Arts / Museums

50 Years of the Kimbell Art Museum — Inside the Golden Anniversary of the Beloved Fort Worth Institution

Looking to the Past, Present, and Future of the Cultural Haven

BY // 03.02.23

“You don’t look a day over 30.” Who doesn’t love that observation? Well, the same could be said for one of the grande dames of the art world, the Kimbell Art Museum. Beginning last fall, 2022, the hallowed Fort Worth institution is celebrating a golden milestone. Granted, “hallowed” isn’t a term generally given to a museum that’s only 50. Usually, that distinction is saved for those at least 100 years old (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and even the Dallas Museum of Art). But just behold its glorious architecture — the original structure, which opened in 1972, was designed by Louis I. Kahn. It’s widely considered one of the most significant works of modern architecture and has influenced museum design for five decades.

In 2013, an expansion by Renzo Piano was added across a great expanse of lawn and a colonnaded pavilion so that the two would complement rather than compete with one another. (PaperCity listed the campus among its inaugural 100 Texas Design Icons in 2022.) And within those breathtaking buildings is a permanent collection generally regarded as one of the most impressive in the world.

 

Richard Brown, First Director of Kimbell Art Museum, 1966
Richard Brown, First Director of Kimbell Art Museum, 1966 (Photo courtesy of Kimbell Art Museum)

A History of the Kimbell Art Museum

The Kimbell Art Foundation, which oversees the museum, was established in 1936 by entrepreneur Kay Kimbell and his wife, Velma, together with Kay’s sister and her husband, Dr. and Mrs. Coleman Carter. During those early years, the focus was on collecting British and French portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the passing of Kay in 1964, 260 paintings and 86 other works of art, including Hals’ Rommel-Pot Player and Gainsborough’s Portrait of a Woman, had been amassed. The plan was that a museum be built so that Fort Worth residents as well as visitors to the city could appreciate these masterpieces. Fast forward to 1969 and the ground breaking for the future landmark Kahn building. That summer, on June 27, Velma Kimbell and the Kimbell Art Foundation’s directors, shovels in hand, commemorated the beginning of the three-year building project.

Kimbell Museum Advertisment, 1973
Kimbell Museum Advertisement, 1973 (Photo courtesy of Kimbell Art Museum)

The Kimbell opened to the public on October 4, 1972, and crowds came to behold the building and collection comprised of works of undeniable artistic quality and importance. A glittering gala was held, like the recent one to toast the 50th anniversary, and welcomed many of the Kimbell family, as well as political dignitaries and artists from around the world. The institution’s first traveling exhibition in 1973, “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings from the U.S.S.R.,” marked the first time many of the included works had traveled outside of the Soviet Union. It was a triumphant success and helped cement the museum’s popularity by welcoming record crowds from a five-state regional audience.

 

Kimbell Art Museum Opening, 1972
Kimbell Art Museum Opening, 1972 (Photo by Robert Shaw)

Reflecting on 50 Years of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth

To commemorate the museum’s momentous golden anniversary, a call was put out for those involved with the organization (staff, former and present; volunteers; donors; and guests who make frequent pilgrimages) to submit their own personal stories about the museum. Eighty-four devotees of the beloved institution submitted, and five were then filmed and can be viewed under the title “Kimbell Stories” on the museum’s YouTube channel. Larry Eubank, operations manage — who perhaps has one of the longest histories with the museum, since he started working part-time on the building construction in the summer of 1970 — shares interesting details on what the Kimbell is most known for: one of the most ideal environments to view works of art in natural lighting.

“The skylights opening at the top of the cycloid vaults allows the light to come in … No two moments in the museum would be the same because of the changing light.” More than 10,000 million visitors have experienced those magical moments since the Kimbell’s opening. Denise Huddle, an elementary school art teacher, reminisces about her first visit: “I was about 10, I just remember stepping into the Kahn building and [being] blown away by how wonderful it was. I’d never seen anything like it. Every time I come, I like to sketch. I like the colors; I like the lines … It’s just a calming place to enjoy art and be a part of culture.”

Entrepreneur and owner of Hotel Dryce Jonathan Morris speaks to the past, present, and future of the institution: “It represents leadership in thought, and design, and obviously art. When you walk into this space, you see people from all over the world. And that global impact that we have here, it’s a magnet for people from all different communities.” 

Another volunteer of the institution who was not filmed is Karen Milan, a docent since 1979. Her fond memories date back to attending the opening in 1972 with her husband. She began volunteering, and her first docent tour was for “The Great Bronze Age of China,” an exhibit shared with the top museums in the U.S. “For over 40 years,” she says, “I have seen countless master works of art, heard recognized art experts, watched the expertise and skill of several directors and made friends with excellent men and women educators, fellow docents, even some tour members. And we did it all in a perfect building.”

 

Exhibition in the Kimbell Art Museum
Exhibition in the Kimbell Art Museum (Photo By Iwan Baan)

“The Kimbell at 50”

The ongoing exhibition “The Kimbell at 50” runs through October 4, 2023. You can learn more about the museum through archival materials and photographs that chronicle many of the memorable events throughout its history. An interactive digital presentation is also available to onsite guests as well as those exploring from outside the museum. It revisits noteworthy exhibitions, outstanding acquisitions, and engaging community programs from the past five decades. Also on view, to further acknowledge Kahn’s significance, are three special acquisitions: pastel and charcoal drawings of the Temple of Apollo at Corinth, which are part of a suite that he created while traveling extensively during his tenure as architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome. 

What does the current generation of the founder’s family see in the future? Kay Kimbell’s great niece, Kimbell Wynne, says, “Going forward, our goal is to ensure that our collection, special exhibitions, and education programs are exceptional. I have no doubt that the Kimbell will endure as a place of excellence and inspiration.” We’re already looking forward to the party to celebrate the centennial.

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