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The Blanton Turns 40: Unparalleled collections and inventive programs move museum into future

If you think that 40th birthday parties are made for black streamers and R.I.P. signs, think again. When the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin celebrates its 40th birthday on Nov. 14, it will do so in the psychedelic colors of the ‘60s, with a Beatles tribute band and a buffet reminiscent of Julia Child. Mostly though, it will buzz with the excitement that’s palpable at the Blanton. This is a museum that has come of age.

The Blanton 40th Birthday Bash

Gone are the Blanton’s early days when the museum held just 450 works of art and a lot of big ambitions. Today’s Blanton has an expansive collection of 17,000 works, including the most significant collection of Latin American art in the country. Museum visitors can browse the galleries with handheld computers offering interpretive tools for interacting with the works. And a new building is under construction, slated to open in late 2005. At 155,000 square feet, the $83.5 million museum will be the largest university art museum in the country.

“We’ve come a long way,” says museum director Jessie Otto Hite. “We’re this really integral part of the university and university life, and we’re the major collecting museum for the city, so we are one of the university’s major assets in service to the community. We have spent these 40 years really building a first-rate institution.”

The institution is busy gearing up for its new home at the southern edge of campus at the corner of Congress Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The location will move the museum out of the center of campus and into the center of the city, easily accessible for students and the Austin community, across the street from the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and within walking distance of the state capitol and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.

Luca Cambiaso, Esther and Ahasuerus, circa 1565-70
Luca Cambiaso, Esther and Ahasuerus,
circa 1565-70

“My friend Larry Speck, when he was dean of the school of architecture, told me it was the most important civic site in the state of Texas,” Hite says. “And it really is a great site. It will help us better serve all of our audiences.”

The Blanton first opened on Nov. 15, 1963 as the University Art Gallery when the College of Fine Arts opened the Art Building. Its roots, however, go back to Galveston Bay.

In 1927 philanthropist Archer M. Huntington donated more than 4,000 acres of land along Galveston Bay to the university to fund an art museum. When the College of Fine Arts was established in 1938, funds from this endowment supported art exhibitions held in buildings throughout the campus. The museum itself was established 25 years later.

By the late 1960s the museum was growing rapidly, and the growth hasn’t yet slowed. The novelist James A. Michener and his wife Mari placed their significant collection of 20th century American painting on display to the Blanton in 1968 and later donated the collection to the museum. Michener was notoriously methodical in his approach to collecting, and his collection traces the history of American painting from the start of the century. He also allotted funds to flesh out the collection after he himself stopped collecting.

In 1971 New York collector Barbara Duncan donated her collection of Latin American art to the museum, establishing the heart of a collection that is now the largest in the country.

Pablo Picasso, The Blind Minotaur, 1934
Pablo Picasso, The Blind Minotaur, 1934

By 1972 the permanent collection had outgrown the galleries in the Art Building and the museum installed work at the newly built Ransom Center. For nearly 20 years, until the recent renovation of the Ransom Center, the museum maintained space in both buildings.

The Blanton’s burgeoning collections account for only part of its growth. As a university art museum, one of the Blanton’s key missions is education, and it has long been a leader in the field of museum education. The Blanton’s Art Enrichment program, established in 1977, is recognized as a national model for K-12 art education.

“Twenty-five years ago museums were just beginning to recognize their role within communities and schools and reaching out to the general public, being more than just a repository for art,” says Anne Manning, curator of education and academic affairs. “Art Enrichment was a push to get beyond the tradition of scholarship and research at university art museums and share the museum’s treasures. It’s been going strong for 25 years and has been a model for other multi-visit museum programs across the country.”

What made Art Enrichment innovative at its inception was that it went beyond the single field trip that usually introduced students to the museum. Students made four visits during the year, with in-depth interactive exercises with docents. They learned about individual works of art, but more important, they developed a vocabulary for talking about art and learned skills for analyzing and interpreting works of art.

