By June Naylor
Above photo courtesy of the Fortson family
A new book details how the Kimbell Art Museum came to be — and who made it happen.
Five years in the making, Of the First Class: A History of the Kimbell Art Museum by Tim Madigan provides an intimate look behind the scenes of the renowned art institution that opened in October 1972.
That the story would be told at all surprises many, as the museum founders, Kay and Ben Fortson, are intensely private individuals. Perhaps even more surprising is that the book was commissioned by the Fortsons. The couple spent more than 100 hours in interviews with the author, a veteran newspaperman who ended his three-decade career at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to undertake the book project.
“The history of the museum needed to be preserved, and an insiders’ version needed to be told,” says Madigan. “The timing was perfect; I interviewed so many people over five years who have either since died or their health has deteriorated.”
Kay Fortson, niece and heir to the childless Fort Worth business magnate and art collector Kay Kimbell, was a young wife enjoying tennis and bridge games and looking after her four children when a life-changing challenge fell to her. Her uncle’s vast art collection needed a home; the mandate he left was for her to build a museum.
“The way they achieved that was to get the best people in the world on board,” says Madigan, who details in 300 pages how that happened. Though they didn’t know the art world at the outset, they eventually earned worldwide respect for their accomplishments and for making tough decisions. “It was a steep learning curve,” says Madigan.
Their first director, Ric Brown, and architect Louis Kahn — both superstars in their fields — set the Kimbell’s trajectory. At its opening, the building was hailed as one with few equals. The collection gathered worldwide notice under Brown and his three successors, Ted Pillsbury, Timothy Potts and current director Eric M. Lee. The book details the highs and lows under Pillsbury, and the once-controversial plan to build a needed addition to the museum. Ultimately, the Fortsons were praised for their choice of architect Renzo Piano for what is now known as the Piano Pavilion. Unveiled in 2013, it achieved the architect’s goal of creating a unique building that would “echo [the] Kahn [building], but not mimic it.” It also allows the visitor a view from which to properly behold the grand, western-facing entry of the Kahn in its intended way, rather than the back entry most people use.
Fans of family history and the backstories of Fort Worth’s evolution will find the book a treasure trove. Most of all, Madigan puts into perspective the humanity of a couple whose fearlessness led to the creation of what many consider the finest small museum in the world.
Of the First Class: A History of the Kimbell Art Museum The book, $27.95, is available
Oct. 4 in the Kimbell’s Museum Shop. Oct. 5 A conversation with author Tim Madigan and filmmaker Ultan Guilfoyle is followed by a screening of the documentary film sharing the book’s name in the Piano Pavilion auditorium, 10:30 a.m.-noon; free admission. Additional screenings are at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Oct. 5-6. A book signing with Madigan takes place in the Piano Pavilion lobby, noon-2 p.m. Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-332-8451, kimbellart.org