Seven years ago, Simone Wicha had just settled into the job as the fifth director of the Blanton Museum of Art. Yet, it was already time to take some big risks.
The University of Texas museum’s former director of external affairs had moved into the corner office that overlooks the evolving cityscape along upper Congress Avenue in 2011. She smoothed over feathers ruffled by her short-tenured predecessor, Ned Rifkin, who never connected with the university or civic communities.
Wicha put together her own team, re-evaluated the museum’s curatorial program, and turned her staff’s attention to unceasing public outreach about the treasures inside the still-new complex on the southern rim of the UT campus.
Still, something was missing for this Texan, who had worked for art institutions in New York and Washington, D.C.
“I wanted the museum to be more recognized internationally,” Wicha says. “I knew there was so much more that we could achieve, especially to become a museum that was internationally relevant.”
Seven years later, Wicha has not missed that ambitious mark.
In 2017, she introduced a complete rethinking — and rehanging — of the museum’s permanent collection. That included minute cleaning and other projects devoted to better showcasing some of the Blanton’s most popular pieces, such as Cildo Meireles’ installation, “Missão/Missões (Mission/Missions) (How to Build Cathedrals),” memorable for its bleached bones hanging over a large pit of glowing coins.
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Then, earlier this year, the art world celebrated something much bigger: the opening of Ellworth Kelly’s temple of light and color, “Austin,” a landmark building that doubles as a work of art. It received almost universal acclaim. Critics also saluted a breakthrough Kelly exhibition by curator and deputy director Carter Foster.
Just months ago, Wicha, along with curator Veronica Roberts, unveiled Vincent Valdez’s startling “The City,” an epic two-part treatment of modern-day Klan members that is only the latest Blanton art to attract nationwide media attention.
This episode followed on the heels of the acquisition in 2015 of two paintings from Valdez’s series, “The Strangest Fruit,” which explores the history of lynching of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Texas.
In the coming months, Wicha’s team will partner with renowned architectural firm Snøhetta to reshape the grounds and entrance of the museum, in part to lock its three buildings into the state of Texas’ grand schemes for upper Congress Avenue. The changes also will direct attention to the signature Kelly building from Speedway, once the “fast route” from downtown to Hyde Park, now a pedestrian-only walkway for most of its campus length.
Details of Snøhetta’s early plans have not been released.
One person who is not shocked by Wicha’s strategic gains is Jessie Otto Hite, who served as the Blanton’s director during the long campaign to build UT’s art museum, originally proposed for the area near the LBJ Presidential Library. Hite had hoped that Wicha would succeed her directly when she stepped down in 2007.
“Obviously that didn’t happen,” Hite says. Instead, Rifkin got the first call. “But, when the second opportunity arose for her to be considered for the job, I once again said I thought she should be hired. So, it is no surprise to me that she has done such a great job in the director’s position. The three things that impress me the most are the number of new donors she has brought to the Blanton — as well as her continuing role with established donors — the number of impressive professionals she hired on the staff, and the way she has connected with the university community.”
It is perhaps Wicha’s complicated life story — informed by her Mexican, Jewish, Arab and American background — that helps her to navigate the notoriously knotty world of contemporary art, as well as the evolving concepts about a museum’s role in society.
Unlike her predecessor Rifkin, she could connect with people across the divisions that cleave our society. It was she who first addressed a packed Blanton auditorium when “The City” was unveiled and put the art in the context of her own experience.
“I grew up listening to my mother talk about how her Arab grandfather who lived in Mexico was often hidden in their home’s chimney in order to escape the anti-immigrant raids there,” Wicha said. “And hearing my mother’s own story as an immigrant to the U.S. herself: While trying to go home with her new-born, fair-skinned daughter — my sister — the hospital would not let her leave even with tags. They required my father to prove that she, in fact, was the mother.”
Some people in the U.S. assumed that Wicha’s Mexican-born mother was her nanny. Add to this the perspective of her father’s stories about escaping Poland during the height of World War II, leaving behind his Jewish grandparents, and walking as a young child with his mother through the forests of Germany and arriving in Switzerland to a community that was unsympathetic to refugees and immigrants.
Hite, the director who spent decades building support for the Blanton project, sensed that Wicha had the people skills to catapult the museum into the national and international conversation.
Under Hite, who came on as the third director in 1993, the Blanton had developed laudable collections and, against all odds, opened UT’s first stand-alone art museum, more than 30 years after it was first seriously proposed. Famously, at one point during that campaign, the UT System regents intervened to nix an innovative, undulating plan for the same site by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron.
Art and university leaders agree that the final product by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects serves the art inside well enough, but it does not inspire from the street.
After that exhausting campaign, it seemed natural for Hite to step aside to make way for a national figure, Rifkin, who, despite his distinguished resume, did not make many friends on or off campus during his two-year tenure.
After that, Wicha took the reins.
“We had already opened the building,” Wicha recalls. “That was a huge step. Yet, there still was a disconnect with the community. People were confused. It was not always clear from the outside that it was an art museum. It takes a long time for visitors to have an experience with the art. So, we thought of commissioning artists to do something outside.”
In fall 2012, Wicha was in a meeting when she received an “emergency call” from Jeanne Klein, an Austin collector who, along with husband, Michael “Mickey” Klein, is a major backer of the Blanton. Jeanne shared a tip from Houston art dealer Hiram Butler.
