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Fort Worth

Great Women of Texas: Kay Fortson

Mary Rogers

Business Press Correspondent

With the Nov. 27 ribbon cutting weeks away, the Kimbell Art Museum’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion in Fort Worth’s Cultural District is a noisy hive of activity. But with completion in sight, Kay Kimbell Carter Fortson, president of the Kimbell Art Foundation, can begin to relax, if only a little. Fortson’s drive, dedication and vision have shaped and polished the Kimbell Art Museum. Service to the museum has defined her life and become her legacy, a touchstone of excellence for the art world that affords Fort Worth and Texas bragging rights.

“When it comes to the bottom line, Kay is responsible for everything the Kimbell has become,” says her friend Anne Marion, a rancher, arts patron and businesswoman. “The Kimbell is a jewel of a small museum and recognized as such both nationally and internationally.” In recognition of Fortson’s lifelong devotion to building an exceptional art collection housed in an extraordinary museum complex and sharing these gifts with the public, the Fort Worth Business Press presented her with the top award at its annual Great Women of Texas event Oct. 23 at the Fort Worth Club. Also honored along with Fortson were 27 individuals and one organization selected as 2013 Texas Women of Influence. “The completion of the Renzo Piano Pavilion produced the precise and necessary timing to recognize Kay Fortson’s devotion and hard work, and express the community’s abiding respect for a family’s philanthropic contributions to the worlds of art and architecture,” says Business Press Chairman Richard L. Connor. “She wanted no personal attention but, of course, she deserves it.” Unassuming and publicity shy, Fortson has always shunned the spotlight but reluctantly agreed to accept the Great Woman of Texas award because she wanted the museum’s new building to be recognized and showcased. So, after a recent morning walk, she settles into a comfortable sitting room in the gracious home where she has lived since she was 13 and speaks passionately about why she was compelled to tackle the museum expansion project more than 40 years after the original building by architect Louis Kahn was completed, and about the people who first set the dream of the Kimbell Art Museum in motion.

“I accepted the responsibility of the museum as a duty,” says Fortson, 79. “I couldn’t leave it to the next generation. They weren’t there. They couldn’t feel about the Kahn building like I do. The Kahn is a masterpiece, but we were out of room. If we had an exhibit, we couldn’t hang the entire permanent collection. People would come … travel from some distance, to see a particular piece and it wouldn’t be out.” She shakes her head. About five years ago with the blessings of Kahn’s widow, Sue, Fortson and her husband, Ben Fortson, began to talk seriously about expanding the Kimbell. Fortson spoke with each board member privately. All worried about the green space, about the impact on the Kahn building and, of course, about the cost and feasibility of such a project. “Ben and I felt it had to be done,” she says. Accepting that the Kahn building would require an infusion of funds for deferred maintenance, the Fortsons focused on the future and began a year-long cross-country tour of properties that led them to Renzo Piano, a one-time student of Louis Kahn and himself an accomplished and acclaimed architect. “I wasn’t going to let anything hurt the Kahn,” says Fortson, and she was sure Piano felt the same way. “A new building was the only way and the lawn was the only place,” she says. Now Piano’s serene building is almost complete. Born of the Kahn, this new structure is singularly strong and enlightened, made to meet the challenges of a new day while acknowledging the past. It is an energy-efficient wonder of glass and concrete that somehow radiates tranquility. On this morning workmen buff the white oak lobby floors, adjust the louvered roof system that spans a portion of the 92,000-square-foot space and tinker with the rolling window screens. The 298 seats covered in red wool have been installed in the two-story auditorium under the sod roof, and light spills into this underground space through the glass wall that forms one side of a deep “light well” that is the stage’s backdrop. The “breathing floor,” an innovative vent system that lends a Zen-like quality to the spacious galleries, is in place. Workmen are finishing the classrooms and the 136-space underground parking garage is complete. There are three dozen geothermal wells, LED lighting, state-of-the-art heating and air conditioning systems. Almost 50 mature elm trees have been planted in the expansive lawn between the two buildings and more have taken root in the Lancaster Avenue median. Fortson is eager for people to see the building. She has always insisted that admission to the permanent collection remain free and so it will be displayed in the new Renzo Piano Pavilion from Nov. 27 through January 2014.

