Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Blanton gears up for higher profile

After year on job, director hopes to boost image, add money for acquisitions.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
The museum has relied on gifts of art, not just money, from its benefactors. James Drake's charcoal drawing 'City of Tells (Joy, Folly, Torment)' was a gift from Jeanne and Michael Klein and is part of the exhibit 'New Works for the Collection.'

The art at the Blanton Museum's "New Works for the Collection" exhibit tells a story.

But that story isn't necessarily about art. It's about money — or the lack thereof.

Of the 84 works on exhibit, only 20 were purchased with museum funds. The rest were donated.

Ned Rifkin, who took over as the director of the University of Texas museum one year ago this month, faces a big challenge on this anniversary: how to expand and raise the museum's status amid university budget cuts and the worst economic downturn in a generation.

"It's a very odd time to be trying to implement discernible change," Rifkin said. But that's what he plans to do. He and his staff have come up with a five-year strategic plan that he hopes will steer the nation's largest university art museum in terms of square footage into a new era.

The strategy centers on more fundraising from a wider base of donors. It also calls for streamlining programs and exhibits, altering the tradition-laden exterior of the building to better immediately identify it as an art museum, improving the visitor experience and positioning the Blanton to be the region's flagship museum.

"All museums are having to rethink themselves now," Rifkin said. "The times call for it."

The Blanton's plan comes as Austin's visual art scene is poised for major realignment.

In September, UT's art department will open the Visual Arts Center, a 22,000-square-foot space in the Art Building that will feature five galleries and host exhibits not just by UT art faculty members and students, but also by visiting international artists. The center is taking over the space that housed the Blanton until 2006.

Then in October, Arthouse, the arts center on Congress Avenue, will reopen after a $6.6 million architecturally adventurous renovation that will triple the gallery space to more than 20,000 square feet. Arthouse is known for presenting cutting-edge contemporary international art. (Meanwhile, the Austin Museum of Art remains in its temporary home in the lobby of an office building while its plans for a major facility of its own are on hold.)

It's time for the Blanton to raise its profile, Rifkin suggests.

"We can't do this without Austin, and we want (the city's) engagement," Rifkin said. "But (does Austin) really want a dynamic, vital art museum, and is that museum the Blanton? I want to make a case for the Blanton."

However, Rifkin wonders whether Austin is ready and willing to return the interest. "I think as Austin grows and deepens, hopefully people will see what (the Blanton) can offer and want to take a leadership role in supporting it," he said. "Yes, we're UT's museum of art, but that doesn't mean UT or the state is really supporting us to the extent that it also fully serves the community of Austin."

The museum's current budget is $5.8 million, down from $6.4 million in 2006, the year the Blanton opened the doors to the first building of its new two-building, $83.5 million complex, prominently perched on the south edge of campus.

About $2.1 million, or 36 percent, of the Blanton's budget comes from UT and the state. But the museum has to come up with the rest. About $1.6 million comes from grants, memberships and contributions. About $1.4 million comes from revenue generated by the Blanton's endowment of $30 million. And about $700,000 comes from admissions, museum shop sales and facility rentals.

Museum attendance held steady in 2009 at about 130,000, and the Blanton's membership roll totals 5,667.

"We don't necessarily have fewer donors, just substantially lower donations than we've had in the past," Rifkin said. "And UT has already gone through one across-the-board budget cut, and we've been warned to anticipate another. How that will affect the museum is hard to know until we know what the (budget cut) might be."

It's relatively rare for a university-based museum to aspire to be a city's flagship art destination. And the Blanton isn't directly comparable to many university art museums, much less flagship city museums such as the Kimbell in Fort Worth or Houston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Collegiate museums usually start as modest student-focused affairs within an existing art department, rely almost wholly on gifts of art and money from alumni and hence develop with collections that usually lack depth and are sometimes even eccentric.

"University museums aren't typically the places filled with great masterpieces," Rifkin said. They're "usually very idiosyncratic institutions."

The Blanton has fared better in its 47 years than many other university art museums and not just in terms of its big, new home, the biggest donation to which, $15 million, came from the Houston Endowment Inc. in honor of oilman and UT alum Jack S. Blanton. Blanton himself donated $5 million toward the new facility, and the late novelist James A. Michener donated $10 million.

The Blanton's collection of modern Latin American art is recognized as one of the best in the nation. Its collection of prints and drawings is one the finest in the region. And the museum has strong holdings in European art from the 14th century to the 18th.

But in financial terms, its status shrinks. Currently, endowment funds earmarked for acquisitions provide just a little more than $100,000 per year — small change in a global art market.

The Suida-Manning Collection of Renaissance and Baroque art, valued at $35 million, ranks as the Blanton's most important single acquisition to date. The Blanton paid $22 million for the collection in 1998, with descendants of the Suida-Manning family counting the remaining $13 million as a donation.

