When I started work at The Blanton, the Michener Gallery Building was still a hole in the ground. Any construction setback sent paroxysms of teeth gnashing among the staff—and there were a few. One I recall clearly was, while drilling what would become the basement, water sprang from the limestone bedrock in unexpected torrents. I don’t think artist Teresita Fernandez knew that story when she envisioned her Rapoport Atrium installation, Stacked Waters, but the words intuition and synchronicity come to mind. A few more delays and then we were celebrating the “topping out”—that special milestone when the highest structural component is put in place and nothing’s left but the filling in. Hundreds of people came to witness this moment. And that’s about the time it really set in for me.
I attended UT and lived in Austin for many years before working at The Blanton. To me, Austin was a sort of lo-fi incubator for creativity. Anyone and everyone seemed to feel not only the urge but the impulse to express themselves. An actor who only dressed like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. A screenwriter who incessantly quoted lines I said months ago as he tried them on for size. Or an artist who, upon completing her UT doctorate in psychology, turned to full-time painting. I moved to Chicago for a few years only to find this wasn’t the norm. So I came back.
The topping out party drew a slice of life Fellini would adore. For each person The Blanton promised something—inspiration, distraction, solace, homework, a whole new world. The staff’s teeth gnashing stopped, and the fast approaching opening sent them into other states that would have been amusing if I wasn’t feeling the same. A week-long celebration for every audience segment you can imagine culminated with the EGO—the 24-hour Extremely Grand Opening. I followed the entrance line to the final bash that snaked around the entire 125,000-square-foot building. People kept arriving. It was 2:00 a.m. “If you build it they will come,” came unbidden to my mind.
Since then, the museum’s connected three-quarters of a million visitors to Renaissance masters, Latin American geometric abstract artists, mid-century modern designers, and a world-renowned African sculptor, to list a few. Annual visitation keeps growing with the highest last year at 145,000. We have more than 7,000 members. These numbers are unheard of among university art museums. But then again, this is Austin. And it is The Blanton.
Image: Visitors in long lines for the museum’s Grand Opening event, 2006