Upon entering the tall galleries of the Art Museum of South Texas, viewers are swept away by the great artwork on display in the expansive space. It’s hard to believe that the museum’s origins began in a small building the size of an average grocery store.
The original Corpus Christi Art Museum began on Park Avenue in South Bluff Park. The Centennial Museum opened in 1940 as part of an effort by the city to commemorate Texas 100 years old in 1936. The new museum featured exhibits related to the history, art, and science of Texas and Corpus Christi. The South Texas Art League made frequent use of the space, and when the Corpus Christi Art Foundation was formed in 1944, the group took over the building and renamed it the Centennial Art Museum.
However, a larger space was needed – the Centennial building was only 2,500 square feet. The Art Foundation renamed the building the Art Museum of South Texas in 1967 and started a fundraiser for a new home. Edwin and Patsy Singer led the trip and commissioned New York architect Philip Johnson to design the new building. A plot of land was purchased on the bay near the Science and History Museum using the Harbor Bridge and Corpus Christi Bay as a backdrop.
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Construction began in May 1970 and by October 1972 the new space was ready to welcome art lovers. The structure was built from reinforced glossy white concrete that was molded and poured in place. It was a castle-like beacon on the bay. The $ 1.3 million building with an area of 30,000 square meters comprised three levels with two galleries on the first level and a gallery on the second level, as well as a basement with class and workshop space, storage rooms and offices. The first level also included the 235-seat auditorium, a souvenir shop and an outdoor sculpture garden.
Johnson was satisfied with the finished product and found that the Art Foundation and the building committee allowed him to freely design the structure.
“(They) didn’t destroy me, they made me do exactly what I wanted to do here,” he remarked during the opening ceremony.
The grand opening lasted three days and included galas in the homes of several townspeople and shakers, a preview of a special member, and even fireworks on the bay.
Art critics from all over the country were invited to visit the museum and the inaugural exhibition “Works in Series: Stella, Johns, Warhol” by artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. About 500 people attended the opening on October 4th, with those in attendance praising the design of the museum.
“You are not unconscious of the architecture, but it does not prevent you from seeing and enjoying the works on display,” said New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer. “If anything, it really adds something to the pictures that I think a good museum should do.”
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Warhol and Johns both attended the October 4th gala. Caller Times reporter David Pickering appeared to be having trouble interviewing Warhol about the opening, noting that Warhol was speaking softly and indirectly and in a meandering manner. When Pickering asked Warhol for his thoughts on the exhibition, Warhol remarked, “I like the museum better,” and added a few minutes later, “You shouldn’t have any pictures here.”
When asked if that meant he didn’t like the idea of art museums, Warhol got nervous and a friend nearby explained to the artist, “He thinks the museum is so beautiful that it doesn’t need anything.”
Jasper Johns also preferred not to talk about his art on display. When Pickering asked about Johns’ work “Target with Four Faces” and its revolutionary influence on the arts when it debuted in 1955, Johns shrugged off the question, noting that the piece “had a public influence because it was a change from that what was done and the public is always looking for something else. “
“The public is very moody,” he added. He told Pickering he attended the opening to enjoy himself. And how did he find it? Pickering asked. “Very pleasant,” said Johns.
In the early 1980s, the Singers got in touch again and commissioned New York landscape architect Robert Zion to find a way to connect the vast area between science and art museums and the new convention center. The water garden with a groove that starts on the steps of the art museum opened in 1988.
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In the late 1990s, the museum grew out of its space and wanted to expand. The museum looked again for a world-famous architect to complement the original building. Ricardo Legorreta from Mexico City was the final pick. When the museum debuted in 1972, Legorreta flew to Corpus Christi just a few weeks after it opened to tour the museum, impressed by what it saw. After being hired to design the extension, Legorreta even met with Johnson in New York to discuss the project.
The result – the grand piano by William B. and Maureen Miller, which almost doubled the size of the museum and opened in October 2006. Outside, a ziggurat step ceiling and 13 copper pyramids on the roof direct the view of the new entrance. The expansion added 26,000 square feet of storage space, a gallery for the museum’s growing permanent collection, and a coffee shop overlooking the Corpus Christi Ship Channel with the Texas State Aquarium and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay in the background.
Now at the end of the city’s bay, the museum is an architectural gem and a far cry from that little building in South Bluff Park.
Allison Ehrlich writes about activities in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history. In this way, help support local coverage by checking out our subscription options and specials at Caller.com/subscribe