If, as the maxim goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, then what is the single image an art museum chooses to represent itself worth?
Arguably, it’s priceless.
A signature image speaks volumes about how an art museum chooses to define its aesthetic and public profile. Selecting the iconic work of art comes after considerable curatorial debate. And the reverberation of that decision can be measured and felt in ways both tangible and intangible.
When the Blanton Museum of Art opened its new building in 2006, the University of Texas museum published its “Guide to the Collections” with 235 images representing the best of the museum.
The cover image?
French baroque master Simon Vouet’s 1626 portrait of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. From the museum’s Suida-Manning Collection of Renaissance and Baroque art, the painting was selected as a symbol of creative inspiration, museum officials explained at the time.
The “Guide” sold out almost two years ago. And with the Blanton this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, plans for a replacement book ensued.
(The Blanton celebrates its anniversary with the 12-hour, free “Fifty Fest” Saturday.)
Now comes “110 Favorites from the Collection,” jointly published by UT Press and priced at $21.95.
And occupying the front cover pride-of-place spot is the massive installation “Missão/Missões (How to Build Cathedrals),” by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. Created in 1987 and made of 600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones and surrounded by black cloth, the installation is on permanent view and one of the most remarked upon pieces in the Blanton.
“We decided to rethink the book,” says Annette Carlozzi, the Blanton’s curator-at-large. “We decided that with this book, we would respond to what the audience is most interested in and make a souvenir of the museum experience.”
When the “Guide” came out seven years ago, no one really knew what the Blanton had, Carlozzi points out. After all, before the opening of the new building and its 56,000 square feet of gallery space, most of the permanent holdings remained out of sight and in storage.
Hence, selecting the 235 works of art in the “Guide,” Carlozzi says, was a curatorial judgment, a professional distilling of what best represented the Blanton’s collection.
In the Blanton’s Michener Building, however, the museum’s entire second floor features several hundred highlights from the permanent collection. And seven years after opening — and with more than 850,000 museum visitors to date — people know much more about the Blanton’s treasures.
“We have a sense of what the visitor experience is now,” says Carlozzi. “And we wanted to re-tailor the book to that experience.”
So docents, educators, front desk staff and gallery assistants were interviewed. Sales of postcards in the museum shop were analyzed. Visitor comment cards sussed out. And a museum-wide committee was formed.
“We wanted to know which works visitors spent the most time with, which works were asked about the most,” Carlozzi says. “Also, we wanted the curators to select works that are memorable, visually compelling works in the collection, not just ones that have arcane value.”
Through this very different lens, some 110 works of arts were chosen and are arranged in the book chronologically by the date of creation and not subdivided into the geographically determined categories — European, American and Latin American — of before, a decidedly democratic presentation.
Ditto the deliberate use of “favorites” in the title used to diffuse any institutional, top-down declarations of what is best and what is not.
Yes, Vouet’s “Saint Cecilia” is included in “favorites.” So is Anselm Kiefer’s towering mixed-media painting “Sternenfall (Falling Stars).” And a haunting yet hyperrealistic painting by Donald Roller Wilson joins the roster, too, after Carlozzi found it to be one of the most asked-about American paintings in the Blanton’s collection.
New acquisitions also make their publishing debut: Luis Jiménez’s sprawling fiberglass sculpture “Progress II” and Teresita Fernández’s “Stacked Waters,” the site-specific installation of blue tiles lining the Blanton’s towering atrium, a project commissioned by the museum that debuted in 2009.
As for the final number of 110?
“We tried and tried to whittle it down to an even 100, but we just couldn’t,” Carlozzi says. “So we have a kind of quirky final number of 110.”
Of course, in our Internet age, where so many images are available online, how much import can one book cover image and a pre-selected roster of art have?
After all, in the past year, the Blanton launched a searchable online database of its collection. Likewise, the museum participates in several of Internet image-sharing platforms including Pinterest and Tumblr, which have users following each, social media-style. Soon the Blanton will launch on Artsy.net, yet another museum-focused image-sharing site.
The Blanton also has its own YouTube channel. And it’s one the few Texas art museums to participate in the international Google Art Project through which high-resolution images of artworks from museums around the world are available and can be assembled into personal galleries.
And all of it is all good, Carlozzi says.
“The semantics of culture have changed since (the new building opened). People are exercising critical capacities and viewpoints more and we should be reflecting that.”
“Blanton Fifty Fest”
What: A free 12-hour celebration with family-friendly art-making activities; live music by T Bird and the Breaks, Brownout, Minor Mishap Marching Band; performances by poets, musicians and artists in responses to works in the Blanton’s collection, and more. Food trucks will be on hand.
When: Noon to midnight April 27
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Parking: Free in UT’s Brazos Garage
Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org