Art Museum of South Texas opened on Corpus Christi bayfront in 1972 – Riverside, California

Riverside, California 2020-08-19 18:37:02 –

Stepping into the lofty galleries of the Art Museum of South Texas, viewers are swept away by the grand works of art on display in the sweeping space. Hard to believe the museum’s origins began in a small building the size of an average convenience store.


Corpus Christi’s original art museum started on Park Avenue in South Bluff Park. The Centennial Museum opened in 1940, part of the city’s efforts to commemorate Texas’ 1936 centennial. The new museum showcased exhibits on Texas and Corpus Christi history, art and science. The South Texas Art League frequently used the space, and when the Corpus Christi Art Foundation formed in 1944, the group took on the building and renamed it the Centennial Art Museum. 

But a larger space was needed — the Centennial building was only 2,500 square feet. The art foundation in 1967 renamed the building the Art Museum of South Texas and began a fund drive for a new home. Edwin and Patsy Singer spearheaded the drive and hired New York architect Philip Johnson to design the new building. A site was purchased on the bayfront near the science and history museum, with the Harbor Bridge and Corpus Christi Bay serving as a backdrop.

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Grand opening

Construction began in May 1970, and in October 1972 the new space was ready to greet art lovers. Built of reinforced, gleaming white concrete that was formed and cast in place, the structure was a castle-like beacon on the bayfront. The $1.3 million, 30,000 square-foot building included three levels, with two galleries on the first level and one gallery on the second level and a basement with classroom and workshop space, storage and offices. The first level also included the 235-seat auditorium, gift shop and outdoor sculpture garden. 

The Art Museum of South Texas in May 1988.

Johnson was pleased with the finished product, noting the art foundation and building committee allowed him free rein to design the structure.

“(They) didn’t crush me, they let me do exactly what I wanted to do here,” he noted during the opening festivities.

The grand opening spanned three days, and featured galas at the homes of several city movers and shakers, a special member’s preview showing and even a fireworks display on the bayfront.

Art critics from around the country were invited to view the museum and grand opening exhibition, “Works in Series: Stella, Johns, Warhol,” by artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. About 500 people attended the Oct. 4 opening, with those in attendance praising the museum’s design.

“You are not unconscious of the architecture, yet it doesn’t prevent you from seeing and enjoying the works on exhibition,” New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer said. “If anything, it really adds something to the pictures, which I think a good museum should do.”

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Famous faces

Warhol and Johns both attended the Oct. 4 gala. Caller-Times reporter David Pickering seemed to have trouble interviewing Warhol about the opening, noting that Warhol spoke softly and in an indirect, meandering manner. When Pickering asked Warhol for his thoughts on the exhibition, Warhol remarked, “I like the museum better,” adding a few minutes later, “they shouldn’t have paintings in here.”

The Art Museum of South Texas, which opened in 1972, has a lower level that opens onto the city's barge dock at the end of the Corpus Christi seawall.

When asked if that meant he didn’t like the idea of art museums, Warhol grew flustered and a friend standing nearby clarified for the artist, “what he means is the museum is so beautiful it doesn’t need anything in it.”

Jasper Johns also preferred to skip talking about his art on display. When Pickering asked about Johns’ work “Target with Four Faces,” and its revolutionary impact on art when it debuted in 1955, Johns shrugged off the question, commenting that the piece “had a public impact because it was a change from what was being done and the public is always looking for something else.”

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