“Jeanne told me a little bit about the Ellsworth project,” Wicha says about the artist’s future masterpiece, originally intended for a winery in California. “She asked what I thought. I had been director for about a year and a half. We had one major Kelly painting in the collection, ‘High Yellow.' But I did not know him personally. Even if we were interested, it would take some incredibly ambitious fundraising.”
She ran the raw idea past Bill Powers and Stephen Leslie, then UT president and provost, and eventually with current President Gregory L. Fenves. It would be years, however, before the public learned of it.
“What I didn’t want to do is to go down that path, exploring it while making people aware of it, then not do it,” Wicha says. In other words, she didn’t want another Herzog and de Meuron.
The Blanton hired Overland Partners of San Antonio to do an architectural study, then delved into possibilities for paying for it. Other museums caught wind of the project. Because of Ellsworth's advanced age, the clock started ticking.
“At some point we decided that this was important,” Wicha says. “We realized that this would be a tremendous investment of energy, time and money, but if we could get this done, it makes everything else we do more compelling later on.”
The Blanton maintains a $32 million endowment, but its annual return of $1.5 million is a drop in the bucket for the country’s biggest university art museum. It certainly wasn’t going to cover the $23 million it would eventually cost to build and maintain Kelly’s “Austin.”
Meanwhile, the museum was looking to redo its oddly shaped and badly worn grounds, especially since the state of Texas had been working on a plan to reshape the Capitol mall to the immediate south.
“Simone’s ability to think both very broadly and very specifically is a rare combination,” curator Foster says. “It is apparent in the way she is thinking through our current master plan with Snøhetta, which will be a symbolic moment for the museum in terms of reshaping and opening up the Blanton’s museum grounds to the public. She is constantly strengthening and improving what we do as we become the major art museum for this incredibly growing city.”
Wicha put any master planning on hold to concentrate on Kelly’s building. She divided the next stage for “Austin” into three parts: artist, university and capital. While she and curator Roberts, later, curator Foster, who came from New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, built trust with Kelly, Wicha managed up.
“The university piece was the most complicated,” she says. “There was a tremendous amount of work and politics. The university always has a lot of things on its plate, so it takes pushing, pushing, pushing. And we have to do things a certain way because it is a work of art. How many times people sat me down to ask: ‘Is this really important, Simone?’”
Then, quietly but quickly, came the money part. “Ellsworth was 88 or 89 when we started,” Wicha says. “That made me aware how quickly we had to go. Urgency builds momentum.”
DETAILS: Ellsworth Kelly crowns Austin with an artistic jewel
Naturally, the Kleins were the first to sign on, giving $1 million up front, later increased to $3 million. Austin collectors and donors Suzanne Booth and David Booth followed, along with the late Jack S. Blanton’s family, as well as collectors Judy and Charles Tate of Houston.
“People called in rooting for the project,” Wicha says. “So, it kept growing. The best type of fundraising is when you have a group of people trying to solve a problem.”
Kelly gave his designs to the Blanton, but the regents had to accept the gift, which allowed the backers to raise money in batches of $1 million, $2 million, $3 million or more. The university at first kicked in $1 million for the construction; its bit eventually rose to $5 million.
The construction cost was $14.75 million. The rest has gone to the grounds and projects around it, along with the endowment, which pays for conservation and operations.
Kelly, who supervised the selection of materials and gave “Austin” his blessing, died on Dec. 27, 2015. The final project opened triumphantly in February 2018.
Along the way, Kelly’s partner, Jack Shear, now head of the Kelly Foundation, became an essential collaborator for Wicha. He ensured, for instance, that the Blanton received 65 works of art from his and Kelly’s personal collection, while more gifts of Kelly’s art came from collectors David Booth, Douglas Cramer and Jan and Howard Hendler.
For Wicha, “Austin” was the hoped-for game changer.
“The Blanton now plays the role of the collection of the city in a way that it didn’t before,” Wicha says. “I want the Blanton to be one of the top destinations in the city, you know, Barton Springs, breakfast tacos and the Blanton. ‘Austin’ is becoming a destination for art lovers, as well as a photo op moment, while blurring architecture and art. Now, we have to figure out how the rest of the museum can become that iconic. The master plan helps steer us in that direction.”
‘We can listen’
If Kelly’s chapel-like “Austin” graced the Blanton and the UT campus with a singular monument to pure abstraction, Valdez’s “The City” and its hyper-realistic portrayal of racism promised the potential for controversy.
After all, several recent attempts to address the topic of racism in the art world elicited loud and lengthy protests recently in Minneapolis, St. Louis and New York.
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When curator Roberts proposed that the museum try to acquire Valdez’s paintings, however, Wicha immediately understood the potential impact of the work and made plans to visit the artist’s studio. After deciding to acquire the paintings, Wicha and her team spent a year in talks with campus and community leaders to help frame its debut.
“It was her idea to host three ambitious faculty roundtable conversations and to reach out to community partners,” curator Roberts says. “We learned so much from the conversations that ensued that we now plan to use these experiences as models for exhibition planning going forward.”
Given her personal history, Wicha understood that talking forthrightly about race and immigrants was going to be a complicated business for a university art museum. Yet, in doing so, she also attracted major explanatory stories in The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. Perhaps Wicha's patient, slow-burn method of audience preparation — which, to be fair, is not unlike what the Contemporary Austin has done with some of its more controversial projects — is model for the wider art world?
“You’re bound to make mistakes” she says about any public discussion of race or immigration. “I’ve made my share. And, in all honesty, I’m rather certain I will make more. That’s because I will keep trying. A person I deeply respect said during this process: ‘You have to keep trying. Nothing changes if you give up.’”