It stands to reason that residents should expect both pluses and minuses from Austin’s transformation into a bigger, richer, and more expensive city. For the city’s art community, the downsides of the recent boom have been painfully noted, from the widespread loss of studio and gallery spaces to the pricing out of semi-employed creatives who once defined the city’s slacker mystique. But when should we expect the upside of all the new money to arrive, and in what form? A shiny new world-class art museum? Better exhibitions, collections, and architecture for the museums we already know and love?
It was perhaps with these questions in mind last weekend that hundreds of Austinites braved a daunting weather forecast to gather outdoors on the UT campus’s Moody Patio to inaugurate the reimagined exterior grounds of the Blanton Museum of Art, the city’s largest and most important art museum, with by far the largest permanent collection in town and a wide-ranging breadth of exhibitions and other programming. The two-year grounds-improvement project adds several new features to the mix, including an attractive cluster of three-story-tall shade structures, which the museum calls Petals; a landscaped, winding path leading to a nearby parking garage; an outdoor sound gallery in a small park-like setting; and a viewing gallery, known as the Lookout, with a huge picture window built into the museum’s second story from which visitors can sit and people-watch the plaza below.
In her speech inaugurating the new grounds, Blanton director Simone Wicha addressed the elephant in the room. “Austin has changed dramatically over the last sixty years, just as the Blanton has,” Wicha told the crowd. “We’re both not only ‘on the map,’ but we’re now places where people expect, or perhaps demand — rightfully so — great cultural experiences.”
During her decade-long tenure at the helm of the Blanton, Wicha has returned to this theme of putting and keeping the Blanton “on the map” of the global art world, especially in 2018, when she unveiled Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” a chapel-like structure and standalone artwork by the blue-chip American artist, on the north end of what has now become Moody Patio. To the west and east of the new plaza are the buildings containing the museum galleries and the admissions, gift shop, and administrative offices, respectively, while to the south is MLK Boulevard and the newly redesigned Texas Capitol Mall.
Mayor Kirk Watson, who also gave a speech at the grand-opening festivities, described Moody Patio as a new lynchpin of Austin’s urban layout. “For years I’ve said that downtown is the living room of our entire community,” Watson said. “Now we have the patio that leads us to our living room, across that wonderful Capitol Mall.”
The wet weather made it difficult to judge the crowd’s reaction to the new grounds, but it had every appearance of a successfully designed public space, with families exploring the landscaping, older folks resting serenely on the many curved and communal seating areas, and a steady churn of museum visitors paying the new $15 admission fee (a $3 hike) to head upstairs and enjoy the view from the Lookout.
Above all, the new grounds project’s success will be defined by public reaction to the twelve enormous, perforated Petal shade structures—and they are surefire winners, iconic yet welcoming. Designed, along with the rest of the new grounds project, by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, the Petals softened the sunlight when I visited the Blanton on a bright weekday, casting diffuse shadows punched through with countless overlapping holes. On the rainy Saturday of the grand opening, they caught much of the rainwater, storing it in a below-ground collection system to be used to feed the new landscaping on drier days.
Beyond the Petals, some other elements of the new design are less inspiring. The $5 million Butler Sound Gallery on the north side of the museum felt bafflingly unambitious—a row of speakers pipe in Central Texas nature sounds, collected by sound artist Bill Fontana, into a park-like space replete with mature oaks fully capable of providing their own bucolic soundtrack. Meanwhile, the new footpath to the nearby Brazos Garage vastly improves the block-long walk to the museum for visitors who arrive by car, though perhaps at the expense of nonmotorized modes of transit. I left the grand-opening event when the rain picked up and ended up stuck in a forty-minute traffic jam as everyone attempted to exit the paid parking system at the same time. (This portends problems for the museum’s sure-to-be-popular upcoming “Second Saturdays” event series.) Meanwhile, the Blanton appears to have ignored a request from Austin’s Bicycle Advisory Council to allow two-wheeled traffic to flow through the museum’s grounds, instead forcing bikes to navigate around the museum complex and to park as far away as cars when visiting the museum.
The Lookout, the second-story seating gallery and picture window, is the other big, iconic element of Snøhetta’s design. It’s eye-catching, populist, and all about reframing one’s vision of the everyday, so it makes for a nice transition from public space into the rarefied air of the Blanton’s galleries. As I sat looking out the big window, I overheard positive comments, from “This would be a good place to host a concert” to “This is pretty awesome. Like, none of these people realize they’re being watched.” Currently, however, the picture window has a large crack in it, sustained, according to the museum’s PR manager, soon after installation in November 2022, and set to be replaced later this year after a year-long custom process including fabrication in Germany and four-pane assembly in Mexico. Not everyone in the seating gallery noticed the crack, but for those who did, it felt a bit like Austin had just dropped its brand-new iPhone.
It’s hard to blame the Blanton for a cracked window, but one can also forgive Austin’s art community for impatience in, as Wicha puts it, “demanding” excellence from its historically underwhelming museum scene. The Blanton physical complex remains the site of perhaps Austin’s greatest disappointment in terms of building world-class cultural institutions. In the late 1990s, the Blanton contracted with the prominent architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, perhaps best known for their “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, to design the museum’s new permanent home. But the ambitious plan was rejected by the UT Board of Regents, which demanded a more conservative design, leading the dean of the UT School of Architecture to resign over the mistreatment of the architects. The more ho-hum plan for the museum that emerged from that process, by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects, is what the present exterior grounds project aims to improve.
And it is certainly an improvement, if an incremental one. For those of us who would hope to see a continued upping of the ante until Austin boasts a truly world-class art museum, however, the reminder of the challenge ahead is present in the Blanton’s architecture—and across MLK Boulevard, where ultimate power over the museum resides. It’s a tough balancing act to be a forward-thinking, trend-setting institution when you’re also, as part of a public university, an apparatus of one of the more conservative states in the union. (One potentially illuminating example of this is the museum’s apparent downplaying of the gay history “topical aspect” of Kelly’s rainbow chapel when it rolled out in 2018.)
Operating from such a challenging spot on the political map, it’s admirable how shrewdly the Blanton has labored in recent years to put itself on the map of great cultural experiences. The last time many of us walked through the front door of the museum, we were in pre-pandemic times, Austin had a third as many Fortune 500 headquarters, and the whole place looked a lot less interesting. It goes to show that when the public insists on something, and there’s enough money around to provide it, much becomes possible. Here’s hoping that this gift of a dozen Petals is only the beginning of a broader bloom for Austin’s museum scene.