediocre. But then came the Kimbell Art Museum.
Michael Bodycomb@Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Fort Worth’s once pastoral cultural district, overlooking the Trinity River west of downtown, is today the city’s emblematic construction site. The sprawling complex of museums and performance halls is framed by new condominiums and esplanades, and the lawns and pools have been usurped by construction cranes, earthmovers, and cement trucks. The state’s fastest-growing big city during the first decade of this century, Fort Worth has boomed on the twin engines of Texas’s modern economic surge: fracking and immigration. But it’s this venerable district, with its adjacent new “urban village” that’s now filling up with stylish shops, restaurants, and residences, as well as tourists, that looks most like the future—not only for Fort Worth but also for all of Texas’s major cities.

At the center of this transformation is the Kimbell Art Museum, the district’s marquee attraction and Texas’s most revered architectural monument. Regarded as a classic even before it opened its doors, in 1972, this concrete-and-travertine masterpiece, designed by Louis Kahn, remains a daring yet sublime alchemy of industrial engineering and natural light, its utilitarian barrel vaults—inspired by those of ancient Roman warehouses—slit along their entire length to provide the galleries an almost mystical illumination. The Kimbell is growing no less than the city around it, and late this year the museum is scheduled to open its long-anticipated annex, a concrete-and-glass pavilion designed by the one man with both the temerity and authority to even tinker around the edges of Kahn’s creation: Renzo Piano, the world’s most influential living architect.

The legacy Piano must respect, however, goes well beyond Kahn’s daunting accomplishment. As much as Piano’s pavilion symbolizes Fort Worth’s twenty-first-century ambitions, it is far eclipsed by the role the Kimbell Museum has played in transforming our state during the past forty years. For all its subtle elegance, Kahn’s Kimbell exploded onto the Texas cultural scene like a supernova, revolutionizing our self-image and sending out shock waves that continue to shape the cities in which most of us now live. It is because of the Kimbell that Texas cities increasingly market themselves as “arts destinations” as much as business centers—and the activity we see in the cultural district today is simply Fort Worth racing to keep up with the changes set in motion there a generation ago. The man who financed this revolution represented a bygone Texas tradition, an up-from-the-dirt wheeler-dealer who found in the arts a perfect marriage of acquisitiveness and altruism. Kay Kimbell dropped out of school at age thirteen to work for his father’s grain-milling business in the bustling North Texas town of Whitewright, eventually making his fortune in oil, grain, and food products. His cultural epiphany came in 1935, when he attended an art exhibition at Fort Worth’s Carnegie Library and met the organizer, New York dealer Bertram Newhouse, who would guide Kimbell’s collecting for the rest of his life. By the time Kimbell died, in 1964, he owned about seventy companies and corporations and more than three hundred works of art, many of them eighteenth-century portraits of English aristocrats. His widow, Velma, who also grew up in Whitewright, remarkably pledged their entire estate to the Kimbell Art Foundation, which the couple had created in 1936 to promote the arts and to perhaps someday fund a museum. A year after Kay’s death, the foundation’s board hired art historian Ric Brown—who had helped food tycoon and philanthropist Norton Simon found the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—as the first director of the yet-to-be-built Kimbell Art Museum.

With tens of millions of dollars at his disposal, Brown looked past Kay’s portraits and turned his keen scholarly eye to the art market. Knowing that even the Kimbell Foundation’s hefty endowment couldn’t begin to build the kind of encyclopedic collection that had until then distinguished the world’s great museums, Brown eschewed quantity for works of “definitive excellence”—paintings and sculptures of such rare quality that they represented the summa of an artist’s career or even an entire period. Brown began ferreting out masterpieces years before the museum opened: Giovanni Bellini’s Christ Blessing , Goya’s Portrait of the Matador Pedro Romero , and Picasso’s cubist Man With a Pipe only marked the beginning of a trove that has led many to call the Kimbell the world’s best small museum.

In 1966 Brown also handpicked (and subsequently rode herd on) the notoriously difficult Kahn, a Philadelphian then known for the modernist Yale University art museum and his minimalist, cast-concrete Salk Institute campus in La Jolla, California. At the time, Fort Worth’s cultural district was hardly an architectural wasteland, but it held little promise of artistic immortality. The thirties moderne Will Rogers Memorial Center, a massive livestock showcase, was designed by Wyatt C. Hedrick, a Fort Worth fixture who became better known for Houston’s Shamrock Hotel. Next to that was the boxy Fort Worth Art Center, designed in the fifties by Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer and today almost entirely overlooked (it’s now a community arts center). And across the street, atop a little acropolis overlooking the Kimbell site, was the 1961 Amon Carter Museum, designed by America’s foremost modernist architect, Philip Johnson. Though the building, with its peculiarly stylized derivation of a classical arcade, was prophetic of Johnson’s controversial and wildly successful postmodern conversion—there is an interesting albeit rarely remarked on echo of his arcade in Kahn’s facing rows of barrel vaults—it was ridiculed as “ballet classicism” for the way the severely tapered arches seemed to stand on point.

The international praise lavished almost immediately upon the Kimbell and its contents didn’t just elevate the architectural profile of the cultural district, it transformed the psyche of the entire state. For generations the culturally aspiring among us had labored under accusations of “provincialism,” the widely held notion that Texans, far removed from the centers of real culture, would have to be eternally content with mediocre samplings or pale imitations of the art produced in places like New York and Paris. Fearful of being labeled provincial, Texas patrons had traditionally shopped so frantically for designer-label art

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