Next month, the Amon Carter Museum officially celebrates its 50th anniversary. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that this year has already seen another important milestone – the arrival of a new director.
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The Amon Carter’s new exhibition. The Allure of Paper, features more than 100 watercolors and drawings. They cover 150 years of American art – almost the entire scope of the museum’s permanent collection
These works aren’t often on display because they’re fragile. Light can damage the paper, fade their colors. It’s Monday, and the Amon Carter is closed, so the galleries are hushed and dimmed. Even so, several works are covered with protective cloths. Andrew Walker, the Amon Carter’s new director, lifts one of these, Light Coming on the Plains, No. 2 (below). It’s part of a set painted by Georgia O’Keefe in 1917 when she was only 29. They’re utterly simple, utterly radical watercolors, little more than blue half-circles, evoking the glow of a sunrise near Amarillo.
Walker: “A sense of a kind of pure abstraction had not really evolved in this country, and here is this young artist in West Texas creating these delicate scenes of light coming across the plains.”
The O’Keefe was pivotal, not just for her or for American art. Buying and exhibiting it in the mid-”60s — and others by American modernists like Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove — changed the Amon Carter.
The museum is unusual; it has re-invented itself over the years. Amon Carter was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher, a relentless civic booster and an avid collector of the works of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. When the museum opened in 1961, that was its focus: realistic, period depictions of the American frontier. It was named the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art
But Carter’s daughter, Ruth Carter Stevenson, and the museum’s first director, Mitchell Wilder, believed that the history of American art has been a series of frontiers. They expanded the Carter’s acquisitions into East Coast artists and into the 20th century. They moved into photography as well, which in the ‘60s was only just getting major museum attention.
Walker: “They all really launched into these opportunities to provide a resource that today would be nearly impossible to build.”
All of these changes culminated last year in the inevitable change made in metal and stone. On the side of the Philip Johnson-designed building, the sign now says: Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
But because the museum has this collection that tells this American story of expansion and empire, self-consciousness and sophistication — this epic from the art of early settlers to contemporary photographers – the question is: What will the Amon Carter do — now?
Which is what Walker is considering. Any new museum director often hears the question, what are you looking to buy? Is the museum going shopping? Walker comes to the Carter from the St. Louis Art Museum and before that, the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s fascinated by 19th-century American impressionists in Europe like Mary Cassat. That’s only one area he’d like to explore
But the future is not about wholesale new acquisitions. If the Carter buys anything, Walker says, the purchase will be “strategic,” extremely focused.
Walker: “If in a period of building, you’re looking inward — to build that resource — we’re really in a phase now where we’re beginning to look outward as to how we can make this remarkable collection relevant.”
Many art museums are re-thinking their collections, finding new ways to present them — especially in an age of financial retrenching. But being relevant and accessible are particularly vital for the Amon Carter because Amon Carter himself wanted it that way. That’s why the museum has free admission. That’s why it developed a major educational program. It is both temple of art, says Walker, and a town square.
But staying accessible and relevant are also issues simply because in the minds of many, the Amon Carter is still a cowboy-and-Indians museum. Walker himself encountered this at a recent public function when he asked the attendees, what did they think of when they thought of the Amon Carter? The answer was Remington and Russell.
Walker: “To be able to tell that story in the way that this collection can and no other collection can gives us a singular identity. But those leaders who built beyond that initial collection saw that the Amon Carter Museum wasn’t going to be a regional collection.”
It became a national collection.
Walker: “And that’s something we’ve been thinking and talking about here at the Amon Carter, which is, how do we tell our story that draws people here? How do we make coming here a habit?”
Image outfront: Oscar Bluemner, Blue Day (caesin on paper), 1930 (detail). All images courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art