Culture and Cowboys: Museum growth a constant with Cultural District

Michael H. Price

The Cultural District was ancient by 20th-century standards when the Fort Worth Business Press arrived on the scene in 1988. Fort Worth itself was only somewhat more ancient, but then relative antiquity is hardly the point. For the origins of the city and its ever-broadening Cultural District are as inseparable from one another as the business community is from its commitment to the fine arts. Fort Worth’s internationally recognized museums achieve ripe ages only by a constant process of renewal. Everything old can become new again, as the saying goes, but the process requires an awareness that renewal is an option. Hence the opening in November of a generous pavilion as an outgrowth to provide breathing room for the collections of the Kimbell Art Museum, and to complement the original building. Hence the opening 11 years ago of the $60 million Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the redevelopment of its former location as the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. And hence a $39 million expansion (in turn-of-the-century dollars) of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the better to triple its gallery space and compound its facilities for the restoration and preservation of light-sensitive photography and works-on-paper. Such examples are consistent with the investment-savvy enthusiasms that had moved the prominent likes of Amon Carter and Kay and Velma Kimbell to begin collecting art as early as 1935. A symbol of the binding cloth between art and commerce is the landmark West Seventh Street Bridge – newly dedicated in 2013 as a $26 million marvel of modern-day sculptural engineering, but derived from a 19th-century low-water crossing over the Clear Fork of the Trinity River. The original builder, Maj. K.M. Van Zandt, had sought to connect the emerging city with his farmstead, whose sprawling 600 acres have long since yielded the landscape that contains the Fort Worth Cultural District and its surrounding commercial developments. And while the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth holds pride of place as Texas’ oldest such institution (chartered in 1892), the same locale’s Van Zandt Cottage, 2900 Crestline Road, represents deeper origins. Long since enshrined in its own right as a museum-in-miniature, the Van Zandt Cottage dates from the middle 19th century – Fort Worth’s oldest dwelling still anchored to its original site. Van Zandt Cottage Friends, Inc., is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to restore the house to a more nearly authentic state of preservation.  

If it seems a far cry from the naive, instinctively practical architecture of the Van Zandt Cottage to the calculated and unobtrusive grandeur of Renzo Piano’s design for a $135 million expansion of the Kimbell Art Museum, it bears considering that the latter could not exist without the former. Nor could the Cultural District have attained its imposing and evolving skyline without the spirit of cordial one-upmanship that has led one museum after another to raise the stakes at creating architectural showcases to display and protect works of art. The spirit is infectious: Alongside the Big Three Art Museums’ expansions of the past decade-and-change, there have come conspicuous architectural showpieces for the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Both have found an artistic imperative, in the process – the original Depression-into-wartime era charter for Science and History had emphasized art as a component – and both have devoted major exhibitions to paintings, sculptures, and photography that illustrate the cultural, industrial, and scientific heritage of the Southwest. The frontier heritage figures as centrally in the Cattle Raisers Museum (housed within the Science and History building), and, far across town, the Stockyards Museum, which has benefited from connections with the Cultural District and with the Sid Richardson Museum in downtown Fort Worth. The city’s often-invoked slogan, “Cowboys & Culture,” takes on a deeper meaning in this light: Cowboys are a culture.  

The Sid Richardson Museum, 309 Main St., represents the conjoined nature of the Cultural District and the downtown area – and all the more so, now that the Seventh Street corridor has become more thoroughly developed in commercial and residential terms, with the new incarnation of a historic bridge to seal the bond. The Richardson’s overriding concern with frontier art reflects and embellishes upon the original purpose of the kindred Amon Carter Museum. Both Sid W. Richardson and Amon Carter, heirs to the pioneering momentum of K.M. Van Zandt, had carried on a friendly rivalry as to who could amass the finer collection of Western paintings and sculptures. Where the Carter Museum has broadened its purpose to embrace American artistry as a class, its frontier-art collection remains integral. A communion between the Carter and the Richardson has enriched both museums and, in turn, contributed to the unity of the Cultural District. Benevolent foundations associated with the major museums have bolstered the general well-being of the arts scene in Tarrant County and supplemented tax-dollar funding, which often has proved erratic despite a recent rallying of support. The record for most changes of identity among Fort Worth’s museums must belong to the Modern, which was chartered in 1892 as the Fort Worth Public Library & Art Gallery, then became the Carnegie Public Library Art Gallery (1901), the Fort Worth Museum of Art (1910), the Fort Worth Art Center (1954), the Fort Worth Art Museum Center (1971), the Fort Worth Art Museum (1974), and finally the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1987).  

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The Amon Carter Museum has recently added “of American Art” to its formal identity, the better to reflect the broadening of curatorial concerns. It bears remembering that Ruth Carter Stevenson, who developed the museum in keeping with her father’s legacy, often had found herself at odds with Amon Carter in terms of artistic tastes and values. “And at least my father and I could agree that there is no accounting for taste, which is the fundamental rule of art appreciation,” Mrs. Stevenson (1923-2013) said in a late-in-life conversation. The Kimbell Art Museum remains the Kimbell Art Museum, although its spacious offshoot has been designated the Piano Pavilion in recognition of the lead architect, Renzo Piano, and his commitment to consistency with the original design by Louis Kahn. (See also the Business Press, Nov. 26).

Michael H. Price is a longtime area arts critic, a former associate editor of the Business Press and author of the 10-volume Forgotten Horrors collection, the longest-running published series in motion-picture criticism and scholarship. He is a producer and curator of programs for the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation.