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Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney - February, 2006

Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney           February 2006

With the beginning of a new year, I challenge you to get out there and do something different in 2006.  And, I even have a suggestion for you.  How about visiting an art museum?  Not your cup of tea, you say?  Well, wait a minute, because that’s what I thought, too….

Corpus Christi has an outstanding Museum District nestled underneath the Harbor Bridge between the Port of Corpus Christi and the new American Bank Center sports and entertainment complex.  Four museums, each with an excellent children’s program, are within walking distance of each other.

The Art Museum of South Texas… 

A strong, cold wind was blowing on that January day as the members of the Texas Tropical Trail Regional heritage tourism group and I walked from museum to museum, but the bright sunshine made it an excellent day for a walk.  We approached the Art Museum of South Texas from the Watergarden area and enjoyed the sight and sound of the rushing water flowing downward from the Art Museum to the Watergarden.  Our tour guide told us, when questioned, that it was not salt water as we suspected, but, in fact, fresh, recycled water flowing beside us.

The white concrete building housing the Art Museum rose in front of us framed by blue skies, sparkling seas and rows of green pyramids on the rooftop of the museum’s new addition, the Legorreta Education Building, currently under construction.

Inside we found spacious galleries and oversized windows with the views of Corpus Christi Bay and downtown Corpus Christi as enjoyable as those of the works of art displayed throughout the upper and lower levels of the museum.

Grass Roots…

The Art Museum of South Texas sits at the opening to the Port of Corpus Christi, and it is said to be a navigational aid to the incoming ships, being visible from many miles out.  The original 30,000 square foot structure, built in 1972, is made of reinforced concrete formed and cast in place and was built to withstand hurricane force winds of 200 miles per hour.

Museum Director Dr. William Otton says the museum is a reflection of the varied cultures in the Coastal Bend with a major focus on young families and kids.  This attention is evident everywhere from the family-friendly admission fees to the numerous weekly educational programs for big and little folks, age 2 and up.

Dr. Otton is an artist turned educator.  In 1975 he founded the Art Department at Corpus Christi State University (CCSU), now Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC).  After a stint as president of the Wichita, Kansas Center for the Arts he returned to Corpus Christi in 1993 to take the helm of the Art Museum and establish the grass roots program so apparent today.

The Centennial Art Museum…

In 1944, the Corpus Christi Caller Times newspaper sponsored the first major exhibit and sale of art in the city.  Following this event, the group of artists wanted a central site to permanently display their works, and, with the help of the Caller Times, the Corpus Christi Art Guild and the South Texas Art League, their dream became a reality.

This group was given housing at South Bluff Park in a 2500 square foot cinder block building originally built in 1938 to commemorate the Texas Centennial.  In 1959, the organization received a grant from the Junior League of Corpus Christi that enabled the museum to hire its first full-time director.  After years of growth, the museum was chartered by the State of Texas in 1961 as a non-profit organization and became known as the Centennial Art Museum.

Boots and Blown Glass…

The Tuesday of our visit the museum was full of folks including our group of thirty-six tourism partners from all over South Texas, school children of various ages, pre-schoolers and their moms, as well as a couple of other adult tour groups.

Some lingered in the Upper Gallery to study the Texas-born Dorothy Hood exhibit focusing on space exploration while others stopped in the Paulson Room to admire Frederic Remington’s bronze sculpture, “Cheyenne”, and William Wilhelmi’s porcelain, “Texas Boots”, both from the museum’s Permanent Collection.

There are over eleven hundred pieces in the Permanent Collection including books, ceramics, sculptures, glass, watercolors, crafts, photography, paintings done in oil as well as mixed media and much more.  My personal favorites came from this collection.  One, Dennis Blagg’s oil on canvas, “Chihuahuan Heat”, is displayed in the 200-seat auditorium, and the other, Dale Chihuly’s 500-pound blown glass chandelier, “Blue Cascade”, hangs in the Historical Connections Gallery.

The Moms and Tots Program, for kids age 2-4 along with a parent or other adult helper, was in full swing that day, too, with painting in the classroom area, followed by creative dance in the ArtCade, the center of the museum’s youth program.

At the end of my visit, I had to admit that all this activity involving so many age groups was definitely not what I expected at an art museum.  These people, including myself, were enjoying themselves…

Rent-to-Own Program…

By the mid 1960s, the Centennial Art Museum in South Bluff Park was outgrowing its space while expanding its programs such as the annual Christmas Tree Forest, classes, lectures and the public art rental service.  In order to “stimulate the desire to display original works of art in the home and office”, select pieces in the museum were available for rent for eight percent of the purchase price or a minimum of $10 for a three-month period. 

The rental selection included works such as sculpture, drawings, paintings and photography by young Texas artists, and it was hoped that eventually these pieces would find permanent homes.

To my knowledge, this handy rent-to-own program is no longer available.

Castle, Styrofoam or Marshmallow…

In 1967, the name was changed to Art Museum of South Texas (AMST), and it was advertised as serving a 24-county region from Laredo to Cotulla to Karnes City to Victoria.  At the same time, Corpus Christi was moving towards the bayfront, and the AMST board felt it was prudent to jump on the bandwagon heading for that end of town.

