The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Petunia No. 2 [1924], oil, 36 x 30, gift of The Burnett Foundation and Gerald P. Peters III. painting, southwest art.
Petunia No. 2 [1924], oil, 36 x 30, gift of The Burnett Foundation and Gerald P. Peters III.

By Sally Eauclaire

It’s the time of Georgia O’Keeffe, superstar. Last year the artist got the stamp of approval from the U.S. Postal Service, which released Red Poppy [1927] as an oversized 32-cent stamp in a limited edition of 156.3 million. Now she has her own museum, a crisp, modern space opening July 17 with its entire permanent collection on display. The more than 80 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, pastels and sculpture on view include flowers, skulls, nudes, landscapes, cityscapes and still lifes from 1914 to 1982. Many are “killer O’Keeffes” blockbuster paintings such as Jimson Weed [cover image] that would sell for a million dollars or more at auction.

It’s hard to know how O’Keeffe herself would have felt about the museum. Having always had a strong sense of self and been trained by Alfred Stieglitz to price her work accordingly, she valued her work highly and demanded the highest standards for its treatment in exhibitions and books. A museum in her honor would not have interested her at all unless it was extremely well done. Although it’s fair to say that the reclusive, sometimes prickly O’Keeffe would not have cared for stampedes of tourists and audio tours of her “top 10” paintings, the museum in most respects might have pleased her. Considerable research has gone into the design of the space and the impeccable presentation of her work.

Museum Benefactors Anne and John Marion. photo, southwest art.
Museum Benefactors Anne and John Marion.

The museum came into being in record time. In November 1995, the Burnett Foundation of Fort Worth, TX, and its president Anne Marion made the startling announcement that a Georgia O’Keeffe Museum had been endowed, its collection begun and a building complex near the Santa Fe Plaza purchased.

Though Marion, who is now president of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, is notoriously shy and private, she is reputed to be “nothing if not decisive.” Approached several years ago by Stanley Marcus, a member of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s board, she at first agreed to donate paintings and money to upgrade the meager collection of O’Keeffes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe. Not long after, however, she changed her mind, announcing to everyone’s astonishment, “I want to build a museum.”

Given that Marion was both familiar with the costs and able to foot the bill, few were inclined to argue with her. As a privately funded and endowed institution, the O’Keeffe Museum could manifest quickly. Working with the state-run Museum of New Mexico system to build an O’Keeffe wing, on the other hand, would have taken a decade or more of bickering with the state legislature, jumping through hoops and cutting red tape.

Head With Broken Pot [1943], oil, 16 x 19, gift of Stephane Janssen. painting, southwest art
Head With Broken Pot [1943], oil, 16 x 19, gift of Stephane Janssen.

“It struck us as odd that there was no repository of O’Keeffe’s work in the place where she produced it and is so well known,” says John Marion, Anne’s husband and the retired chairman of the board of Sotheby’s Inc. Before the museum was conceived, the couple owned O’Keeffes, and Anne Marion’s mother, Anne Burnett, had bought paintings directly from the artist. The Marions also love Santa Fe, where they live part time and—through the Burnett Foundation—had already bankrolled various cultural institutions, ranging from SITE Santa Fe to the Marion Center at the College of Santa Fe. The O’Keeffe Museum would, in Anne Marion’s words, “be the jewel in the crown of Santa Fe’s cultural life.”

By last spring the museum’s board had unanimously approved Peter Hassrick’s appointment as director. Wooed away from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY, at a salary reported to be among the highest of museum directors in this country, Hassrick is known as a consummate professional. Yet the fact that he is a man, and a “Frederic Remington man” at that, has led some O’Keeffe fans to wonder if he’ll be able to carry out the artist’s strong female vision. Hassrick, however, finds parallels between Remington and O’Keeffe. “Both presented the West to an eastern audience in a way that was idealized yet realistic,” he says. “Both had strong, compelling, remarkable visions.” Though he’s spent many years organizing exhibitions and authoring books on traditional western American artists, Hassrick points out that he has long been interested in the modernist period in art history and, in graduate school, had written on O’Keeffe and the American Precisionists.

