El Paso Perseverance

photograph by Rebecca Cohen

Whatever became of Becky Duval Reese? Some of you may remember her as co-curator (along with Patricia Hendricks) of the landmark "Century of Sculpture in Texas" exhibition at UT Austin. Or perhaps as acting director of the UT Archer Huntington Gallery, from 1989 until she was hired away by the El Paso Museum of Art. Reese started work there on April Fool's Day, 1991, and since then she's been charged with overseeing the design and construction of a new building for that institution.

We know about new museum projects here in Austin ñ lots of talk, lots of money, lots of waiting. In Reese's case, it took a little over two years after she arrived in El Paso to revise the governance of the museum, begin to build an audience, do some long-range planning, and rewrite the museum's mission statement. The El Paso City Council approved certificate of obligation bonds in 1994 and the same year a local architectural firm began design work. In 1996, the museum commenced construction.

Recently, I traveled to El Paso to check on Reese's progress and am delighted to report that the summer of 1998 will see the grand opening of the new El Paso Museum of Art. While the project has not been without its share of big talk and long waits, the results are impressive. Reese is clearly delighted to show off the 104,000-square-foot building across from the Camino Real Hotel and El Paso's Performing Arts Center. BKM Architects has effectively transformed the one-time Greyhound Bus Station downtown into a welcoming environment for art, with 33,000 square feet of gallery spaces (more space than the old museum uses for galleries, administration, education, and storage). Perspectiva, another El Paso firm, designed the outdoor plaza, which is still under construction. Together, plaza and museum were conceived as a coolly beautiful cultural oasis for the people of "Sun City."

The facility's ground level is devoted to restaurant and gift shop space, and orientation areas for the museum. Excavating below groundlevel, the museum created extensive art school classrooms, art storage and prep spaces, and an art library underwritten by the Meadows Foundation of Dallas. Staff offices and the galleries are upstairs. From the administration area, you can see all the way to Mexico (Juarez sits across the river, beyond the international checkpoints).

For those who have come to see art, the first section past the entrance is the Tom Lea Gallery, which includes the museum's collection of early 20th-century regional art. For the first time in the 38 years that the El Paso Museum has been collecting art, it has begun an endowment campaign for collections. Thus far, $1 million has been pledged in art and money toward the Tom Lea Endowment. Local art dealer Adair Margo chaired the effort. Her Adair Margo Gallery recently released a new portfolio of Lea's Calendar of Twelve Travelers Through the Pass of the North. Originally published for Lea by Carl Hertzog in 1946, the portfolio of 12 images and accompanying text is an expression of the El Paso artist's love of history and fascination with the explorers who made their way through El Paso from 1536 through 1850.

Moving on through the building, one passes through the Kress Galleries, which will house the museum's impressive Kress collection of European masters. The deep, rich jewel tones of the Kress Galleries walls shift to terra cotta upon entering the galleries for Art of the Americas. (The museum hired a California architect to consult on color selection.) The Mexican Colonial Gallery will include the museum's collection, as well as works on long-term loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art. Borrowed New Mexican santos and bultos (sculptures) will be added to the 500 retablos (paintings on tin) owned by the museum to present a substantial look at folk art of the Americas. There is also an auditorium, a gallery devoted to prints and drawings, and another mammoth space ñ almost 10,000 square feet ñ reserved for traveling and contemporary exhibitions. This last gallery will present the museum's impressive collection of contemporary regional work until the Southwestern Bell Collection (recently exhibited at the Austin Museum of Art's 823 Congress site) arrives in September. And Reese says the huge project cost only $14 million.

What's the opening date for the new El Paso Museum? After the contractors actually turn the building over to the museum (Reese expects the transfer to occur at the end of May), the museum staff will need no more than eight weeks to move in. August for sure, the director says hopefully.

The moral of the story for Austin's would-be museum builders: Patience and persistence eventually produce results. It just takes longer (and more money) to get things done in Austin. In the meantime, consider scheduling a trip to El Paso to see Becky Reese's dream coming true. ñ Rebecca S. Cohen

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