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.
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
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
really building a first-rate 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.
Cambiaso, Esther and Ahasuerus,
“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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”