The Bullock in the Museum Shop

Supporters say the Bullock History Museum has acted as a catalyst for smaller local museums.

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum isn't the only museum in town. It just seems that way. It is the biggest pile of rock dropped into the local museum pool, but a state museum official doesn't see it causing a tidal wave of destruction.

Jack Nokes is the director of the Texas Museum Association. While he admits some smaller museums might feel like they are drowning trying to compete with the Bullock, he said, "a rising tide raises all the boats. The Bullock is good for museums in Austin. Showy places make a difference -- in a good way. It has created a huge amount of interest."

He said the fact that some smaller museums are suffering right now has more to do with economic decline than with the success of the Bullock. "The good economy in the 1990s enabled growth and new facilities," he said. "Right now is not a good time for any nonprofit."

Slow times or not, Nokes said two new facilities -- one across MLK from the Bullock, the other just down the street -- will bring Austin close to "geographic critical mass, much like Fort Worth" with its concentration of museums -- including the Kimbell Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and the Amon Carter Museum -- all within walking distance of each other. "People who go to museums," Nokes said, "like to be able to check out what is going on at the museum across the street."

Both new facilities are on the UT campus. The Harry Ransom Center is scheduled to open its new display area in April after extensive remodeling. "The Ransom Center is putting on a public face for the first time," said Nokes, and people will get a clue about what has been piling up inside the monolithic building for years.

Then there's the new Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, currently under construction on MLK. Fort Worth does exhibit a more sophisticated and adventurous architectural flair than Austin. The Bullock itself is a red pile, the Ransom a big white box, and the Blanton will be a recommissioned redesign. The blander Blanton, scheduled to open in 2005, will house the extensive collection of 20th-century art donated by James Michener, along with other collections.

The city's own planned Downtown Austin Museum of Art remains pending, awaiting the end of a fundraising period that is less than optimal -- as amply illustrated by the current battle between supporters of the Long Center and the Waller Creek tunnel over potential city funds (see "Austin@Large: The Arts of the Deal," Feb. 14, austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-02-14/pols_atlarge.html).

If critical mass akin to that of Fort Worth is ever achieved, Nokes and others see it as good for everybody in the museum community. "They talk, and they are friendly and not competitors," Nokes said.

Heather Brand works for the Bullock, but she also is co-chair of the Austin Museum Partnership, a group of about 30 local museums -- from the mighty Bullock to the small Republic of Texas Museum, which bills itself as "your friendly little neighborhood museum" and has recently lost its full-time director due to cost-cutting measures. Other members include the O. Henry Museum, Texas State Cemetery, Children's Museum, Austin Museum of Art, and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. Brand said, "What I see is that the Bullock Museum is creating a destination attraction. We are trying to help create an Austin destination other than the music scene. We have helped raise awareness of the other museums."

She said participating in such things as the museum partnership has been important to the Bullock because, "When you are the new thing on the block, it is very important to become part of the community." She also stressed that the Bullock is dependent on other museums for its existence. The museum has no collections of its own and borrows from other museums and collections for its displays. "We hope people will look at where our displays come from. We want them to see that history is in their own back yard." The Bullock also maintains a database directing visitors to more than 600 museums across the state.

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