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An Artful Engagement: New Blanton Museum opens doors for campus and community to connect with art and each other

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When the Blanton Museum of Art opens its doors on April 29, visitors may have a hard time deciding what aspect of the new museum wows them the most.

There’s the building itself, with its dazzling light-filled atrium and sweeping loggia across the front. There’s the innovative programming such as yoga in the minimalist art galleries and visits from the ultra-hip Austin Craft Mafia. And there’s the art, of course, offering Italian Renaissance paintings, contemporary sculpture and plenty of inspired pieces in between.

View of crated sculpture waiting for installation at Blanton Museum of Art
After a long wait, the Blanton Museum is set to open in its stunning new home. Installation of pieces from the museum’s permanent collection of more than 17,000 works of art began in February.

video icon Watch the video produced by UTOPIA on the Blanton Museum of Art’s epic 24-hour grand opening.

One thing visitors are sure to agree on is that this is not their grandmother’s art museum. Art is alive at the Blanton, and everyone is invited to experience it.

“I think this building with its beautiful interior spaces and inviting exterior spaces is going to create a destination for people in the community,” says Jessie Otto Hite, director of the Blanton. “And our programming will bring people through to door so that we have a chance to let them experience how wonderful a relationship with the visual arts can be.”

Named for Houston philanthropist and businessman Jack S. Blanton, the museum has long had a strong collection of works. It has been tucked away for years, however, in the arts building in the center of campus and much of its collection was held in storage. The Blanton has waited a long time for a building of its own. It’s a wait that Hite knows firsthand.

Hite joined the museum 27 years ago as a part-time curatorial assistant. Even then, talk of a new museum building was brewing. The process, marked by false starts and design controversies, stretched far longer than anyone expected.

It now appears the wait was well worth it. Around the Blanton offices the excitement is palpable.

Phillip Evergood's Dance Marathon
Phillip Evergood
Dance Marathon, 1934
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

Listen to Uncommon Commentary tour selection about Dance Marathon with Anush Emelianova, docent and member of the Student Guild, an organization that promotes the Blanton.

“I do have to pinch myself when I walk through these galleries,” Hite says. “It seemed at times like it would never happen.

“I can’t wait until the first Tuesday after the opening, because I want to see a regular day with people walking through the door. That’s going to be a wonderful thing.”

Visitors will be introduced to the Mari and James A. Michener Building, the larger of the two buildings to compose the new Blanton, this year. This building provides gallery space for both temporary exhibitions and the Blanton’s growing permanent collection.

In 2007 the Edgar A. Smith Building is slated to open, housing the museum staff and offering a café, museum store and auditorium for programs. The two buildings together will span 180,000 square feet, making the Blanton the largest university art museum in the country.

The museum will also hold a role that is unique for university art museums.

“I don’t think there’s another museum quite like the Blanton,” says Anne Manning, curator of education and academic affairs. “We’re one of the few university art museums that also serves a major city, and we’re also in a major city that hasn’t had a major art museum. So that’s such an unusual combination.”

It’s a combination that the Blanton staff sees as both an opportunity and a responsibility.

“We started asking, ‘What can we be?’” Manning explains. “It’s really a shift from looking internally and being a museum that produces and disseminates knowledge to being one that is connected to and in dialogue with the community it serves.”

In preparing its programs, the Blanton gathered feedback from the Austin community through focus groups and meetings. One thing that was clear was that people wanted to feel that the museum was accessible to them, even if they weren’t familiar with navigating the ins and outs of the university campus.

The museum’s location goes a long way toward meeting that need. Situated at the southern end of the campus, directly across from the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton is easy to reach from on campus and off. The parking garage next door will offer discounted rates for museum-goers.

What visitors find when they arrive at the museum will make the visit most memorable.

“Museums around the country are saying that we have so much to offer and we don’t want to be perceived of as purely scholarly resources,” says Ann Wilson, associate director of the Blanton. Before coming to the Blanton in 2004, Wilson worked at museums in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Peter Paul Rubens' Head of a Young Man
Peter Paul Rubens
Head of a Young Man, 1601-1602
Oil on paper, mounted on panel
The Suida-Manning Collection

Listen to Uncommon Commentary tour selection about Head of a Young Man with Jonathan Bober, curator of European paintings at the Blanton.