Special No. XXII [1916], oil, 1215⁄16 x 71⁄4, gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O Keeffe Foundation. paintings, southwest art
Special No. XXII [1916], oil, 1215⁄16 x 71⁄4, gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

According to John Marion, the museum’s collection will provide “the largest continuing show of O’Keeffes in the United States or anywhere else.” The collection is still growing, with major donations coming from the Marions, Eugene and Clare Thaw and Gerald and Katie Peters.

The majority, however, are gifts of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and were in the artist’s possession at the time of her death in 1986 at the age of 98. “Many of these works were treasured by O’Keeffe throughout her life,” says Hassrick. “She lived with these pieces, retaining them for her own enjoyment. In a sense, that creates a special connection with the artist.”

The O’Keeffe Foundation was established in 1989 by the courts to help resolve a legal battle over the O’Keeffe estate between her long-time assistant, close friend and principal heir Juan Hamilton and two of O’Keeffe’s relatives, who challenged the will. The Foundation’s mission is to distribute the 400 or so works held at the time of the artist’s death, to produce a comprehensive catalog of her works and to turn O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu, NM, home over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The foundation will dissolve in the year 2006.

Black Rock With Red [1971], oil, 30 1⁄8 x 26 1⁄16, gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O Keeffe Foundation.
Black Rock With Red [1971], oil, 30 1⁄8 x 26 1⁄16, gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

Elizabeth Glassman, president of the foundation, says that the board of directors, which includes Hamilton and some of O’Keeffe’s relatives, “makes decisions based on what they believe O’Keeffe would have done.” Apparently, they think she would have liked a museum in her honor. To date, nearly 20 museums in the United States and Japan have received gifts, but none have received gifts anywhere near as substantial as the new museum.

The opening of the O’Keeffe Museum coincides with the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts, which will operate in cooperation with the O’Keeffe Museum, sharing membership and educational programs, information and operating hours and the multi-day, multi-museum admission pass. John Marion hopes it will prove “a model of public/ private partnership.”

More significantly, the O’Keeffe Museum plans to donate 75 to 80 percent of its admission fees to the Museum of New Mexico Foun-dation to create an MFA endowment. Not surprisingly, that delights MFA Director Tom Live say. “We’re very pleased. This is a small town, but it has a large number of museums. It’s very positive that we avoid duplication of services and help one another.”

Meanwhile Santa Feans hope that the O’Keeffe Museum will enjoy a better working relationship with the Museum of New Mexico than O’Keeffe herself experienced. That got off to a rocky start in 1936 when Edgar Lee Hewitt, the first MFA director, heard that O’Keeffe had offered to paint a mural for the museum’s stairwell. Told that the subject matter would be “a ruin and bleached bones,” he said he wasn’t interested in having “that bone painter” anywhere in the museum.

Patio Door With Green Leaf [1956], oil, 36 x 30,  gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O Keeffe Foundation.
Patio Door With Green Leaf [1956], oil, 36 x 30,  gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

O’Keeffe never forgave him. Forty years later, after years of deadlock in which O’Keeffe didn’t give and the museum didn’t buy, Ellen Bradbury, then director, nearly succeeded in patching up the damage. With New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, she visited O’Keeffe in Abiquiu to discuss naming a new wing at the museum, then in the planning stages, in her honor. O’Keeffe reasoned that it was an attempt to get paintings and agreed to put up $100,000 toward purchasing her painting Summer Days [1936], provided the museum raise the rest. Though Bradbury believes the painting could have been acquired for perhaps as little as $150,000—well under market value museum officials argued, debated, diddled around and ultimately left O’Keeffe fuming. Within a year, she sold the painting to Calvin Klein for $1 million.

Of the 13 works the MFA currently possesses, six were acquired after the artist’s death in lieu of New Mexico estate taxes, four were gifts and two were purchased. The collection has not satisfied the thousands of seekers who visit the museum each year with one artist on their minds. Now museum docents will be able to direct them down the block.

The museum’s 13,000-square-foot space consists of the former Allene Lapides Gallery (which relocated to Canyon Road) at 217 Johnson Street plus a modest addition. Once home to a Spanish Baptist Church school, a day-care center and the New Mexico Repertory Theater, the building was completely renovated into a pristine, airy space in 1990 by Santa Fe architect Ron Robles. Further work has been necessary to bring it up to state of the art conservation and security standards.

