The boom is on in Texas—and for once we’re not talking oil. The state is in the middle of an all-out arts explosion that is boosting our cultural capital and reinvigorating our civic life. Consider the once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster exhibitions we’ve been landing: the 2008 J. M. W. Turner retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art, for example, and this month’s Caravaggio exhibit at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum (the only showing in the country). Or think of the buzz around starchitect-led projects like Rem Koolhaas’s 2009 Wyly Theatre, in the Dallas Arts District, and Renzo Piano’s impending 2013 addition to the Kimbell. Then there’s the recent raft of major acquisitions—a 2005 gift to the DMA from three collector couples of works worth $300 million is still causing ripples—and lauded curatorial hires, from Peter Doroshenko at the Dallas Contemporary to Thomas Kellein at Marfa’s Chinati Foundation. Not to mention, of course, the artists, both homegrown (Dario Robleto, Trenton Doyle Hancock) and adopted (Katrina Moorhead, Francesca Fuchs), who are becoming increasingly sought-after.
All this in spite of the fact that the Texas art world is still trying to overcome the perception that it is full of rubes. We come in nearly last in state funding for the arts (we rank forty-sixth in appropriations per capita), and thanks to the slow attrition of newspapers, we have less cultural coverage than ever (even the longtime Texas visual arts journal Art Lies gave up the ghost this year). And artists within our borders must continually fight the suffocating stereotype that our tastes are limited to cowboys and cacti.
So what has sparked this burst of creative achievement? One answer is our ingrained boosterism. “The conservatism of Texas politics makes people assume that this is an unsupportive environment for the arts,” says Alison de Lima Greene, who has been a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston since 1984. “But there is such a tolerance here for private funding that our giving is extraordinary.” This kind of support, together with pride for all things Texan, has meant that we’ve become an incubator for talent. And with internationally renowned fellowships like the Core Program at Houston’s Glassell School of Art—not to mention affordable studio spaces—more and more artists are putting down roots. As Trenton Doyle Hancock said during a Texas Biennial panel discussion in April, “You get a sense that there’s a great support and respect here for art, which is passed down from generation to generation. So you can get spoiled.”
Yet perhaps the most significant factor in solidifying our artistic standing has been the commitment of our museums and galleries to acquiring and preserving a vast cache of masterpieces (did you know that Michelangelo’s earliest known painting is at the Kimbell?). Our treasure trove is so rich, in fact, that we decided to see if we could put together a definitive list of the most significant pieces in our possession. We went straight to the experts, surveying more than sixty museum directors, curators, gallery owners, critics, and historians across the state. The question was simple: Which works of art on public view in Texas would make your “must-see” list and why? (Out of curiosity, we also asked our virtual panel to single out some of the individuals who are currently shaping the Texas arts scene.) The impassioned responses poured in from all corners—from Canyon and Corpus Christi to Beaumont and El Paso—and though they varied widely, clear favorites did emerge.
On the following pages, we take a closer look at the top vote-getters: ten disparate works that range from classic to cutting-edge. Despite their scope, they all have one thing in common: each rouses an intensity of feeling—be it delight or vexation—that will compel you to stand in front of it or walk around it or step inside it again and again. “Some of the works that stay with you the most powerfully are those that you don’t grasp immediately but that nag you and take time to unroll in your mind,” says de Lima Greene. “Good art isn’t always about instant gratification.” As you make your way around the state, give yourself time to dwell on each of these favorites. Whether or not it’s the first time you’re seeing them, it certainly won’t be the last.
DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART
The Icebergs (1861)
FREDERIC EDWIN CHURCH
What the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, The Icebergs is to the Dallas Museum of Art. The monumental canvas (it’s a stunning five by nine feet) has been a crowd-pleaser ever since Frederic Edwin Church, who was as skilled a self-promoter as P. T. Barnum, unveiled it at a Civil War fund-raising exhibition. In 1979 it was gifted to the DMA by oil scion Lamar Hunt just days after he’d bought it at auction for a headline-making $2.5 million (at the time, more than twice what any other American artwork had ever fetched). Church spent a month sketching glaciers from a ship off the coast of Newfoundland, and to see The Icebergs up close is to appreciate his technical virtuosity. “He paradoxically portrays an inhospitable landscape with warm light, glowing surfaces, and a multitude of small, active areas to discover,” says Bridget Marx, the associate director and curator of exhibitions at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum. “My favorite way to view this work is with a pair of binoculars. You feel as if you too are standing at the bow of Church’s boat.”
Photograph by Justin Clemens. 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
CHINATI FOUNDATION, MARFA
100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum (1982–1986)
The one hundred aluminum boxes that Donald Judd arranged in precise rows of three in two renovated artillery sheds in Marfa may have been fabricated in Connecticut, but they are irrefutably Texan. By the time they were all put in place, in 1986, the Missouri native was already an international art icon and had been living in West Texas for more than