Here is an excerpt from my latest book, “Of the First Class: A History of the Kimbell Art Museum.”
On a muggy summer Saturday in 2014, 8,000 people converged on the heart of Fort Worth’s cultural district: the “Great Lawn” of the Kimbell Art Museum. The crowd was double what organizers of that day’s festival had hoped for—young and old, rich and poor, people of seemingly every race and station in life — a happy throng as diverse as any the Texas city had seen.
It was an event coinciding with the museum’s exhibition of samurai warrior armor and artifacts, hence the origami cranes floating in the Kimbell’s reflecting pools and the music of flutes and drums that wafted through the thick Texas air. There were martial arts demonstrations, face painting for kids, dragon dances, wishing trees, and — more typically for a Texas party — hot dogs, ice cream, cold beer, and a rock concert after dark.
But few hot dog wrappers or beer cups were dropped on the lawn. There was a festive air at the Kimbell that day, but also a palpable restraint, as if the visitors recognized that this party took place on sacred ground — green space consecrated by the two great buildings that enclosed it.
One was the iconic art temple of architect Louis Kahn, the Kimbell’s original building, which opened in 1972. The other, christened just eight months before the Japanese festival, faced the Kahn from the opposite side of the Lawn. It was the Renzo Piano Pavilion, named for the pre-eminent Italian architect who had designed it. Few of the world’s cultural institutions could claim two structures of such pedigree. Hundreds of masterpieces adorned the walls of those buildings. No wonder the reverence that day, the happy, respectful reserve.
The older couple wearing matching red museum ball caps were largely anonymous as they mingled with the crowd. Kay Fortson and her husband, Ben, respectively president and executive vice president of the Kimbell Art Foundation, were both quietly amazed and humbled by what they saw.
Fifty years earlier, the Kimbell Art Museum was just an idea — an empty patch of ground a mile west of downtown Fort Worth. Kay was a beautiful socialite then, her husband an ambitious young oilman. Neither had any experience in the world of art and culture when fate and family conspired to hand the young couple the enormous challenge of building a world-class museum virtually from scratch.
Their learning curve had been painfully steep. Kay and Ben faced obstacles and skeptics at every turn. So many hard decisions were laid at the feet of the Fortsons and the small board of directors assembled around them. Among the most difficult was to build the Piano Pavilion on the Great Lawn, because the urban meadow had for decades been the beloved Fort Worth sanctuary of picnickers and Frisbee and soccer players.
Many in the community were outraged when it was announced the museum expansion would happen there. But the Fortsons made the hard choice — the correct one, as it turned out. What better proof than all those happy faces on the Great Lawn on that muggy summer Saturday in 2014?
Kay Fortson’s life could have been so different — motherhood (the family would grow to include four children); pleasure and privilege; tennis dates, bridge games, and summers in Aspen; trips to New York, Paris, or Rome. She was one of the most beautiful women in Texas and, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine, a self-described “party girl.”
Ben’s life might otherwise have been consumed by the oil patch, the pursuit of the next gusher. Then it all changed. On April 13, 1964, Kay’s uncle, the Fort Worth business tycoon Kay Kimbell, died suddenly of a heart attack. Among many other things, he had long been a serious art collector, with a particular passion for British paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He left behind nearly three hundred works and a vague but imposing mandate to “build a museum of the first class.”
Kay Kimbell and his wife, Velma, had no children of their own, but the couple had always treated Kay Fortson like a daughter, and eventually the niece would inherit the Kimbell empire. But the inheritance ultimately came with daunting responsibility. After Kay Kimbell’s death, if his mandate was to be achieved — if a great museum was indeed to be built — Kay Fortson would be the one to see it through.
Other women of her relative youth and background might have shied away from the challenge. Kay Fortson immediately embraced it. “I knew the baton had been passed, but I didn’t know what it was going to entail,” she said years later. “I started studying art every way I could. I was doing something that was foreign to my nature. It was such a change. But I knew I had to do it. I knew it was part of the plan for my life.”
Her husband was a source of strength and comfort, and her most trusted confidant and advisor. Together, Kay and Ben quickly adopted a simple philosophy for their museum: only the best. The courtship and hiring of the Kimbell Art Museum’s first director was the most notable early example.
In the mid-1960s, Richard Fargo Brown was one of the hottest names in American museum administration, then the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California. During Brown’s visit to Fort Worth in 1965, when Kay sensed the Kimbell’s recruitment of him was failing, she insisted that she and her husband grab bottles of scotch and vodka for a late-night meeting with Brown in his hotel room.
“We will not settle for anyone else,” Kay Fortson told Brown that night, and she had her director by the time she and Ben finally made their way home.
