The blue beckons from the moment you walk into the Blanton Museum of Art. What was once a bulky, bright white atrium lobby is now a shimmering landscape.
The soaring atrium walls have been covered up to the midpoint with 3,100 square feet of custom-cast tiles arranged in a striped pattern of blues that resemble water. Called "Stacked Waters," the tiles are a glinting two-story site-specific art installation by MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" fellowship winner Teresita Fern?ndez, whose retrospective solo exhibit opens at the Blanton today.
"Stacked Waters" is the most recent gift — estimated to be worth several hundred thousand dollars — to the University of Texas' art museum from collectors Jeanne and Michael "Mickey" Klein. Since its unveiling in January, "Stacked Waters" has become perhaps the most public mark of the Kleins' philanthropy and art world sophistication since the couple moved to Austin from Houston four years ago.
And the work is also indicative of the couple's spirited, adventurous sense of aesthetics — a spirit that extends to their relationships with many of the artists whose work they collect.
The Kleins, both UT alumni, have for years been included on the Art News magazine's annual list of top 200 international collectors, the art world's herald of who's who, mainly because of their holdings of contemporary art. This year, they joined such notables as Eric de Rothschild of Paris and Sen. Jay and Sharon Rockefeller of Washington on the list.
They have commissioned bold site-specific installations for their homes in Austin and Santa Fe, N.M., by such world-renowned artists as Olafur Eliasson, Andy Goldsworthy and James Turrell. (Their Santa Fe home, designed by New York City firm Ohlhausen DuBois Architects, has been widely photographed for art and design magazines and was built around the couple's collection.)
But the Kleins' influence and interests go beyond the arts. When Democratic Party officials came looking for hosts for an Austin fundraising lunch this spring featuring Vice President Joe Biden, the Kleins offered their Lake Austin house. (They report that the vice president took an interest in the edgy artworks that fill their home, particularly a Leandro Erlich installation that looks like an elevator but is a closet-sized space lined with mirrors that create the illusion of an endlessly deep shaft.)
The two have also become patrons of the UT Elementary School in East Austin, where Jeanne serves on the advisory council and Mickey volunteers as a teacher's aide one afternoon a week.
Earlier this year, the couple joined venture capitalist John and Julie Thornton on a $1 million matching challenge grant to raise money for the architecturally innovative renovation of Arthouse, the Congress Avenue contemporary arts center. And as treasurer of Humanities Texas, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mickey is helping the organization as it expands its historic Byrne-Reed House in downtown Austin to be a public venue.
While the Kleins have an international reputation, they were attracted to Austin because they wanted to work with their alma mater. "A large part of my success comes from what I received at UT," says Mickey, 73, whose Midland-based business focuses on independent oil and gas exploration and production. His business has earned him millions of dollars over the years, and he stands to get $7.5 million more if a recent settlement over natural gas royalties is approved by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
And while he appreciates the bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering he got in 1958 and a law degree in 1963, he says that he's more inspired now by challenging the minds of young people. "If they had had an art museum when I was at UT, that's where I would have been hanging out," he says. "Contemporary art keeps you fresh. It deals with issues of here and now."
The gallery they endowed at the Blanton is devoted to new projects by emerging, sometimes controversial, artists from around the world. The Kleins have a long-term arrangement with the Blanton that will end up deeding to the university many works from their personal multimillion-dollar collection over the next decades.
"It's the most fun, the most rewarding, to see what can happen at our major state school," says Jeanne, 64, a fifth-generation Texan raised in Amarillo. "The experience of an education is the one thing you can't ever take away from someone."
While the couple support such high-profile arts institutions as Site Santa Fe and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, they have donated more than $2 million to various UT divisions, including the Blanton and the School of Education.
A spirit of aesthetic adventure and even playfulness characterizes the art in their Austin home. In the dining room, artist Jim Hodges lined the walls and ceiling with carved pieces of mirrors in an intricate mosaic. A series of luminous orbs by Maya Lin (creator of the Vietnam War memorial) line a hallway, just past a series of photographs by Ed Ruscha. An incandescent video piece by James Turrell illuminates a corner of a guest bedroom. A digital video of animated flowers by Jennifer Steinkamp flickers in a guest bathroom right next to the toilet, placed there specifically to take visitors by surprise.
That frolicsome attitude permeates their style. Two years ago, Jeanne commissioned several balloon sculptures from artist Jason Hackenwerth for her son's wedding rehearsal dinner. The giant otherworldly amoebalike creations sported tentacles, antennae and fabulously strange protrusions. And when the party was over, the Kleins offered the colored creatures (some of which were more than 10 feet long) to the Blanton, where they floated in the atrium for weeks, startling and amusing visitors.