More recently, the Blanton has found support from a few philanthropists such as Austin residents and UT alumni Jeanne and Michael Klein, who have begun to make significant gifts of contemporary art. The Kleins, who made their fortune in oil, are recognized as some of the top private collectors in the world.

But even given the recent generosity of a few supporters, the Blanton can't compare to such collegiate museums as Harvard University's Art Museum, where in 2008 Emily Rauh Pulitzer, widow of newspaper scion Joseph Pulitzer Jr., gave $45 million in cash and nearly $200 million worth of paintings by Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti and other top artists.

In Texas, the Blanton's resources also don't compare. Houston's Museum of Fine Art has an endowment of about $780 million, down from nearly $1 billion before the 2008 stock market crash. Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum derives about 65 percent of its $12 million annual budget from an endowment that currently stands at about $398 million. And last year, the Kimbell made world headlines when it purchased — for an undisclosed sum — Michelangelo's first known painting, "The Torment of Saint Anthony," a work so rare no expert in the art world would put a value on it.

"We're severely undercapitalized," Rifkin said. And he knows it's his job to find more money. "This is a more challenging job than I've ever had before."

Rifkin, 60, came to the Blanton from Washington, where he had been the undersecretary for art at the Smithsonian Institution, the top administrator overseeing eight museums. He resigned from the Smithsonian in 2008 and was taking a year to pursue independent projects when he accepted the Blanton job. He replaced Jesse Otto Hite, who retired in 2008 after 30 years with the Blanton.

Earlier jobs included stints as director at Houston's Menil Collection and Atlanta's High Museum and as an art professor at UT-Arlington. At the University of Michigan in the 1970s, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on avant-garde filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. In addition to his position at the Blanton, Rifkin holds a professorship in UT's art and art history department. He plans to teach a seminar this year.

Rifkin has spent much of his first year getting to know the myriad social circles that orbit around UT. He is a sports fan, having played basketball as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. So rubbing elbows with alumni at UT home games has been part of his circuit.

Still, Rifkin admits there is much to learn about his new hometown, where live music and film dominate the arts scene.

"Austin's visual arts have the potential to be as important as the music scene here, but it will take some time," he said. "My goal is to make a reach into the community and make the case for why (art) is valuable for the community to support."

Rifkin also realizes that much of what people know about the Blanton is the storied architectural controversy that resulted in the museum's conventional Spanish Revival style and a building many don't recognize as an art museum. Architectural experts advocated a modern design, but university regents favored a more traditional style in line with the campus's older buildings.

Rifkin acknowledges that in terms of a building, he has to make do with what's already been done.

"Some of the feedback we got (during interviews with visitors) is that people don't even know this is an art museum," Rifkin said. "And that's the aftermath of the decision of the regents to make (the building) look integrated with the rest of the campus. What (the regents) might not have realized is that they were taking away one of the major levers a museum can offer: a sensational building."

To address that issue, the strategic plan calls for more visible banners on the building's exterior and better signs on nearby streets. Rifkin and the Blanton curators also will begin to consider what kind of sculpture or multimedia artwork such as video projections might be suitable for the plaza or other outside areas.

"This building really needs some élan," Rifkin said. "We need to ... make it more inviting and visible."

Inside, Rifkin wants to step up efforts to make museum information immediately available to visitors. He also has asked curators to rethink how and where exhibits can be presented, as well as make better use of hallways and other spaces. Rifkin said the popular Petrobelli Altarpiece exhibit in last fall became a case study for future efforts. It featured a large-scale reconstructed multipiece Italian Renaissance altarpiece painting by Veronese, on loan from several museums. It was a one-painting blockbuster that drew in crowds.

"It may be time for doing fewer things, but with more creativity," Rifkin said. "I want the Blanton to be not just a place but a force for creativity and culture."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘New Works for the Collection'

When: Through Aug. 22

Where:Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue

Tickets:$5-$9 (free on Thursdays)

Information:471-7324. www.blanton museum.org

Though it relies almost solely on donations to add to its permanent collection of 18,000 works, the Blanton Museum of Art has nevertheless been busy acquiring in the past few years. ‘New Works' offers a snapshot of one direction the Blanton is headed.

Perhaps most notable are the vigorous and adventuresome contemporary painting, sculpture, video and multimedia art from international artists based in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba and England, among other nations. Also noteworthy is the number of contributions by Austin collectors. Connoisseurs such as Michael Chesser, Don Mullins, Cameron Larson and Fran Magee have all donated money and artwork that add to the Blanton's noted contemporary Latin American collection. And gifts of Jeanne and Michael Klein include several paintings by Iranian-born artist Shirazeh Houshiary, video art by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung and vivid tapestries by former Austin-based artist Peat Duggins.