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 of Fine Arts), Philip Johnson (the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi and the Amon Carter Museum), Renzo Piano (the Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston)—fairly glistens with stars. And in the affluent Texas of the nineties, communities across the state are out to buy themselves a masterpiece. The Art Center of Waco plans to build “a world-class building” in the next few years, says director Joseph Kagle, Jr., of its $4 million to $5 million project. Accordingly, his search committee sent more than two hundred RFQs (requests for qualifications) to architects worldwide and received nearly fifty responses. The shortlist included William McDonough, the dean of the architecture school at the University of Virginia; the venerable New York architect Philip Johnson; and Rick Sundberg, whose Seattle firm, Olson Sundberg, won kudos for its redesign of that city’s Frye Art Museum. The committee chose the Seattle firm.

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth will begin construction this fall on a new concrete-and-glass edifice to replace its current building. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando with a respectful nod to the Kimbell across the street, it will appear to float on a shallow reflecting pool. Meanwhile, in Dallas, the Meadows Museum on the Southern Methodist University campus hired the Chicago architecture firm Hammond, Beeby, and Babka to design a freestanding building four times larger than its current space in the SMU arts center. The new building is expected to open in the fall of 2000.

This apparent sudden flurry of activity actually started years ago. In Houston the spring 2000 completion of the Museum of Fine Arts’ monolithic Audrey Jones Beck Building—which was designed by prizewinning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and doubles the museum’s exhibition space—will mark the end of a fifteen-year expansion project.

Other Texas museums were held back by the state’s economic downturn in the mid-eighties. For example, in 1982 the Austin Museum of Art (known then as the Laguna Gloria Art Museum) selected renowned Philadelphia postmodernist architect Robert Venturi to design a new building. The city voted to approve the sale of bonds to finance the project, but soon afterward Austin’s economy ground to a halt, and so did the new museum’s progress. When the AMOA recovered sufficient momentum to appoint a new architecture committee in the mid-nineties, it recommended scrapping the Venturi plans. Why? Museum technology had changed, the original downtown warehouse district site had been expanded, and the AMOA’s mission had broadened to embrace the interests of a multicultural audience. Beyond that, says committee chairman Stephen Becker, few of the current board members had a “sense of ownership” of the Venturi design. “The only thing that’s the same [about the new project and the eighties plan] is the zip code,” he says.

The AMOA’s nineties finalists included Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner Architects in New York; Moshe Safdie and Associates of Boston, Toronto, and Jerusalem; and Christian de Portzamparc of Paris—but not the state’s hottest architecture firm, Lake/Flato, which was also in the running for the Waco and San Angelo projects. “It’s more exotic to have a name from Europe than Texas,” says David Lake, adding that Texans seem to prefer architects who live more than one thousand miles away.

Becker counters that his committee was not looking for yet another marquee name like Venturi but rather for “experience with designing spaces for art”—a common refrain among museum directors and search committees. Richard Gluckman landed the job, and the challenge he faces is twofold. First, he must design a museum that will be located near where Austin plans to build a new city hall and plaza and where Computer Sciences Corporation plans to move its corporate headquarters. But none of these buildings, which will provide a visual context for the museum, has been finalized. Second, because the AMOA does not own a significant art collection, the galleries must be designed to accommodate the museum’s shifting curatorial dreams.

The early eighties also saw the genesis of another Austin museum project that is now moving forward. Last December the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art (formerly the Archer M. Huntington Gallery) at the University of Texas at Austin announced the selection of Herzog and de Meuron, a Swiss firm that had designed a highly praised private museum for the Goetz Collection in Munich, Germany. The Blanton Museum will be located at one of the main entrances to the UT campus and across the street from the future Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Herzog and de Meuron’s challenge is quite different from Gluckman’s. The Blanton has an ample collection and a campus on which noted twentieth-century architects Cass Gilbert, Paul Cret, and Cesar Pelli and Associates have all left their mark. How will Herzog and de Meuron respond to the setting? Preliminary conceptual drawings portraying an elegant, low-slung building that could be constructed in phases were presented to the UT Board of Regents Facilities Committee in July. They received a cool response. Led by Tony Sanchez and Rita Clements, the regents reportedly expressed concern about the museum’s compatibility with other campus buildings. “I have a flat roof on my house,” Clements said. “I wouldn’t want a flat roof.” The regents asked to see alternative solutions in October.

Angelo State University regents, on the other hand, readily approved Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer’s design for the San Angelo museum. The university contributed to the project $2,715,000 it had received from the state to develop an educational center and museum for fine arts. In return, SAMFA, which raised the rest of the money and will operate the museum, constructed a ceramics studio and classrooms for ASU students at one end of its building. Angelo State will also be able to program the museum’s galleries from time to time. On September 26 SAMFA will open with exhibits that include a show of work by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, featuring drawings and architectural models for the San Angelo project. In other words, people will flock to the museum to see . . . the museum.

The building’s lean, rectangular form stretches down toward the bank of the Concho River and nestles among a park, an outdoor stage, and a row of empty, run-down buildings. From its petal-shaped rooftop sculpture garden, visitors can gaze across the river into the heart of San Angelo’s business district. From almost any street downtown, it is possible to see the museum’s distinctive copper Conestoga-shaped roofline curving against the sky.

How did this new museum, with its imposing limestone exterior, lime-green window frames, distinctive roof, and quirky personality, come to be designed by a prestigious New York architecture firm? Malcolm Holzman, who served as the principal architect on the project, says he was impressed by the museum’s query, which declared: “A small museum in Texas wants to make great architecture.” When his firm was placed on the museum’s shortlist, Holzman traveled to San Angelo twice to make a presentation to the search committee. He remembers telling the committee, “No matter how many buildings I design in New York City, none will have the impact that this museum will have on San Angelo.”

Rebecca S. Cohen wrote about the state’s top charitable foundations in the December 1997 issue of Texas Monthly.