- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Now look closer.
That is what the Blanton Museum of Art urges you do after five years spent reimagining, planning and executing a complete rehang of the permanent collection at the 10-year-old University of Texas spot, beloved by locals, tourists and students alike.
Walking around the museum’s second floor in preparation for the official unveiling on Feb. 11 (gala) and Feb. 12 (general public), one notices that there is more art (almost twice as many pieces), a new emphasis on the collection’s strengths (works on paper, etc.), better routing (fewer pass-through corridors), a few rarely exhibited pieces (discovered in the vaults), more coherent groupings and explanations (in English and Spanish), completely new galleries (including ones dedicated to video, plus Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin American), strikingly colorful wall tinting (to set off the Old Master paintings), more art in public spaces (jazzing them up) and a new focus on engaging each work of art.
“We have a new museum in Austin,” proclaims Director Simone Wicha. “I wanted the Blanton’s experience to represent the personality we embody at the museum — energetic, smart, fun, friendly, curious, sophisticated and collaborative. My challenge to the team was for us to reconsider the museum in a way that was more visually arresting, more thought-provoking and nationally innovative.”
By rearranging the walls, openings and doors, the Blanton now almost forces the viewer to slow down.
“The old configuration showcased works in corridor style,” Wicha explains. “And the galleries were set up in a long loop. The museum has changed the architectural layout and design of our galleries to encourage more stopping to look at art.”
Although the visitor now progresses from one significant era to another in the American and Latin American galleries, the European painting, mostly from the Suida-Manning Collection — and confined to a particular time and geographic place — is no longer hung chronologically. Rather, it rolls out thematically, including a grand salon-style hanging that almost covers the walls of one gallery, instead of positioning the art exclusively at eye level. Luckily, this is how the artists originally intended it to be seen.
“The new team focused on identifying the very best works in the European collection, leading with the best works and identifying the stories that they were telling,” Wicha says. “The flip side of this is in Latin American and American; there was a lack of chronology in the old galleries.”
The extremely popular Cildo Meireles installation that spreads out a pool of bright pennies underneath hanging bones was cleaned and opened up to natural light.
What about the plaster casts of classical sculptures that were used for decades to teach art and culture? They’ve been moved downstairs to some educational, research and meeting rooms off the lobby, where they’ve been given better (meaning three-dimensional), even if less prominent, views.
Now all that remains is to see whether guests feel invited to return repeatedly to visit their old friends in the permanent collection.
“What the team has produced makes me endlessly proud,” Wicha says. “They have raised the museum to new heights, and there are so many ideas we still have planned for the future.”