Museum Boom Times

The Marcia and John Price Museum Building opens in May as part of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts expansion.  southwest art.
The Marcia and John Price Museum Building opens in May as part of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts expansion.

By Norman Kolpas

Although the robust economy of recent years may now look less hale, a byproduct of that boom continues to manifest itself in the West’s museums. Expansion plans fueled by unprecedented capital campaigns have resulted in museums from Texas to Oregon and Tucson to Salt Lake City growing into bigger and better places than ever for viewing fine art.

Houston saw the opening last March of the new Audrey Jones Beck Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, which bumped it into a number-five ranking in exhibition space behind only the Metropolitan in New York, Washington’s National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The Portland Art Museum inaugurated its own 60,000-square-foot renovation and expansion last August.

This year will see three more such grand openings. On April 7, the Tucson Museum of Art christens 1,500 square feet of new exhibition space in the Stevens House, a mid-19th-century adobe near its main building on that city’s Historic Block. On May 19, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City opens a new 80,000-square-foot home, more than double the size of its previous campus quarters. Perhaps most widely anticipated, however, is the mid-October re-opening of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, which closed in August 1999 to undergo a massive building expansion.

Frederic Remington s Fight for the Waterhole is on view at the Houston Museum of Fine Art s new Audrey Jones Beck Building. painting, southwest art.
Frederic Remington’s Fight for the Waterhole is on view at the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s new Audrey Jones Beck Building.

Why such boom times? Representatives of all five museums point to their collections’ dramatic growth in recent decades, while exhibition space remained fixed. Take the Amon Carter, which grew since the 1970s from a few thousand choice western works to approximately 250,000 pieces, including outstanding holdings in photography.

The community’s “genuine love for the museum,” says director Rick Stewart, has seen its expansion campaign raise more than $37 million in the past year alone. What that buys is a doubling in size of the original 1961 building by renowned architect Philip Johnson. “We’ll have on view four times more of the art from our permanent collection.” For western art enthusiasts, that means all 60-some Charles Russell bronzes will be shown together, along with outstanding Frederic Remington bronzes, extensive oil paintings by both men, and a rotating selection of their works on paper.

Houston’s recent expansion brought it similar benefits, particularly in the ability to display its outstanding European collection in new upstairs spaces. “For the first time in decades, we can present in dedicated galleries a sense of the unfolding of European painting from the 13th century in Italy into the 20th century,” says Edgar Peters Bowron, the Audrey Jones Curator of European Art. Meanwhile, ground-floor American galleries now highlight American paintings that include about a dozen fine Remington canvases.

Although smaller in scale, the Utah Museum has also enjoyed energetic growth since the 1970s, from 1,800 to 23,000 works ranging from classical times to the present. “Our mission statement,” says Frank Sanguinetti, director for the past 34 years, “is to include, like a library, the cultural achievements of many people over many periods of time.” Approximately $17 million in private donations will now provide space commensurate with that educational goal, with spare, free-flowing galleries showing off to fine advantage such hallmarks as its large Asian, African, pre-Columbian, and American collections.

Native American art, particularly from the Pacific Northwest, has benefited greatly from Portland’s expansion. Says executive director John E. Buchanan, Jr., “We’ve put on view a number of works—including transformation masks, house fronts, frontal headdresses, and potlatch ceremonial objects—that hadn’t been seen for at least a quarter of a century.” The same goes for many fine European works.

In Tucson, the current expansion has a more narrow focus. The Stevens House, says curator Joanne Stuhr, has been restored, renovated, and retrofitted on “a shoestring budget of maybe $200,000.” Appropriate to its roots, it will showcase pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and Latin American folk art collections, roughly a thousand pieces in all. These include recent donations from private citizens who felt, says Stuhr, that “this is a significant facility and I would like my collection to be a part of it.” Whether the economy rises or falls, such positive reactions to their expansions are likely to keep the West’s museums booming for years to come.

Featured in March 2001