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The Vision of Amon G. Carter Sr.

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art opened to the public in 1961, but its roots go back much further. 

Portrait of Amon Carter in 1938

In 1935, when Amon G. Carter Sr. was 56 years old, he had already contributed greatly to Fort Worth as president and publisher of the Star-Telegram, founding board member of American Airlines, and establisher of the first radio station in the city. That year was to be an important one for Mr. Carter for another reason as well: He acquired his first artworks by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. He’d been introduced to the artists’ work by his good friend Will Rogers, the actor, humorist, and writer who died tragically in a plane crash that summer. 

These purchases marked the beginning of a collection that would grow to more than 400 works. As his collection expanded, Mr. Carter began to envision a museum to house it—an institution that would be accessible to the public and serve as a cultural treasure of his beloved city. When he died in 1955, his will provided for its establishment:

I desire and direct that this museum be operated as a nonprofit artistic enterprise for the benefit of the public and to aid in the promotion of cultural spirit in the city of Fort Worth and vicinity, to stimulate the artistic imagination among young people residing there.

 

The Legacy of the Carter Family

Amon Carter Jr, Philip Johnson, and Ruth Carter Stevenson at the opening of the Carter in 1961.

Amon G. Carter Jr., Philip Johnson, and Ruth Carter Stevenson in 1961.

Mr. Carter’s children, Amon G. Carter Jr. and Ruth Carter Stevenson, assumed the fulfillment of their father’s vision, engaging Philip Johnson, one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, to design a building for what was then called the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art. Johnson created a simple, elegant structure that combined the richness of bronze with the warmth of Texas shellstone. His design was inspired by the Renaissance loggia—a covered gallery that opens onto a courtyard—taking advantage of the site’s expansive view of downtown Fort Worth.

The museum opened in 1961 as the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, and the Washington Observer wrote that with its founding Fort Worth had “inherited a cultural legacy of national magnitude.” Contributing to its national visibility, Mrs. Stevenson was elected president of the board of trustees, an auspicious group that also included Philip Johnson; René D’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; John de Menil, a Houston collector and oil executive; and Richard F. Brown, first director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

Founded around Mr. Carter’s extensive collection of works by Remington and Russell, the museum expanded quickly under the visionary leadership of Mrs. Stevenson and the museum’s first director, Mitchell A. Wilder. Mrs. Stevenson was involved with the arts on a national scale, serving leadership roles with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Places, the American Federation of the Arts, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She encouraged the museum to expand beyond western art to feature the best examples of American art as a whole, and in 1967 the museum announced that it would widen its scope. “We have found it difficult to separate western art and American art,” said Wilder. “To understand the West, the East must also be studied.” Ten years later, to acknowledge the resulting broadening of its focus, the Carter dropped “of Western Art” from its name.

Learn more about the Carter collection

A Growing Museum

Within its first ten years the Carter had already acquired work by John James Audubon, Stuart Davis, Dorothea Lange, and more; organized major exhibitions including a retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe; lent paintings to hang in the White House; and built its first expansion, which opened in 1964. In 1977 another addition was completed, but the Carter continued to grow and needed more space. In 1998 Philip Johnson, then in his 90s, spearheaded the design of an expansion that opened in 2001, adding almost 50,000 square feet to the building.

Exterior of the Amon Carter at night in 2003

The Carter in 2003 after the addition of an extension by Philip Johnson, the building's original architect.

Over the next decade the Carter continued to develop its resources for the study of American art. It opened its Library to the general public and became an Associate of the Archives of American Art, the first satellite archive between the coasts. It also launched online study projects that complemented its deep archival and monographic holdings, especially of photography. 

In 2010, the museum changed its name to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art to clearly convey what it had been doing for almost fifty years: collecting and exhibiting the best of American creativity. Just three years later Mrs. Stevenson died; she had been the institution’s tireless advocate, supporting the museum’s acquisition and education programs and serving on its board for over fifty years.

Carter collection galleries August 2019

The Carter reopened in 2019 with renovated galleries and a reimagined installation of the collection.

Looking to the Future

In fall of 2019, the Carter reintroduced itself with a new look, a new website, and a renovated building with a reinstalled collection. The updated logo is based on the five large windows in Johnson’s facade, and the brand reflects our origins, using colors and patterns influenced by mid-century design.

As we approach our sixtieth anniversary, we continue to honor the museum’s rich legacy and look forward to its bright future. Over the years some things have changed, like our name, our building, and our logo. But some things will never change, including our dedication to our community, our commitment to research and education, and our celebration of the very best of American art.