Aesthetically it also needed fine tuning. For that the O’Keeffe Museum hired New York architect Richard Gluckman, lauded for his design of SITE Santa Fe and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA; the renovation and expansion of the Whitney Museum, New York, NY; and for museums and galleries in Europe. Gluckman found the O’Keeffe Museum project “liberating.” Unlike most of his commissions in which flexible spaces were geared to accommodate the work of many different styles, the goal was to provide the ultimate setting for one artist’s vision.

He learned from O’Keeffe’s paintings, from the landscape she loved and from her home in Abiquiu. “I was struck by the rich colors, the simple ways she brought light into the rooms, the way she opened up the corners with windows and put glazing between the vigas. We’re not trying to re-create the situation we found there, but we are making references to it.”

The O’Keeffe Museum is divided into 10 exhibition galleries that vary in size and feeling, creating what Gluckman calls “a dynamic space.” His goal has been to help visitors make a “journey” through the building. “The configuration shifts to bring in natural light,
to encourage movement or encourage pauses.” The galleries wrap around an outdoor courtyard that showcases O’Keeffe’s sculpture.

To many people’s surprise, the walls will not all be white. “There will be tinted plaster walls,” Gluckman says, “and two rooms with darkened walls. I don’t necessarily think that white walls are a given parameter. In rooms with delicate work, darker walls are a good conservation measure as well as an architectural response.”

Hassrick, too, has given considerable thought to presentation. He has visited several other single-artist museums to gather ideas about presenting an artist’s work. “When all is said and done, I think the O’Keeffe Museum will do its own thing,” he says. Nonetheless, he found the Andy Warhol Museum and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Sturbridge, CT, “particularly interesting” institutions. “Talk about polar entities! The Warhol museum presents his art as isolated from his personality and the process of art. It’s all quite abstract. Paintings hang in big galleries, not much different from, say, the Whitney Museum. The Rockwell Museum does quite the opposite. It presents the life of the illustrator and the story of his art, with a recreated studio as well as good introductory exhibits on American illustration and the people of Sturbridge Village who appear in his work.”

As expected, most of the O’Keeffe Museum will be devoted to the artist’s paintings and sculpture. “They’ll be separated, isolated and presented in a very formal manner,” Hassrick says. “O’Keeffe was fully professional and dedicated to her own vision. She was very interested in how her work was presented. We know the extent of her involvement at the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Amon Carter and other museums. You see at Abiquiu that she lived simply, starkly, formally. So we’re giving considerable thought to the precise color of the walls and the spacing of the art.” Of the museum’s orientation area, Hassrick says it will “quickly bring people up to speed on who O’Keeffe was as a person, what her world was like and why she made a difference.”

Though Hassrick offers no formula for what might have been O’Keeffe’s ideal white wall paint, he answers with a wry grin that no plans are in the works for a Star Trek style hologram in which a 3D image of O’Keeffe mouths her famous quote: “I should have kept a diary because they are going to get my life all wrong.”

Though books on O’Keeffe are already an industry, the museum plans more. First out is a coffee-table-size book on the permanent collection to be published by Harry N. Abrams. Essays by Lisa Mintz Messinger, Barbara Novak, Barbara Rose and Mark Stevens will consider O’Keeffe’s art not only in light of its 19th-century underpinnings  but also in terms of its impact on contemporary artists. Long-range plans include additional books and catalogs, an oral history project and a center for scholars, students and the public. Once the museum is up and running, Hassrick will direct his energy toward “analyzing what we’ve done and tweaking the things that need adjustment.”

Holding up a New York Times article about the Mies van der Rohe-designed New National Gallery in Berlin, Hassrick points to its headline, which reads, “When Museums Overpower Their Own Art.” He considers it fair warning of what the O’Keeffe Museum must not do: produce a stylish building that does not truly serve its artist and her paintings. Even more difficult will be finding ways to prevent the glitz and glamour of gala opening celebrations, the flocks of tourists and the whole Georgia O’Keeffe industry from taking over. It’s well known that the artist preferred simplicity, unpretentiousness and mystery. But can any museum provide that?

“I hope people will be able to get past the myths and recognize the work for its joy, humor and pure beauty,” Hassrick says thoughtfully. “Often we see O’Keeffe as she appears in her photographs—somber and austere. The more I learn, the more I see her as a person who looked for and found great joy in her life, especially in solitude.”

Featured in June 1997