••• But Fortson is also quick to remind everyone that there would be no Kimbell Art Museum without the vision of those who wanted to share the art. Perhaps it began with her grandfather, B.B. Kimbell, a trader and businessman who owned, among other things, the Beatrice Mill near Sherman, and who left an impressive estate when he died in 1922. Fortson’s mother, Mattie Kimbell Carter, and her uncle, Kay Kimbell, were B.B. Kimbell’s only children. The mill was the forerunner of Kimbell Milling Co., a huge conglomerate that included feed mills, grocery chains, an insurance company, a wholesale grocery concern and more. Fortson’s mother and uncle became co-owners, but Uncle Kay ran things. The enterprise gave the brother and sister opportunity to indulge their interests and art soon took a front-row seat. “In 1934 they were not talking about a museum. It was either a hospital for adults and children or an art institute,” says Fortson. “When I came along they had an heir … everything changed. From then on it was an art institution.” Fortson’s parents had been married 20 years when she was born. The Kimbells never had any children of their own and although adoption advocate Edna Gladney was a frequent visitor in their Medford Court home on Fort Worth’s Near Southside, they never adopted. “I was the only child of two families,” Fortson says. In 1936 the Carters and the Kimbells formed the Kimbell Art Foundation, which owns and operates the museum now and will in the future. “Uncle Kay loved the art. Aunt Velma loved the art. My mother loved the art, but my father loved my mother and he went along,” says Fortson. Her father, Coleman Carter, was a physician and rancher who eventually went to work for Kimbell Mills. When Fortson was small, only one house separated the two families. Twice each week, she had dinner with Aunt Velma and Uncle Kay. It was a snug, loving childhood and she maintained that closeness with the Kimbells as she matured and as her mother grew ill. Uncle Kay admired calendar art, loved to read and was a letter writer bent on giving his young niece advice. “Always remember your uncle wants you to be a good girl, not snobbish … little proud, haughty girls usually do not get very far,” he wrote in a letter one summer.

••• At the end of World War II the two families moved to larger homes. The Kimbells eventually took over the blufftop McKee-Roser estate, which became the last home of pianist Van Cliburn. The Carters bought a spacious home at the end of a wooded drive where Fortson still lives. Her father lived there, too, until he died in 1990 at the age of 99. Fortson’s mother filled the house with art and an impressive library, but by 1950 Mattie Carter’s struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and painful condition that twists joints, inflames tissue and even attacks organs, was almost over. “She was very sick,” says Fortson. “Then she had cancer.” Fortson was just 19 when her mother died. “My mother was the biggest voice in my life,” she says. “She never talked to me about a museum. She always talked to me about the art.”

After Mattie Carter’s death, her brother, Kay, continued to collect. Pieces of the collection hung in churches and schools all over town. Several times a year, the Kimbells opened their home for group tours. “I was always there, standing on the steps, directing people here or there,” says Fortson. If there was talk of creating a museum, she thought it was far in the future. “I assumed the house would be given to the city as a museum and the art would just stay there,” she says. ”But then Uncle Kay died and immediately I knew. I was 29. I had four little children … just knew. I was on the foundation board. We were going to build a museum.” When Kay Kimbell died in 1964, the collection numbered 260 paintings and more than 80 other works. After close examination and consultation with numerous experts, the board kept only 29 pieces. This became the nucleus of the museum’s permanent collection, which now, even with fewer than 350 works, is considered one of the finest anywhere. Fortson leans back and takes a sip of a breakfast smoothie. She is the museum’s most devoted guardian, a pathfinder who has protected and promoted a dream that began with another generation. “I’m not one to count my chickens before they hatch,” she says. “But the public might accept this new building. Might. They can throw Frisbees. There are trees. And I think this could be one of Renzo’s best buildings.”  

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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