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The Big Weekend: Blanton/Hunting

GT founder Rainey Knudson opines on the opening of the Blanton Museum and the announcement of the first winner of the Hunting Prize.

Party people in the Blanton's atrium

Part I: The Blanton
My non-art friends in Austin said, “You came up just for a museum opening?” Of course — museum openings are not-to-be-missed events, and have been as long as there’ve been museums. (This spring Glasstire editor Rachel Cook and I were in Corpus Christi, where we saw the book from the opening of The South Texas Institute for the Arts. It was within a week of the Kimbell opening in 1972, and it was a big deal: Andy Warhol and all kinds of New York people came down to Texas, fancy women in chic maxiskirts and big hairdos, and there was a big 70s-looking buffet with yellow tablecloths and braided bread in the sparkling white Philip Johnson gem perched right on the ocean. But that was 1972, the year of my birth, and a lot of water has gone under the causeway. The Johnson building hasn’t aged so well, though it’s partially not its fault: at one point, the trustees got rid of a Rauschenberg piece given by the artist in honor of his friend Johnson, who created a curved wall specially for it. The reason was that the collage included a picture of JFK, whom the trustees didn’t want to have to look at. [Interesting side note: the Dallas Museum of Art eventually acquired the piece.] So STIA is now stuck with a not very functional curved wall, and is less one big — free — Rauschenberg. On top of that, the main gallery’s walls are made of stone, which is now filled with lots of drill holes and little colorful plastic screw anchors.)

So, yes, architects often make sculptural statements rather than functional buildings for showing art. Witness the Wright Guggenheim, the Gehry Bilbao Guggenheim, the Gehry Experience Music Project, etc. Which leads us to the Blanton.

Queuing up to see the big show

First a quick recap for those who haven’t been following the story: the Blanton originally commissioned Herzog and de Meuron (of Tate Modern fame) to design the building. The Swiss guys came up with a low building with an undulating roofline in a distinctly un-Spanish Colonial style. The then-Board of Regents kicked up a fuss because the design maybe wasn’t big enough, and for sure because it didn’t blend with a campus master plan of squatty red-tiled buildings (never mind that LBJ library, Jester Dorm, Dobie, the business school building, et al. don’t either). Herzog and de Meuron threw up their hands in disgust and walked away from the project, the dean of the architecture school resigned in protest … it was a big mess. This would have been about 1999.

Fast forward to ’06 and the launch of the new, master plan-friendly building. As much as I liked architect Michael McKinnell, with his plummy accent and fancy dropped “r”s (“I wehlly want to thank”; “We wanted to create outdoor wooms” etc), and especially his frank acknowledgement that he wasn’t creating a memorable building but rather a “treasure box” which existed solely to hold, display and conserve works of art, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for his building. Big — third biggest in Texas! — conservative, based on the same European palace galleries that the MFAH Beck building is (and indeed bearing a remarkable similarity to its Houston counterpart, with its endless receding galleries and big entry atrium with stairwell), the Blanton is fairly unremarkable as a structure, inside and out. It's a big cream-colored box.

I guess I feel about the Blanton the same way I feel about the Houston Texans' first round draft pick, which coincidentally occurred the same weekend: they might have blown it, but in the long run, it’s wins that matter. Only time will tell.

In the long run, it will be the Blanton’s art, not its building, that matters. And based on what was installed at the opening, I saw mixed results on this much more important issue. Downstairs are the contemporary galleries, currently housing two exhibits: New, Now, Next, an overview of the collection; and the first museum solo show for NYC artist Paul Chan. Watchers of the Texas art scene will recognize in New, Now, Next some former Artpace projects alongside other finds from the contemporary art market (read: Chelsea). For his part, Chan (whom Blanton director Jesse Otto Hite called “the darling of the Whitney Biennial”) was given almost an entire large gallery to himself for two video installations and a number of works on paper. It was nice, in particular the big two-sided video My birds…trash…the future… (2004). Curator Annette Carlozzi hung alongside it a handful of great pieces from the museum’s extensive prints collection that fit the general theme of torture and death.

