Meet the Alumni Who Helped Get Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Austin’ to UT

[For an in-depth look at the story of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, check out “Sacred Space: Look Inside Ellsworth Kelly’s Last Work at the Blanton Museum,” from the March/April 2018 issue of the Alcalde.]

On a May afternoon in 2012, Hiram Butler, BA ’76, and his husband, Andrew Spindler-Roesle, were walking out of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City. The couple was attending a memorial service for friend and acclaimed curator, Barry Walker. On their way out, they bumped into artist Ellsworth Kelly and his husband Jack Shear. The two had on Metropolitan Museum of Art employee badges and were carrying some of Kelly’s plant drawings for an upcoming exhibition.

Butler and Spindler-Roesle admired the drawings and kidded them about their badges, and the couples began catching up. An art dealer in Houston, Butler had served with Shear on the Visiting Committee of the Williams College Museum of Art for many years and knew Kelly through him. He first learned of Kelly’s work, though, back in college in the 1970s when he took courses at UT taught by Earl “Rusty” Powell.

During their conversation, Kelly asked what Butler was working on, and Butler told him: a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia with James Turrell. This encouraged Kelly to bring up a chapel he had designed in the 1980s that had yet to be built. He asked Butler to bring him a patron. “I told him I would,” Butler says. “And I did.”

From there, a long journey began to bring to fruition what would be Kelly’s last great work, Austin. When the $23 million masterpiece opened its doors at the Blanton Museum of Art in February, more than a thousand people flocked to experience the colorful, light-filled sanctuary. Before Austin was Austin though, it was a concept without a home or a name.

After that day in New York, Butler set out to change that. He reached out to architect Rick Archer, BA ’79, of Overland Partners, and Tom Butler of Linbeck, a technology-driven building construction firm started in 1938 by Leo Linbeck. The three visited Kelly to explore how his early blueprints from the 1980s could become a real-life building. Before UT was selected as the chapel’s location, they thought the project would go to Rice University, since Houston is home to a number of similar works of art that double as sacred places like the Rothko Chapel and Turrell’s Skyspace.

The team was in talks with Rice for a good five months, but ultimately, Rice declined to build the project. “They said they were not going to do this, at which point Hiram and I scratched our heads and said, ‘Okay, let’s take it to UT,’” Archer says. “We were brainstorming together of where it might go, and being alumni of UT, we said there’s no place we’d rather have it.”

From left: Hiram Butler, Rick Archer, Ellsworth Kelly, and Tom Butler

Both Butler and Archer had worked on projects at UT in the past. Butler had worked on the campus’ James Turrell Skyspace, a meditation space on the roof of the Student Activities Center with Landmarks, UT’s public arts program. Overland Partners, which Archer and three other UT alumni founded in 1987 after dreaming of one day opening an architecture firm together, have worked on several projects at UT, including the Student Activities Center and its Skyspace, the Liberal Arts building, and the LBJ Library and Plaza renovation.

Butler reached out to Jeanne Klein, BS ’67, Life Member, and Michael Klein, BS ’58, JD ’63, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, who were on the board at the Blanton, and had been collectors of Kelly’s work. Butler, who says he garnered soft pledges of almost $10 million to support the project, and the team got a meeting with then-President Bill Powers, and then-Vice President for University Operations Pat Clubb, PhD ’85, MBA ’96, and then-provost Steve Leslie and presented the idea. At the meeting, it was decided Landmarks would take on the project, so they began working with Andree Bober, BFA ’92, who heads the program.

A few months later, the university decided to transfer the project from Landmarks to the Blanton, where Blanton Director Simone Wicha, BS ’96, spearheaded the work, navigating university channels to get approval for the building and establishing a fundraising campaign. UT alumni like the Kleins, Sally and Tom Dunning, BBA ’65, Life Member, Judy, BS ’73, and Charles, BBA ’68, Tate, Life Members, and the Blanton family donated to the project. 

Still, Archer and others on the project from Overland and Linbeck were not officially working for the university. In fact, it wasn’t until May 2015 that the regents approved the installation. “We were working for free to try to see something realized, even though we might not be the ones selected to do the work,” Archer says. They had to be chosen through a public selection process because the university is a state entity. After navigating through the process, they were finally were put under contract by UT.

The process of building Kelly’s chapel required a deep understanding of the artist’s intentions. The team wanted to make sure every decision was Kelly’s. “Everyone on the team was working in service to the idea, to this creative notion that Ellsworth had about creating a space that would be a place of rest and peace and joy,” Archer says. The team went back and forth from Texas to Kelly’s home and studio in Spencertown, New York, to better understand the intent behind the design.

Since Kelly was an artist, not an architect, Archer and other designers from Overland offered him guidance. “We knew it was our responsibility every step of the way to bring good information to Ellsworth, that the building cannot be built with 8-inch thick walls, which he wanted,” Archer says. “He wanted the walls to be thinner than that if they could be, and yet, they had to be structured. We had to be able to get duct work through them. They had to be waterproofed. And so we had to bring him wise counsel.”

Becky Burleson, PhD ’97, Linbeck’s vice president and client executive responsible for the design-build, oversaw the design and construction team. She says one of the biggest challenges was conveying Kelly’s vision to those building the piece. “You had to help them see that the thing they were doing was his art, not just their craft, and to try and consistently help the craftspeople view their contribution as art as opposed to just construction,” Burleson says.

Since Kelly’s minimalist work required precision, the project was challenging. “Nothing trims, nothing hides,” Burleson says. “Everything had to be very precisely aligned.” To ensure this precision, the Linbeck team used 3-D modeling technology, along with old-school techniques, like physical templates.

The team broke ground in October 2015, and two months later, just after his final designs were completed, Kelly died. Now that his vision has come to fruition two years later, the space is a commemoration of the artist.

As an alumna, Burleson recognizes it’s a beautiful place students can visit daily, one that will forever become part of their memories of UT. Even when it was under construction, before the glass windows were in place, Burleson remembers the way light would shine through and make the space sparkle. “Sometimes you finish a building, and it’s just a building,” she says. “But this isn’t. It’s so much more than that.”

Credits, from top: Amber Byfield; courtesy of Overland Partners

 
 
 

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