Renzo Piano Pavilion at Kimbell Art Museum

What if they built an art museum and forgot the art?

Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum recently opened an addition that, so far, seems to be more about the building's architect, Italian Renzo Piano, rather than the art that's supposed to be displayed there.

South view, Renzo Piano Pavilion, September 2013. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Robert Polidori

To be fair, the new addition, a bookend to the original Kimbell, designed in 1972 by celebrated Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974), is still in its infancy, having opened in November, 2013. And, yes, one gallery, the West Gallery, is in full swing with a presentation of Greek and Roman antiquities. Otherwise the addition — actually a separate building divided from the Kahn building by a broad plaza — is presently mostly just library, gift shop, and café.

And lobby. And what a lobby, too. At just less than, maybe, one-quarter of the building's total space, the reception area shouts “entertainment center!” Nothing new about that. It just picks up on a new-ish trend in museum design, devoting space for banquet, party, and fund-raising events. (Trust me, Fort Worth's '400' might well be clinking Champagne flutes in the lobby before the art gets installed).

Like the Kahn building, the Renzo Piano Pavilion, as it's officially and pompously referred to, is low-slung and one story. Pleasing. But hardly, if you forgive me, a piano nobile. More anodyne. 

Much, obviously, still needs to be done.

What's the story?

This, especially, since the Kimbell appears to be one of those museums that, of late, seems to be placing far too much emphasis on built space than the art that space is designed to showcase. Think the Guggenheim in Bilbao, more starchitect Frank Gehry than Guggie. Think the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the proposed expansion of the museum's extraordinary contemporary and modern collections are also designated for an innovative and challenging gallery under Eakins Oval, at the head of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. All well and good. But do we need to be reminded ad nauseam that new space will be designed by you know who (one Frank Gehry)? How about being reminded that the underground gallery will display one of the finest collections anywhere in the modern/contemporary genres?

Even the current contretemps regarding the fate of the Tod Williams/Billie Tsien-designed building in New York, which used to house the American Folk Art Museum and now is slated for the wrecking ball by its new owner, the Museum of Modern Art, is another debate more about brick and mortar than, as it appropriately should, about paint and canvas. Certainly, MoMA is the villain of this piece. Almost no one — except, of course, myopic MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry, among the few — wants the Williams/Tsien building to go. But respect for the West 53rd Street building and its famed architects (well known in Philadelphia as the husband-and-wife design team of the new Barnes Museum on the Franklin Parkway) should deflect from a more consequential issue — what in God's name is MoMA up to? A complete hegemonic appropriation of both sides of West 53rd, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues? A Disney-fication of the block with MoMA hotels, restaurants, and entertainment centers, maybe?

Yes, buildings — especially in a dynamically driven built environment as that in New York — come and go. Even far too often important buildings. Anyone remember the old Pennsylvania Station? More important is the unique function, place, and future of MoMA, the world's spiritual home of the modern and contemporary art.

By most accounts, MoMA's new building, opened in 2006, has failed to live up to design expectations, which involved more space and more efficient usage of space. Instead, tight crowds pack the new building, especially in ticketing and wardrobe areas, reminding us of the saying among traffic engineers that the more highway lanes you build, the more highway lanes will be jammed.  

A space mission

The Kimbell also suffers from being too “spacey.” On one hand, its renowned collection includes works by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. Virtually every modern and contemporary genre is represented. But where are most of these great works?

On my recent visit, only the North Gallery in the Kahn building was dedicated to the museum's permanent collection. (One of my favorites, Lord Grosvenor's Arabian Stallion with a Groom by George Stubbs, which I had rather hoped to see, was nowhere in sight. Temporarily removed, I was told.) The South Gallery was full up with a traveling exhibit, The Age of Picasso and Matisse, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. Very nice. But rounded up in the show were the usual suspects, nothing much that most art cognoscenti haven't seen before.

Before my trip to Fort Worth, I had a late afternoon drink in Philadelphia with David Traub, a local architect who had been a student of Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania and later a junior colleague in Kahn's Walnut Street studio. He gave me two tasks: first, to scope out whether a trellis above a patio adjacent to the museum restaurant was blooming with flowers. Kahn had wanted that trellis to eventually be covered with a canopy of yellow roses, the Texas flower. Unexpectedly, I bumped into the Kimball's director, Eric M. Lee, shortly after I observed that, in fact, no flowers had taken hold on the trellis. “I heard that rumor too,” Lee told me. “From what I heard, they could never grow.”

Traub also directed my attention to two round speakers situated above an auditorium stage. “Check them out,” Traub said. I did. Nice work, David. (Traub, it turns out, had designed them).

What I hadn't been prepared to encounter was the Kahn building itself. Kahn's work has had many prominent fans, including, most notably Paul Mellon (the National Gallery), who tapped Kahn as the architect for another world-class museum, the Mellon-financed Center for British Art at Yale University. To be perfectly honest, Kahn has never been one of my favorites. And his Kimbell didn't disappoint. Still, the barrel-roofed design was an interesting, an even arresting, detail.

Once the Kimbell rolls out its art, of course, all will be forgiven. Moreover, there is one immensely positive thing about the Kahn and Piano buildings that can't be ignored — location, location, location. The museum is part of a west side cultural campus near downtown Fort Worth that also boasts the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, always deserving of a visit, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, probably the best place anywhere to take in American art of the West.

This cultural oasis in Fort Worth, an otherwise drab, lifeless city of about 750,000, is a marvel. And a low-cost one. Admission to the permanent collections at the Kimbell and Carter are free, and the Modern charges only a modest admission fee.

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