Internationally renowned architect Philip Johnson of New York City was commissioned to design the new building for the AMST with design and building costs totaling 1.3 million dollars.  Local art aficionados Edwin and Patsy Dunn Singer initiated an intense fund-raising campaign, and, during seven months of 1967, they raised $960,000 through private donations.  The remainder of the $1.3 million came in over the next five years.

The public opening of the new 30,000 square foot building was celebrated in grand style on October 6, 1972.  Three days of activities, at a cost of $84,000, heralded the new addition to the downtown Bayfront Science Park.  Art enthusiasts from around the world came to Corpus Christi to see architect Johnson’s most recent work of art.

News commentators struggled for words to describe the geometrically shaped building.  Metaphors included a futurist castle or maybe carved Styrofoam, and, in an interview, Johnson himself compared the building to a carved marshmallow or perhaps carved Ivory Soap.

Andy Warhol, Fireworks and the Gulf Clipper…

For three days, Corpus Christi was the center of the art world.  Celebratory activities included a brunch cruise aboard the pleasure boat Gulf Clipper so that museum auxiliary members could have a waterfront view of the museum, a round of dinner parties at eleven magnificent homes in the city and a bayfront fireworks display.  Buses picked up guests from around the world at their hotels and took them to these dinners, each serving a different cuisine, before dropping them off at the champagne gala at the museum.

The work of eccentric pop artist Andy Warhol was featured at the grand opening, and the Campbell Soup can artist was on hand at the champagne gala moving among the crowd with his ever-present Polaroid camera.  Society writers from major newspapers around the country, including Women’s Wear Daily, were also there to make note of Corpus Christi’s move into the national art scene.

The Old South, Cowboys and Mexico

Museum Director Otton has been responsible for today’s turn toward children and local artists.  Otton points out that Texans pride themselves in being part of a unique and vital culture found nowhere else in the country.  His description of the South Texas culture includes a mixture of the Old South, the myth of the cowboy, the cultural influences of Mexico plus the economic wealth made possible through ranching and petroleum.

These points are considered in the works of art displayed in the museum.  Permanent collections include western and wildlife themes with traveling exhibits of a wide variety of styles and mediums changing every three to four months.

An upcoming exhibit, “Sacred Landscapes”, scheduled for February 24 to May 21 will include works of Texas-based artists Michael Collins, Ken Dixon and Jim Woodson. 

Alice in Wonderland…

Marilyn Ramey, Assistant Director of the AMST, says that over the years, the museum has been many things – an art gallery, a place of learning, a tourist attraction and a social hall.  Since 1972, over two million people have been served through museum programs.

Museum facilities include a 200-seat auditorium, rooms for meetings and luncheons for up to 12 people and others for receptions and workshops to accommodate 50 people.  You may even rent the entire museum for weddings, corporate parties or special events.

A Speaker’s Bureau is also available for civic groups, clubs and regional organizations.  Topics range from the role of public arts, insight on specific artists, discussion on current exhibits as well as how to inspire creativity in children.

The auditorium not only features regularly scheduled movies but also can accommodate groups for lectures and meetings.  Upcoming films include “Alice in Wonderland” on February 11 and kids are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite character from the book, as well as the rare film, “Rivers and Tides:  Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time”, on March 2, a film about an artist who used materials from nature to make site-specific works.

The Queen of Hearts…

 Education is an important part of the museum’s programs, and that education begins with the toddler set.  The Moms and Tots February programs, for ages 2-4, include a Valentine’s Day tea hosted by the Queen of Hearts and a fashion show and puppet show in the ArtCade later in the month.  There is a small fee for moms/adults, but children under 12 are free.  RSVPs are always required.  Please call 361 825-3504 for more information.

Other kids activities for ages 5-12 include the Young Artist Workshop on February 11with emphasis on Valentine’s Day and Super Saturday on February 18 focusing on the world of sculpture.  Again, RSVPs are required.

Several Sundays each year are designated “Family Days”, and parents are invited to bring their children for a free afternoon of art activities, music and performances and visits with artists.  Refreshments are available, and there is no charge for materials used to make a work of art or instruction in dance, reading and/or performances. 

Other programs include the Brown Bag Luncheons, Lunch Among the Masters and the Gallery Art Walk.  These involve personal interaction with artists and guided tours of the museum.

Rural communities surrounding Corpus Christi are the focus of the ArtReach program intended to build bridges between the visual and performing arts, new technologies, the classroom teacher and the student.  ArtReach will implement teaching strategies that attack the TAKS objectives and efficiently fulfill TEKS skills. 

For More Info…

As you can see, the Art Museum of South Texas is not a place intended exclusively for the tuxedo-clad highbrow or wealthy art collector.  Educational programs, fun and art for all ages and all walks of life are available at the AMST. Museum admission fees are $2 to $3 per person with children under age 12 plus members of the active military and their dependents always free.  And, speaking of free…all day Thursday is free admission to everyone.  Educational programs do involve a nominal fee.

Several annual membership levels are also available for students, families, corporations and businesses.  You may also want to consider the gift of a membership.  If my children and grandchildren lived in this area, I would certainly purchase a membership on their behalf so that they might take advantage of the membership discount for all the educational programs.

The museum also has a great gift shop loaded with unusual items plus a volunteer docent tour guide program and college internship program. 

For detailed information about the AMST and its programs, visit the web site at or give them a call at 361 825-3500.  The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday and closed on Mondays and holidays.

Now do you think you’re ready to try a visit to an art museum?  I bet you’ll like it.  I did.


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