Kay and Ben Fortson, true Texans, did not look a gift horse in the mouth. They saddled it up and rode it to glory, turning it into a museum Secretariat.
They had a companion, Velma Kimbell, Kay’s aunt.
When Kay Kimbell – Velma’s husband and Kay’s uncle – died in 1964, he left them a directive to “build a museum of the first class.” And when the Kimbell Art Museum opened in 1972, Fort Worth and the world could look back at Kay Kimbell’s command to his heirs and say: “Did they ever.”
Since the museum opened it has held center stage in the world of art and architecture, known for its incredible permanent collection and thoughtful groundbreaking exhibits such as its recent Monet: The Late Years. Today, visitors from all over the world come to the Kimbell not only to see the art but also the spectacular architecture: the museum’s renowned Louis Kahn building and the more recently constructed (2013) Piano Pavilion designed by legendary Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Actually, the Fortsons and Velma Kimbell did take a peek in the mouth of the gift horse left to them by Kay Kimbell, but only briefly. When they did – just eight days after Kimbell's death – they discovered the gift was perhaps not what it seemed to be at first glance. There were substantial obstacles to building a museum “of the first class.”
Undaunted, they saddled up, persevered and with unflagging dedication and devotion to the legacy of Kay Kimbell they built a museum that gave Fort Worth a shining gem and put the city on the international map as a globally acclaimed arts center and tourist destination.
The story of the Kimbell and the Fortsons has been artfully detailed in a new book by Fort Worth author Tim Madigan, Of the First Class: A History of the Kimbell Art Museum.
A former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter and author of five books, Madigan spent several years researching and writing the Kimbell book. There are good reporters and there are good writers; those who excel in both categories are rare. Tim Madigan is that rare breed and his talents are on display throughout this book, which is also a mini-history of Fort Worth itself.
The book is a must read about men and women with a pioneering Texas spirit that traces back to the Fortsons’ forebears. It has pathos, drama and, yes, art history.
Can a book about a museum be a “page turner?” Yes. This is a story about Kay Fortson and her husband Ben, who as a team would not be deterred from the task they were given. Theirs is a story of love, partnership, devotion and determined vision, all guided by the highest standards of taste and ethics. They also have never forgotten the public they serve.
Ben Fortson was singularly concerned about preserving space for the public on the Great Lawn when plans were drawn for the Piano Pavilion, the companion building to the museum’s longtime showcase structure, the Kahn building.
The couple has never settled for anything but the best, beginning with their selection of the first of the museum’s four directors, Richard Fargo Brown, who they lured from Los Angeles in 1966. They used a magically brewed mixture of charm, Scotch and vodka on a late night visit to Brown’s Fort Worth hotel room to work their will. As in most aspects of the Kimbell, the Fortsons would not take “no” for an answer.
Madigan deftly describes and probes the personalities and characteristics of Brown and succeeding directors: Ted Pillsbury, Timothy Potts and current director Eric Lee.
The Fortsons practice an old-fashioned loyalty to those they trust. Never is that trait more pronounced than in the chapters detailing their working relationships with the two famed architects who brought world-class architecture to the Kimbell, Louis Kahn and Renzo Piano.
The word genius is synonymous with the names of both Kahn and Piano and each brought an artist’s temperament to his work. Kahn used a construction technique never before tried. The Kahn project also had the late Fort Worth architect Preston Geren, a man of strong convictions, working with Kahn and the Fortsons. More often than not the Fortsons had to trust instinct and faith to stand with the architects as they worked their magic. Kay and Ben were steadfast in their loyalty and it paid off.
Of the First Class: A History of the Kimbell Art Museum has all the qualities of an intriguing novel except that it is not fiction – it is real. And no one is more authentic than Kay and Ben Fortson, a couple who have never sought the limelight or public attention. Their goal in this book is to provide an authoritative history of the museum.
Near the end of the book, museum director Eric Lee perfectly sums up what the Fortsons have meant to the Kimbell.
“They have a very clear and strong vision of what the Kimbell should be,” Lee said. “They have expectations of excellence and quality – Kimbell quality – that are absolutely unwavering.”
The commitment he describes shows through on every page of the book, which now becomes the official history of this great museum and the Fortsons’ dedication to it.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.
Fort Worth, Texas 76107
The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; noon-8 p.m. Fridays; and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed Mondays. Admission is always free to view the museum's permanent collection. Special exhibitions require a ticket.