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Hiram Butler Pens Letter to NYT To Set the Record Straight on Kelly’s “Austin”

On February 8, the New York Times ran a fairly lengthy and glowing article about the new Ellsworth Kelly building (titled Austin but often informally referred to during the run-up to its opening as “the Kelly chapel”) located on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. It opens to the public this weekend.

At one point the article attempts to explain the order of events leading to the Kelly work landing in Austin and at UT, through the efforts and administration of UT’s Blanton Museum of Art. The piece does not mention the involvement of Hiram Butler, the Houston dealer and gallerist who was, by many accounts, instrumental in landing the Kelly commission and shepherding it to UT.

On February 10, Andrew Spindler, Butler’s husband, ran a public post on social media that included a letter written by Butler to the New York Times. As of today, while Butler has been told by the Times that the newspaper is fact-checking Butler’s version of events, the Times has not yet come forward with changes or corrections to its original article.

Butler’s letter to the Times is reprinted below in full.

9 February 2018 

Dear M.H. Miller: 

Regarding “Ellsworth Kelly’s Temple for Light”, the narrative of how the Kelly chapel came to Texas, is not accurate. It was I who introduced the project to the University of Texas. I am writing to correct the record, and in accordance with the high journalistic standards of the New York Times would like this correction to appear in the publication. 

I came to know Jack Shear and Ellsworth Kelly, principally Jack, some fifteen or twenty years ago as Jack and I both served on the Visiting Committee of the Williams College Museum of Art. I was a great admirer of Kelly’s work, had shown his prints in my gallery a number of times, and felt privileged to get to know him socially. In May of 2012, my husband, Andrew Spindler-Roesle, and I attended the memorial service of a dear friend in New York. Upon leaving the service, we bumped into Jack and Ellsworth on the street. They were delivering drawings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just a few blocks away. Ellsworth asked what I was working on and and when I told him a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia with James Turrell, he told us he had designed a chapel in the 1980s that was never built. He challenged me to bring him a patron. 

I instantly set to work to see the work realized in Houston where I thought it would be a great complement to the Turrell Quaker meeting house and the Rothko Chapel. I assembled the design-build team of Linbeck Construction Company in Houston and Overland Partners Architects in San Antonio. I visited Kelly in Spencertown, New York and then the team joined me. The project was then proposed to Rice University, considered seriously, and then ultimately declined. 

I then proposed the chapel to Andrée Bober, Director of Landmarks, the public art program at the University of Texas. Overland Partners’s Rick Archer and I had worked on a James Turrell meditative space with Bober and Landmarks for the Student Activities Center at the University of Texas. As Kelly was of such an advanced age, I felt we needed to speed up the approval process. I asked long time friends Mickey and Jeanne Klein if they could schedule meeting with the UT President Bill Powers. Rick Archer, Mickey and Jeanne Klein and I (all of us UT alumni), met with Powers and he said we should move forward and I should negotiate a formal letter of intent with Kelly. Both Bill Powers and Mickey Klein made unexpected generous financial pledges to the project at that meeting. I then negotiated a letter of intent of the gift between Kelly and the University. In this letter, I am explicitly designated as Kelly’s agent concerning this work at the University of Texas. 

As Mickey Klein was the Chair of the Board of the Blanton Museum of Art, he later asked that the project be moved from under the administration of Landmarks to the Blanton Museum of Art, and it was. Tom Butler (no relation) of Linbeck and Rick Archer of Overland and I then met with Ellsworth and Jack several more times. The Blanton’s curator, Veronica Roberts, also attended these meetings. At a certain point, the Director of the Blanton, Simone Wicha, decided that she would administer the project. The original design-build team I assembled completed the project. I applaud the Blanton for having realized this magnificent work. 

Sincerely yours, 

Hiram Butler

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