Latin American curator Gabriel Perez-Barreiro included some really wonderful pieces, many of which seem to have been scooped up with the help of patrons right before the artists died: a terrific lamp by Omar Schiliro and some embroidered pillows by Feliciano Centurión were memorable. Also, there’s a project gallery upstairs, which will rotate periodically with commissioned projects from artists around the world. There is a really great piece installed right there now by Daniel Joglar. Kudos to the Blanton for putting the space aside for experimental work. On the downside, a small upstairs gallery of Plexiglas-and-water-bubble kinetic pieces from the 1960s was particularly lame.

Note to everyone: just because it’s from Latin America doesn’t mean it’s good.

What else? Oh, the bizarre, much-discussed robin’s egg blue atrium packed with life-sized plaster casts of ancient sculpture. I can maybe see it being justified from the ‘this is a teaching institution, connected to a university, so the nippers need to get a feel for what the Dying Gaul actually looks like 3-D’ angle. But it’s a stretch. The big gallery of abstract expressionist painting seems crowded and the work dated, but it will come back in fashion someday. As for the Suida-Manning collection of Renaissance and Baroque painting, well, it’s OK. I can’t fault the Blanton too much for falling into the same trap many of its larger brethren have done in Texas, but I lament that it’s so much easier to raise money for second-rate old paintings than for (sometimes significantly cheaper) great work by living or recently-living artists. C’est la guerre. They’re trying to do both.

Aside from the work in the contemporary galleries, an aspect of the Blanton that is very, very cool is the visiting room, which is open to the public every afternoon (though they ask that you make an appointment if you want them to pull something out for you). Here, you can see in person any object in the Blanton’s collection — a wonderful opportunity for scholars and laypersons alike. The fabled “E-lounge,” while a bit stuffy and banker’s-officey, is nonetheless a pleasant place to read or check email (though the computers, during my visit, would only surf the Blanton’s site).

All in all? The Blanton isn’t a memorable building, but it’s good for Austin to have a proper museum at all (and the Blanton’s architectural unremarkability is a wonderful opportunity for AMOA to do something killer, if they can scrape the money together). And the contemporary galleries are good. I hope to see great programming out of the Blanton in the years to come. For his part, Jack Blanton deserves to be sainted for sticking with the process through the whole architect change, and for giving UT something it needed, badly.

Part II: The Hunting Prize
Back in Houston, the winner of the Hunting Prize was announced on Saturday night. This is a $50,000 award given to a 2-D artist by a British energy company that has relocated its headquarters to Houston. As we all know, painter Francesca Fuchs was the big winner.

Several issues were raised by this event:
1. Should these big prizes do a winner-take-all, or should all finalists get something?
2. Eligibility
3. $50,000 is to an artist what $50 million is to an energy company
4. Corporate parties have WAY better food than non-profit parties.

Dennis Proctor, chief executive of Hunting PLC; Francesca Fuchs, winner of 2006 Hunting Art Prize; Richard Hunting, chairman of Hunting PLC

On that last point, seriously. Wow. I was commenting on the lavish cheese/dessert spread, and Eleanor Williams of Finesilver Gallery looked at me calmly and said, “Corporate America, Rainey.”

More to come on the big art prizes recently in Texas. Suffice to say that the Hunting party was extremely nice, it was hard to feel anything but happiness for the winner (though someone on the message boards managed to), and they need to find a classier way to display the art next year. Also, I hear the notification process was a little wonky. But for what is relatively small change for an energy company, they’ve just transformed someone’s life in a profoundly positive way. And all the finalists are far enough along the road (are “lifers,” so to speak) that they weren’t going to be crushed by the expectations associated with winning. It was a good evening.

Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.

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