10 Years and Counting
by Joel Nolan
At the time of its original opening in 2006, the Blanton Museum of Art was the largest university art museum in the country, a fact few museumgoers would have assumed by the somewhat sparse characters seen hung on its walls in the first ten years of its existence. Six years ago, when Simone Wicha became the museum’s new director, she made it her first priority to reinvigorate the gallery spaces, focusing on the user’s experience and connection with the extensive collection held by the University of Texas. In February of 2017, after nearly five years of working with the museum’s curators, educators, collections team and digital technology specialists, Wicha opened the doors to a rejuvenated Blanton experience that is more visually impressive, thought provoking and nationally innovative.
For the viewer, the space is not just a neutral container, but thanks to its dimensions and the effect of the changing light, it generates an unusually integrated experience, a combined work of art and architecture.
Recognized for its European paintings, an encyclopedic collection of prints and drawings, and modern and contemporary American and Latin American art and comprised of nearly 17,000 permanent works, the gallery will have a yearly schedule of rotating work and display more than twice as many pieces as previously shown. The second floor galleries, housing this immense permanent collection, were re-designed to change the flow of how visitors walk through the museum and experience the art. The new pathways help you see the art in the order it was meant to be experienced and encourage patrons to slow down and take the time look at each work of art. Studies show that a majority of visitors look at art for an average of only 17 seconds, a trend the Blanton is hoping to change. Additionally, in the European Art collection, the Venetian paintings are now displayed “salon style,” as they can still be seen in the Venetian palazzos today. This refers to the way in which art works are grouped together by theme and mounted above eye level, rather than displayed individually at a lower level.
The incredibly popular Cildo Meireles installation titled Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals), a contemplative space that functions as a critique of Jesuit missions established during colonial times to contain the indigenous Tupi-Guaraní people and convert them to Catholicism, was cleaned and opened up to an abundance of natural light. For the first time, the Blanton is dedicating galleries to its renowned collection of Latin American modern and contemporary art. These galleries trace the vibrant Mexican art scene between the 1920s and 1940s, the rise of geometric abstraction, new approaches to figuration in South America, conceptual practice as well as politically engaged art in Latin America. The museum’s iconic Seepage by El Anatsui, the only two-sided work by the artist in a museum collection, is now exhibited for the first time with its regal, predominantly red side displayed.
The work, like the ocean organism, serves as a metaphor for our interdependence with the natural world and, by extension, our ecological survival.
In conjunction with the much-improved second floor, the museum acquired a grand installation to be hung in the two-story Rapoport Atrium. Thomas Glassford’s Siphonophora is an incredible sculpture of individual natural forms that have been painted with white cement and strung together, merging into one enormous “floating” colony. Its form and name fit perfectly with the water-theme of the atrium, complementing Teresita Fernández’s Stacked Waters which adorns the walls surrounding the hanging installation. In the natural world a siphonophora may appear to be a single organism; however, they are comprised of interdependent communities of small individual animals, each with different functions that allow the organism to flourish, a peculiar morphology placing them between animals and plants. The work, like the ocean organism, serves as a metaphor for our interdependence with the natural world and, by extension, our ecological survival. The abundance of natural light flowing down from the massive clerestory windows above the atrium envelop the installation, giving variation to the form and unique characteristics found in the many different pieces of the work. For the viewer, the space is not just a neutral container, but thanks to its dimensions and the effect of the changing light, it generates an unusually integrated experience, a combined work of art and architecture.
Before being purchased by the Blanton, Siphonophora was a site-specific work created for the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City, Mexico. With this installation Glassford constructs a sculptural organism that recalls the building’s former incarnation as a natural history museum. The work combines reference points ranging from the human microbiome (the collection of microbes that colonize the body and together comprise one hundred times more genes than in our own genome) to the classic children’s story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Although Siphonophora’s original conception was directed at the museum in Mexico City it has landed at the perfect time in the Blanton’s lifespan. This recent transformation has displayed a similar social parallel with the community, the neighborhood and the city surrounding and enriched by the Blanton.