With an out-sized reputation befitting its Texas location, the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth is widely considered to be one of the top small museums in the world.
The Kimbell is distinguished by a permanent collection of undeniable artistic quality and importance. Modest in size, with fewer than 350 works of art, the collection has developed around representative works of notable aesthetic value, works that define a master, period, school, style, or area.
The Kimbell is also distinguished by its architecture. The original building was designed by Louis Kahn in the 1960s, at the museum’s inception. It is widely regarded as one of the outstanding architectural achievements of the 20th century. When more space was needed, rather than trying to enlarge Kahn’s iconic, instantly-recognizable structure, a new building — the Renzo Piano Pavilion — opened in 2013. Positioned nearby, across a treed lawn, it complements Kahn’s landmark by way of scale, plan, emphasis on natural light, and materials.
The Kimbell is young — not yet 50 years old. Named for local industrialist Kay and his wife Velma Kimbell, whose art collection and estate were the foundation of the institution, the museum opened its doors to the public in 1972. Since then, it has racked up some notable “firsts”, including acquisition of the first painting by Michelangelo ever to enter an America collection, hosting the first retrospective of Vigée Le Brun, mounting the first major exhibition of Poussin held in America, and the acquisition of the first painting by Friedrich to enter a public collection outside Europe.
Acquisitions are evaluated according to the Kimbell’s founding Policy Statement: “The dominating principle involved in the acquisition process is that the stature of the Museum depends more upon the quality of the definitive objects that it contains than on the historical completeness of its collections. […] The goal shall be definitive excellence, not size of collection.”
In other words, rather than building a broad and deep collection, the Kimbell pursues unique quality over quantity.
While holdings range from the 3rd millennium B.C. to the mid-20th century, and include art and artifacts from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Ancient Americas, the Kimbell is particularly well-known for European paintings and sculpture. Rich in works of the Italian Renaissance, as well as Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish works of the 17th century, a visit to the museum reveals major pieces by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Poussin, Velázquez, Bernini, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse, Modigliani, and … the list goes on.
The Kimbell consciously avoids competing with neighboring museums. Recognizing that the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth begins with mid-20th century art, the Kimbell chronology ends there. Likewise, holdings do not include American art, this being the focus of the nearby Amon Carter Museum. The three museums are within walking distance of each other in the city’s architecturally-notable Cultural District.
Barrel-vaults, lack of ornament, and the use of concrete and travertine add up to a modern interpretation classical Roman architecture. A crucial aspect of the design is natural light. The barrel vaults are split and rimmed with narrow skylights, and wing-like interior reflectors diffuse and wash the walls with natural light.
Museum director Eric Lee says, “The Kahn galleries are both intimate, with their unusually low walls, and monumental, with the concrete vaults overhead. And the light has an ephemeral quality. It’s an extraordinarily subtle building.”
The building is accented by three courtyards, allowing for more light and air flow, creating a relationship with the outdoors. The exterior spaces include a sunken sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi.
The interplay between architecture and art is unique. The art is never overwhelmed by the surrounding structure, despite its monumentality. Perhaps this is due to the way the diffused natural light is subtly enhanced by artificial illumination: the Kimbell’s exacting combination of artificial and natural light creates a color temperature in the 3500K — 3800K range, considered to be the ideal for viewing color.
Over the course of forty years the museum’s collection and mission have expanded, outgrowing its home. The Kimbell needed more gallery space, an education center, a bigger auditorium, and more parking. To achieve this, in 2013 the free-standing 89,000 square-foot Renzo Piano Pavilion was inaugurated. Roughly doubling the amount of gallery space, the Pavilion allows the original building to be dedicated to the display of the permanent collection. Glass, concrete, and wood are the predominant materials used in the new building, echoing those used by Kahn.
Incidentally, the underground parking that was added beneath the lawn corrected the previous tendency of visitors to enter the Kahn building by what the architect considered the back entrance. The approach to the Kimbell’s front door in the west façade takes the visitor past flanking reflecting pools, through an allée of elms and a grove of yaupon hollies.
Kay and Velma Kimbell wanted to create a “small museum of supreme quality,” and they stipulated that future curators should expand the range of the museum to build on their founding collection of European and English 18th- and 19th-century paintings. Could they have imagined, I wonder, the extent to which those goals would be met? Could they have dreamt that in just a few decades the museum they envisioned would be considered one of the top small art museums in the world?
Quite a legacy.
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