The Kimbell at 40: An Evolving Masterpiece

Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum celebrates its 40th anniversary this month by giving patrons a unique opportunity to not only get a panoramic view of the museum’s past, but to also take a peek into its future.

“This is a very important moment in the history of the Kimbell,” said museum Director Eric M. Lee. “We will be looking back, not just at the history since the museum opened in 1972, but at the decades before. We also want to tell the story of the Kimbell Art Foundation” that preceded the museum.

“And,” he said, “we will be taking the same look forward; at how the museum will continue to grow with the addition of the Renzo Piano building that will be opening in 2013.”

The Kimbell opened Oct. 4, 1972, in a modernist masterwork of a building designed by Louis I. Kahn. But the broad-ranging permanent collection actually began in the 1930s when Kay and Velma Kimbell — in partnership with Kay Kimbell’s sister and brother-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. Coleman Carter — established the Kimbell Art Foundation.

This month, more than 220 pieces from that permanent collection will go on display in an exhibit designed to tell the story of the museum’s 40 years in a new way, Lee said. Artwork in the exhibit, The Kimbell at 40: An Evolving Masterpiece, will be, for the first time ever, arranged chronologically according to the date it was acquired by the museum.

“This exhibit will include more works from our permanent exhibit than have ever been displayed together at one time,” Lee said. “We want to tell the history of the museum, and this exhibit really does tell that story. There are just so many fascinating stories to tell.”

The exhibit also will include, with certain works, explanations and background information, available on wall labels and through iPads. The information is designed to increase visitors’ appreciation by expanding on the historical background of the pieces, how the museum acquired them and the special challenges in establishing the provenance of or conserving the artwork.

Arranging the exhibit chronologically allows the museum to tell the story of changes in the art world through the years. “You can see the trends in collecting, the changes in the economy and the changes in focus through the years,” Lee said.

The exhibit opens with a grouping in the lower levels focusing on works collected from the 1940s through the early 1970s and a display of the Kimbell’s architectural legacy. It continues in the upper-level galleries with artworks linked to the tenures of the museum’s directors through the years, beginning with Richard F. Brown, the man chosen as director of the Kimbell Foundation in 1966 who then became the museum’s first director when it opened in 1972. Brown died suddenly in 1979, Lee said, but his efforts during his years as director set the tone for the years to come.

Under Edmund P. “Ted” Pillsbury, director from 1980 to 1998, the museum acquired “more works than at any other time since it opened,” Lee said. It was also during the Pillsbury years that the museum began to dramatically expand its collection of Asian art. Under Timothy Potts, director from 1998 to 2007, acquisitions included sculpture and “3-D works of art,” Lee said.

“The Kimbell is on the brink of major change. But what has remained — and will remain — steadfast is our commitment to the guiding principles that were established early on,” Lee said.

That mission was set by Richard Brown before the museum even opened: “to form collections of the highest aesthetic quality, derived from any and all periods in man’s history, and in any medium or style.”

“What we want people to know, what we are saying with this exhibit, is ‘Look where we have been. Look where we are going,’” Lee said. “Yes, we are changing. But the things about the Kimbell that everyone knows and loves will remain the same.”