Stuart Davis, Lawn and Sky, 1931
Stuart Davis, Lawn and Sky, 1931

The program continues today and is open to students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade in the Austin Independent School District. It serves about 500 students a year. The program has evolved with the changes in school curriculums. The emphasis today is on interdisciplinary learning and critical thinking skills. And students come to understand that the museum can serve as a resource for lifelong learning.

In 1988, the Blanton established the first full-time curatorship in Latin American art in the country. The move solidified the role of the art of Latin America in the collection, and the collection continues to draw significant gifts to this day.

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, curator of Latin American art, says the collection has always found a resonance with students studying various areas of Latin America. And its association with strong academic programs in Latin American studies has drawn collectors to it.

“A key selling point for collectors has been that it’s a collection that’s studied,” Perez-Barreiro says. “The donated work will continue to have a life and won’t just sit in storage somewhere. It will be available to students and for analysis, both in the museum and eventually on the Internet through the Knowledge Gateway.”

Gifts toward education, art acquisitions and the new building have continued to come in. In 1998 the Blanton unveiled the newly acquired Suida-Manning collection, widely recognized as one of the greatest privately assembled collections of Renaissance and Baroque art in the world. Last year it acquired the print collection of famed art collector Leo Steinberg, which includes works by Rembrandt, Parmigianino, Dürer and other masters.

Cildo Meireles, Missao/Missoes (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987
Cildo Meireles’ Missão/Missões (How to Build Cathedrals), featuring a floor of pennies and a ceiling of cow bones, will be installed in the new building.

The Blanton at 40 is a professionally run, nationally recognized museum hosting thousands of visitors a year and offering a broad range of programs, lectures, concerts, symposia and teacher workshops. And yet people at the Blanton are much less interested in talking about how far they have come than they are at looking at where they are headed.

In October the Blanton started doing something no other museum in the country is doing: offering visitors the opportunity to use handheld devices to interact with exhibited works.

“We have top of the line pocket PCs that we loaded with rich, rich content, which includes videos of the artists talking about their work, curators discussing the work, creative play pieces that allow you to interact with the works and other content,” Manning explains. “It’s the next level of the audio tour and a different way to help visitors experience the museum.”

The interactive approach pairs the latest technology with the permanence of a piece of art. As the Blanton moves to its new space, Manning’s team is looking for ways to expand the possibilities of using this technology to enhance a visitor’s experience.

Exciting new possibilities for displaying the collection also await the Blanton in its new building. Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, curator of American and Contemporary Art, and Perez-Barreiro are planning to display the modern and contemporary art of the United States and Latin America side-by-side. No other museum integrates the art of these regions in this way, and the approach recognizes that art crosses and sometimes dissolves borders.

For four decades the Blanton has made direct encounters with art available to students of all ages
For four decades the Blanton has made direct encounters with art available to students of all ages.

“The art of the U.S. and Latin America are often created in dialogue with each other,” Perez-Barreiro explains. “It’s a great opportunity to have the space to display these works simultaneously.”

In the new building, visitors will also have the opportunity to see future work as it is being created. After moving through the permanent galleries, visitors will come to spaces dedicated to in-progress projects by contemporary artists who will come to the museum by invitation. These artists may create in response to other work in the galleries or to a topical issue, but the work will be fresh, brand new and inevitably provocative.

“The ‘project room’ is intended to be an experimental space for contemporary artists to make new work,” Carlozzi says. “Locating the space within the permanent collection galleries encourages viewers to recognize that art being made today is an integral part of a distinguished historical continuum.”

The new Blanton promises to be a place of new work, new programs and new opportunities for students and the public alike. But whether it be 1963 or 2003 or 2043, the museum’s core value remains unchanged: it allows people to step out of their lives and into the experience of standing before a piece of great art.

“For students, and for anyone really, art nourishes the spirit, and that’s something that everyone needs,” says Manning. “To be able to come to a place and see a larger picture of humanity, to see a connection between what you’re doing in your microcosmic experience—one class, one university, one city—with another culture or another time period, that’s pretty powerful. It enriches people’s lives.”

Vivé Griffith

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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