Brown, in turn, hired Louis Kahn, then considered one of the world’s top architects, though the eccentric genius was certainly an acquired taste. As it took shape in the heart of Fort Worth’s cultural district, Kahn’s stone temple, with repeating series of cycloid ceiling vaults, looked, in the minds of some horrified locals, like it had landed in Texas from ancient Rome — or Mars. But Brown had faith in Kahn, and the Fortsons in Brown. When it was done, the Kahn building would be almost universally acclaimed as one of the greatest of the twentieth century.
As if the museum building wasn’t challenge enough, Brown, the Fortsons, and the Kimbell board also discovered that only a relative handful of Kay Kimbell’s paintings were museum quality. In other words, they would need to build an art collection more or less from scratch.
But Kay Fortson was again unbowed and encouraged Brown’s remarkable international treasure hunt. The new director raised eyebrows around the globe by acquiring one masterpiece after another — Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet, and J.M.W. Turner among them — from under the noses of more established institutions.
By the time the museum opened in 1972, the Kimbell collection included 250 masterworks. Scores more were added by the time Brown died of a heart attack in 1979. His successor, Ted Pillsbury, became the toast of the art world with his own series of shocking acquisitions. By the 1980s, the Kimbell would be celebrated as one of the world’s finest small museums: the place with the iconic building and an art collection that was relatively small in size, but uniformly breathtaking in quality.
The meeting that day in 2008 took place on the stage of the Kahn building auditorium because no other place at the Kimbell could accommodate the teams of architects, contractors, and museum staff. By then, Renzo Piano was well into the process of designing a companion for the Kahn building, but major questions remained about how much of the trees, lawn, and landscaping of the Great Lawn should be preserved in the expansion.
Ben Fortson rose. “You know, when I walk out and see someone sitting down and leaning against one of those trees …” he began. “The other day I saw a girl out there and she was reading a letter. Now I don’t know what the letter was. It could have been from a mother or father or friend. It could have been sad news, or it could have been good news. “But she chose that place to read that letter,” he said. “To open up that letter and read it there … I want her to have a place to read that letter. That’s what I’m committed to.”
Silence lingered for several seconds after he finished.
“I sat there thinking, ‘Not one single person in Fort Worth would know of that level of thought and respect and concern for the people who come to the museum,’” Andy Klemmer, project manager for the construction of the Piano Pavilion, remembered years later. “That there was someone who would try and accommodate them and their needs, to have this kind of sanctified space where you feel a little bit elevated.
“That was pretty special, Ben’s devotion to that in every single meeting, his and Kay’s joint position about the importance of those buildings and that lawn,” Klemmer continued. “It wasn’t about ego at all. It wasn’t about wealth. It wasn’t about ostentation. It was none of that. It was so heartfelt, a caring for the people who would come. I don’t know what drove him, but Ben’s commitment to that was unending.”
In previous decades, Ben Fortson had been content to remain in the background, offering support and advice to his wife, publicly giving her all the credit.
“Kay Fortson is the Kimbell,” he was fond of saying.
But the expansion project, which began in 2007, seemed to awaken something in the oilman. Ben always had firm notions about the size and scale of the new building and how it should defer to the Kahn, the existing architectural masterpiece. As months passed, he became increasingly confident in voicing his views to his superstar architect. Renzo Piano turned out to be an ideal partner.
As Piano would later describe it, he and Ben engaged in a spirited game of architectural ping-pong, batting ideas and occasional disagreements back and forth across the proverbial net, though always in the most courtly and respectful of ways.
“Ben was part of all the important decisions: the distance between the two buildings, the height, the level of the floor,” Piano would say years later. “He never said in the process, ‘This is wrong, this is right.’ He said, ‘Renzo, are you sure about that?’ This was the best contribution. It’s a kind of meandering together, trying to find the right solution.”
The Italian architect and the Texas oilman became friends in the process. Kay was among those who marveled at her husband’s achievement. “Ben built that building,” she said. “Ben and Renzo.”
The Piano Pavilion would indeed be a respectful companion to the Kahn in terms of size and scale, but distinct from the older building in every other respect. With its glass walls and wing-like eaves jutting from the roof, the pavilion was a light and playful contrast to the stone and gravitas of the Kahn.
The samurai exhibition was the first in the new building, and from morning until night on the day of the festival, lines of people waited to take their turn inside the gallery. But many also strolled from the Piano building across the Lawn to the Kahn, where the Kimbell’s permanent collection was displayed.
That day in the Kahn, hundreds of everyday people came face to face with an original Monet or Picasso for the first time. That was what had inspired Kay and Ben Fortson during their long and unlikely journey. The couple in the red ball caps saw all those faces enjoying festivities on the Great Lawn and strolling in and out of the two great buildings. On that day, perhaps more than any other in a half century, it began to sink in what they had achieved.
Here is where the book is available.