“Museums are trying to be much more creative and inventive in the ways that we help connect people with the works and each other,” she says. “We’re trying to make the Blanton a really lively place where there are a lot of ways to engage with art.”

An array of exciting new programs makes that possible.

On the first Friday of every month the Blanton will host B scene, an event designed to engage new audiences in a cross-disciplinary investigation of art, culture and ideas. Held in the atrium, galleries and on the outdoor plaza, the event will offer hors d’oeuvres, live music, gallery talks and other activities. Monthly MIX events will provide similar opportunities for students at the university and nearby universities.

“There’s the idea of the museum as a social gathering space, a place to come and hang out with art,” Wilson says. “So we’re trying to create social experiences, social opportunities for young people in the Austin community.”

There will also be programs for teachers and students, a Blanton book club and a lunch-time program called Art Fix to encourage faculty, staff, students and the downtown business community to visit during lunch. Add gallery talks, tours and programs for kids like Hot Art, Hip Kids and there’s clearly something for everyone.

And then there’s the works the museum was built to showcase.

“I want us to be loose and fun, but I don’t want us to lose the focus,” Hite says. “The focus is all about the art.”

The Blanton’s permanent collection is impressive in its scope, spanning the history of Western civilization from antiquity to the present. The Suida Manning collection of European paintings and drawings includes works by canonical masters, including Cambiaso, Rubens and Parmagianino. And the Blanton’s 15,000 prints, including the Leo Steinberg collection, form the only encyclopedic collection in Texas and one of the finest on a university campus.

The Blanton’s Latin American collection represents more than 600 artists from 18 countries and is one of the oldest, largest and most comprehensive collections in the country. It will be shown alongside works from the American collection in the new museum, which includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture and new media from the early 20th century to the present day.

Blanton Museum of Art visitors take in Cildo Meireles' Missão/Missões [How to Build Cathedrals], a highlight of the Blanton's modern and contemporary collections and installed in its own gallery
Cildo Meireles’ Missão/Missões [How to Build Cathedrals] (1987) is a highlight of the Blanton’s modern and contemporary collections and is installed in its own gallery. The Brazilian artist’s dramatic work features 600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers and 200 suspended cattle bones. The installation suggests that the conquest of the Americas was as much about economics as it was about religion or saving souls.

The Blanton’s galleries were designed with the museum’s unique collection in mind. Expansive stretches highlight larger works, like the abstract expressionists of the 20th century, and more intimate spaces allow visitors to appreciate smaller pieces.

And visitors are not left to decipher art on their own. The Blanton’s exciting audio tour, Uncommon Commentary, introduces listeners to 32 pieces of art. It’s no ordinary tour, however. A local hair stylist, a landscaper, a former police officer, a minister and the owner of a local bookstore join the museum’s curators in illuminating individual works of art for the listener.

“We wanted to present a tour that created a patchwork of voices from the Austin community,” Manning says. “It also encourages people to develop their own interpretation about works of art and discover that there are many different entry points into understanding a piece.”

And there are many different entry points to the experience of the museum as well. The university and the greater community are invited to take part in a series of opening weeks events, culminating in the 24-hour Extremely Grand Opening, beginning at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 29. An elaborate schedule of events offers a sampling of the programming that defines the new museum.

After the opening, the Blanton will settle in to its role as the major art museum for the campus and community. People will picnic on the grounds and meet in the atrium. Students will settle into the eLounge between the galleries or take advantage of the wireless Internet throughout the building. Scholars will study prints and drawings. Each visitor will find a way to make the experience of the museum his or her own.

“I want students to know that this is a place you can come to learn,” Hite says. “It’s a place you can come with friends on a date. It’s a place you can come for a quiet, contemplative moment when you just need to get away and recharge.

“And although this is the university’s museum, it’s really there for the community. I would love everyone to feel that.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS from Blanton Museum here and on banner graphic: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 20 June 2006
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