But for all their international art world cach?, the Kleins are down-to-earth and widely accessible as they become regulars on the Austin social scene, attendees not so much at glossy galas but at weeknight gallery talks.
Jeanne's favorite form of exercise is a regular morning walk around Lady Bird Lake with her girlfriends. (In 1995 she climbed Africa's 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro with her Houston jogging buddies.)
Mickey studies ballroom dancing and is a Longhorn football and basketball fan who loves to wear burnt orange.
The family's dogs are rescue animals and have free range around the museum-quality art at the Klein home, designed by Lake Flato Architects. (Though they did pass on buying a sculpture by Louise Bouregious once, worried that their dog at the time would damage it with its wagging tail.) Their frequent dinners (typically a casual buffet with guests perching around the house to dine) include a seemingly never-ending stream of artists, scholars, architects and curators visiting UT and anyone in the Kleins' orbit who needs a place to stay.
Thoughtfulness marks their basic hospitality. On a recent rainy day, Jeanne Klein left an umbrella at their home's front gate so that visitors wouldn't have to make the trek up to the front door in the rain.
Daughter-in-law Lora Reynolds, whose Austin gallery is the only one in town to showcase the kind of blue-chip international artists the Kleins collect, says that curiosity about what's current drives the couple. "At any social gathering — any dinner party or opening or any event — take a look around, and you'll see Mickey talking to the youngest person in the room because he wants to know what the young generation is most interested in," she says.
Other associates note the Kleins' interest in people.
"They have a kind of unusual, deep grace to them," says Blanton Museum Director Ned Rifkin, who has known the couple for decades. "They genuinely care as much about artists as people as they do about the work artists do. They are truly empathetic, and if they develop a connection to someone, their loyalty never wavers. There's an ethic to everything they do."
For the past several years, Mickey has spent an afternoon a week volunteering as a teacher's aide at UT Elementary School for first- and fourth-grade classes. "It's really what gives me the most joy in life right now," he says.
He'll rearrange his business schedule so that he never misses a school visit. Students greet him with a high-five or a fist-bump. He has given each student a tiny vial of unprocessed oil when he's given a presentation on petroleum exploration. And at an end-of-the-school-year party, he doesn't hesitate to limbo with the kids.
His regular presence at the school resonates far beyond that of most donors, school officials say.
"I can't compare anyone to Mickey Klein," says Ramona Trevi?o, founding principal of UT Elementary. "He makes these kids feel that they're cared about. He is truly effecting change and doing it one child at a time. A lot of people say they want to help minority kids in East Austin, but he is actually doing it personally."
Mickey was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., to Jewish parents who were retail merchants of modest means. He put himself through college by working in construction. After earning his bachelor's degree, he went to work in oil fields of New Mexico and West Texas as a petroleum engineer before returning to UT to pursue a law degree. He eventually went to work as an attorney for the now-defunct Continental Oil Co. before going into business for himself.
Jeanne, whose maiden name is Johnson, came to UT in 1963. Art courses piqued her interest, but she didn't pursue it as a major. "I loved art, but I didn't know what I could do with it practically," she says. Instead she majored in education. But during her time at UT, she made her first art purchase at a student show. "That started my art habit," she says.
The couple met in the late 1970s in Houston, years after their UT experiences, after both their first marriages end in divorce. Both had young children. And both shared a deep, and growing, love of art. "We spent our first date talking about art virtually all night," recalls Jeanne.
Blending their families, the Kleins settled in Houston. (Jeanne has two sons, Quincy Lee, an Austin hedge fund manager, and Zachary Lee, a San Antonio developer. Mickey's son Eric is a public defense attorney in Washington, and his daughter, Jacqueline, lives in California.)
As the couple's fortune grew over the years, so did their art collecting. And leading them on their adventure were Dominique and John de Menil, the major art collectors who founded the internationally respected Houston museum.
"Exposure, exposure, exposure," says Jeanne. "Dominique taught us that the more art you see, the more you know, and then the more art you will want to see."
And it's that exposure to challenging, thought-provoking international art that the Kleins want to offer to UT students and to all Blanton visitors. "We can have a greater impact here than we might elsewhere," says Mickey.
But true to her lively nature, one of Jeanne's favorite ways to make an impact is a story no one expects her to tell. In 1903, her grandfather Lewis Johnson urged fellow UT student John Sinclair to write "The Eyes of Texas."
The lyrics were scribbled on a piece of scrap laundry paper, which stayed in the family for years before being donated to UT.
Whenever the conversation lags at UT receptions, "I love to pull that (story) out at parties," she says.