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The Kimbell's 40 – But Nowhere Near Over the Hill

Photo: Kimbell Art Museum

Since it was founded, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum has had a policy of acquiring works of “definitive excellence.” That goal is as lofty as it is elusive. A new exhibit celebrates the Kimbell’s 40th anniversary – and the spotlight is on the vision of the museum’s founders.

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Bodhisattva Maitreya

Kay and Velma Kimbell started collecting art back in the 1930s with an assortment of 18th and 19th Century European portraits. People in fancy dress doing their best to look regal.

So imagine the shock in 1965 when the Kimbell Art Foundation began considering its first purchase for the new museum.

Here’s how Kimbell curator Jennifer Casler Price describes it:

“One of the things we see is the figure is very simply dressed. The only clothing that he has is this very small, simple, dhoti – the skirt. And then his kind of matted hair, which identifies him as Maitreya. And there’s a little stupa, which represents the Buddha.”

She’s talking about a statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya. The 4-foot-tall bronze figure couldn’t have been more different from the paintings in the collection.

Very visionary on the part of the board to say yes, we’ll acquire a piece of 8th Century Southeast Asian sculpture that we no nothing about, but because it’s a masterpiece and it’s so important and we do want to form a global collection,” she says.

Now, half of the Kimbell collection is Asian, African or pre-Colombian art. And in the “Kimbell at 40” exhibition, those pieces are displayed alongside the Western paintings the collection was founded on. The Kimbell owns just 350 items. Almost 2/3 of them are in the show – the biggest chunk of the collection ever displayed at one time.

“Although we put things together from wildly divergent cultures – an African sculpture next to a pre-Colombian pot next to a painting by Cezanne – they all match because they’re so good,” says George Shackelford, the museum’s deputy director. “There’s a kind of quality of excellence about it all that is the unifying principle.”

In 1972, Louis Kahn designed a building that’s been called a masterpiece itself. And throughout the decade, the Kimbell foundation acquired work to fill the space. In fact, a pair of 9-foot-tall paintings by the French artist Francois Boucher were bought, at least in part, because they served a purpose.

“Not only are they great works of art, but they, um, fill a gallery very nicely,” Shackelford says.

In the 1980s, Kay Kimbell’s estate was finally settled, giving the foundation an influx of cash. Nearly a third of the museum’s collection was acquired during the decade, including important works by Velazquez, Picasso and Cezanne.

Along the way, the museum leadership took some gambles. Paintings by a few European masters entered the collection with some questions about their authenticity. But those questions have been answered.

Michelangelo's The Torment of St. Anthony

“If we were a more timid institution, we would not have the Caravaggio,” Kimbell director Eric Lee says of one of the museum’s masterworks, The Cardsharps. “We would not have the George de la Tour. We would not have, frankly, the Michelangelo of more recent years. But the Kimbell has been bold in its acquisitions at times, and it has paid off beautifully.”

After all that collecting, the museum was bursting at the seams. Italian architect Renzo Piano was hired to design an expansion, which will nearly double the Kimbell’s gallery space.

It’ll open next year. And that means much of the art in the “Kimbell at 40” show won’t have to go back into storage.

“With the new building, we’ll be able to keep up most of our permanent collection while at the same time having special exhibitions,” Lee says. “So this has been so badly needed for a very long time.”

How’s that for a 40th birthday present?