News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Amon Carter Museum Unveils $39 Million Renovation

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 FM reporter

Fort Worth, TX – Soon after opening its bronze-framed glass doors for the first time in 1961, the Amon Carter began outgrowing both its physical space and artistic mission. The 400 Western art objects, housed in what was originally a memorial to philanthropist Amon G. Carter, grew to a quarter of a million American pieces. Even after two additions designed by Philip Johnson, the original architect, the Amon Carter still couldn't show even one-tenth of one percent of its highly regarded collection. Now, that's changed.

Rick Stewart, Director, Amon Carter Museum: We have four times the wall space to show works of art.

Zeeble: Rick Stewart is the Amon Carter Museum director:

Stewart: And we're basically quadrupling the amount of works that were on view. We have 600 works on view now.

Zeeble: Some of those works include what have been the star attractions of the Carter collection from the start: the world-famous works by Western master artists Charles Russell and Frederic Remington. Among the 400 objects in the collection and on display in a front gallery are the small Russell bronzes from Montana's famous Mint Saloon. It was a Russell hangout owned by a friend who collected Russell's works.

Stewart: There'll never be another complete collection, because most of the bronzes are only one copy known to exist.

Zeeble: But those aren't the museum's only holdings to attract distant visitors.

David Dillon, Architecture Critic, Dallas Morning News: Anyone that knows anything about photography knows that it has one of the great, great collections of American photography anywhere.

Zeeble: David Dillon is architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News

David Dillon: It's nice to see that much photography on display. The fact that the Carter has such a great collection that's rarely been seen, I think that's a great plus.

Zeeble: The Museum holds more than 230,000 pieces in its photography collection; from complete archives and negatives to exhibition quality prints considered the best in any American art museum. Now, a rotating portion of them will always be on display instead of hiding in dark vaults. They include prints by Laura Gilpin and Eliot Porter. The two may be little known outside the art world, according to Amon Carter photography curator Barbra McCandless. But their Southwestern pictures, including photos of Georgia O'Keefe, are immediately recognizable to many.

Barbra McCandless, Photography Curator, Amon Carter Museum: Laura Gilpin started out as a pictorial photographer, but specialized in photos of the landscape and portraits of Southwestern people. Elliot Porter started in black and white, but then in the early '40s started experimenting with color photography and became known for being the one artist who really brought acceptance to color photography as an art form.

Zeeble: Museum director Rick Stewart believes his newly expanded museum is successfully experimenting with color, too. The huge moveable walls in the larger galleries are painted different hues. And a new lighting scheme enhances paintings like Thomas Moran's 1874 Wyoming landscape, "Cliff of Green River."

Stewart: The painting is just glowing on the wall, because it's being given space around it. It has a kind of light we just couldn't get in the old building. And it has color behind it, which really helps because we're now allowed to work with different colors in the gallery space. It's not a white cube anymore. As soon as you walk upstairs, it's glowing at you like a brightly lit movie screen.

Zeeble: Stewart's ecstatic about this result, and so is architect Philip Johnson.

Philip Johnson, Architect: The assignment was the most difficult one I've had in my lifetime, and we solved it.

Zeeble: At 95, Philip Johnson's handled a lot of difficult jobs. He's world renowned for works like New York's AT&T building, Fort Worth's water garden, and his own glass house in Connecticut. He says the Amon Carter expansion is better than any design of this nature he's done.

Johnson: "This nature" means it's complicated because there was an existing building on the site that I loved very much. There was a requirement for space and needs for hanging pictures that was enormous. All mixed up in the same spot. It was the devil's own thing in sorting it out.

Zeeble: Johnson didn't touch the signature rectangle fa?ade of six smooth, tapered, Texas shellstone pillars guarding the museum's full-glass front. But he had to rip out the previous additions, saying he couldn't build an addition on an addition. He struggled to bring in natural light, knowing most museum works are on paper and can't take much sun. So he designed a big, open, two-story courtyard space with a stairway, walls that match the shell stone in front, and a dome.

Johnson: That's the best part. Because although there are no windows, you've got all the light coming from above the window, above the ceiling. I love that.

Zeeble: Others like it too, including critic David Dillon, who doesn't always praise Johnson's work. But he's always loved the original Amon Carter, calling it an elegant, intimate jewel box that overcame a tough, small triangular space.

Dillon: I think the intimacy has been preserved - I think that's the nice thing about the new building. Philip made a very conscious attempt to leave the original alone. Restore it, but not try to change it. Put everything in the back, which he called the big warehouse. In that respect, it's quite successful.

Zeeble: The newly expanded Carter continues - as always - to share arts district space with the Modern Art Museum, which will soon move into a new building, and the Kimbell, recognized as one of the world's great small museums. Sitting in his office, down the sloping green hill from the Carter, Kimbell director Timothy Potts says Johnson's new design more than holds it own.

Timothy Potts, Director, The Kimbell Museum: It's the interior I find is the more compelling, whereas before you would have said it's the exterior view of those arches from the front entrance. Before it was always self consciously a small space, whereas now you don't have the feeling you're in a tiny museum. You have the feeling you're in a museum that's comfortable enough with its collection.

Zeeble: And, he says, that can make us feel comfortable, too. Considering today's current events, that might count for a lot, says architect Frank Welch, whose book, titled "Philip Johnson and Texas," came out last year.

Frank Welch, Architect and Author: Manifestations of culture in times like this are a great source of solace. If I get blue, I'll go to the Dallas museum and wander the galleries, and I walk out feeling better. People find some peace, or assurance in the verities of life, and you know culture, or you experience it either through music or the museum, there?s something that endures and is satisfying at least subliminally with people.

Zeeble: After two years of minimal displays in various venues, and low key operations, the Amon Carter Museum unveils its latest expansion and a hundred or so new acquisitions when it officially reopens Sunday. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.