The Fort Worth sky is vast, a clean blue swath above the distant city skyline. You can see the blue from the Amon Carter Museum’s front portico, from its expansive windows, on its elegant walls. It’s the blue sky of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, whose canvases and bronzes once dazzled Amon Carter himself and became the heart of the museum’s original collection. It’s also the blue of Texas bluebonnets—and the blue of Ruth Carter Stevenson’s eyes.
Stevenson, daughter of the late Amon G. Carter, Sr.—a self-made man, legendary in these parts, and collector extraordinaire of the art of the American West—greets her guests at the museum door as if she’s welcoming them into her home for restorative refreshment. In a way, that’s just what she is doing: the Carter museum, opened in 1961 to present her father’s collection to the people of Fort Worth, is where, Stevenson admits, she has done a lot of growing up.
“This is where I learned American history,” she says, gesturing at the 19th-century paintings arranged simply on blue walls. Ultimately, the Carter became a home for Stevenson’s love of art—even though, until she had children of her own, she’d never set foot in a museum herself. “I knew so many children who’d been dragged through them,” she explains. Stevenson’s father was born in a log cabin in 1879, fell into newspaper work and became publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He began investing in petroleum discovery in his late 30s, when daughter Ruth was in grade school, and started collecting the art that epitomized his love of the West—art that her mother didn’t particularly want around the house. “Dad never forgot his beginnings, and he never let you forget them, either. He encouraged me to get good grades,” an important part of what she recalls as “a wonderful, understanding father/daughter relationship. My brother and I were trusted by him to do what was right and correct.”
They also had their differences, like any father and daughter. As a young adult, Stevenson began to develop an artistic eye as sharp as his own and asked if she could make her first art purchase; her father, reacting to a budding sensibility that was quite different from his, told her she could not. “I could go to Saks and charge anything I wanted,” she says, “but I couldn’t spend seventy-five dollars on a painting that I loved.” It was a difficult moment, still remembered. “And when I began collecting and bought a Van Gogh, Dad said, ‘What is that? How much did you pay for that?’ ‘Same as you paid for [the Remington masterpiece] The Dash for the Timber,’ I told him. But we adored each other, and no more was said.”
Carter died in 1955, leaving a 30-page will containing, among other things, instructions for the building of a museum to house his collection. That task fell to his daughter; his son, Amon, in turn was, Stevenson says, the obvious choice to be president/publisher of the Star-Telegram. Stevenson wished it had been the other way around, and one can almost imagine her feisty presence behind a publisher’s desk. “Amon [junior] didn’t want to go into the newspaper business, but he did it because he had to—whereas I would have inhaled it. I always thought I could have done a very good job of it.”
But her legacy was her father’s museum and she began to tackle the immense job of getting it designed, building it and pulling together a board of directors, all the while taking care of her young children. “I was busy with five little people and delegated lots of the work to Dad’s former secretary,” Stevenson says, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that she needed to step up and find the architect herself. And she found a great one.
“I went to Houston and met Philip Johnson at a party given by international arts patrons Jean and Dominique de Menil [parents of Adelaide de Menil ’57]. Many martinis later, I said, ‘Won’t you come to Fort Worth and build us a museum?’ It was the beginning of a very happy relationship.”
Meanwhile, Stevenson was getting very little support for her museum work from her first husband, who felt her involvement was a bad idea. “Self-esteem is very fragile,” she says quietly, “and I lost it quickly when the children’s father left. It took quite a while to get it back.” The keenness of her gaze as she reflects on that complicated time is then softened by her smile: in many ways, the professional relationship with Johnson gave her a much-needed boost to her confidence. She told him, “‘I’ve never run a museum—I’ve never run anything.’ I didn’t know a damn thing, but he stood over my shoulder and helped make it happen.”
As she speaks, her warmth for the subject only increases. “Great museums owe their success to creative and magnanimous people, all working together to collect, preserve and interpret art,” she says. “Philip and René D’Harnoncourt and the other board members all made such difference. They gave me that confidence. I couldn’t have had a better friend than Philip Johnson. And my brother, Amon, backed me up; we had a great meeting of the minds. In fact, this institution wouldn’t be what it is were it not for all the people who helped me—and continue to help me—to make the Carter a great museum.”
From its opening in 1961, the Amon Carter Museum was clearly a special place. Gradually the collection expanded to include works by more great artists of the American West—and then other American masterworks, beginning with a painting from the Hudson River school. “We went as far west as we could, so we came back east and got this painting by Jasper Francis Cropsey,” Stevenson says, her hand pointing to a luscious, distinctly Northeastern, river landscape. “My brother said, ‘What’s western about that?’ and I replied, ‘Well, it’s where you have to come to go west.’” The Carter’s collection of American art is now recognized as one of the best in the world. [See sidebar]
“Thanks to my brother, we went into photography,” Stevenson says, halting her graceful, but firm, pace only briefly at the photography rooms, where an original print of an early Stieglitz beckons. “It was my brother’s great love.” Amon, Jr. (who had been a POW during the Second World War) died in 1982. She presses on quickly past the stark, larger-than-life panels of Richard Avedon’s “In the American West,” a temporary exhibit first shown at the Carter in 1985, and revived this year after the photographer’s death; this is not one of her favorites.
As Stevenson’s own art knowledge grew, she took advantage of “the marvelous learning opportunities which came my way” from other American museums: she was a member of the National Gallery of Art Board of Trustees from 1979 to 1997 and chairman of its board for the final four years of her trusteeship; she also was a board member of the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian Institution from 1966 to 1970, and was on the Fogg Museum’s Board of Visitors from 1978 to 1983.
But it’s the Carter that has always sparked the keenness of her eyes and warmed her soul. Like any doting parent, Stevenson knows the story behind each artwork and spins their tales with the skill of Sheherazade. Her pride in the Carter collection—in what she calls “my sixth child”—lovingly enfolds almost every object. “Dad always said, ‘If it’s not worth doing well, don’t do it,’” she says. “We’ve never bought a painting just to fill a gap, and we’ve never bought anything that wasn’t a masterpiece.”
In her way, Stevenson has been as strong-minded about the collection as her father was. “Godammit, you’re a chip off the old block,” Lyndon Johnson once said to her. Despite her minor differences with her father during his lifetime, she feels she has been able to honor Amon’s legacy. “Early on, my brother and I had decided that the museum would be Dad’s memorial, not some bronze statue downtown. I think he’d be terribly pleased with the museum today, even though he would disagree about some of the works. But he would like the way we’ve gone about using his collection and interpreting it.”
Stevenson’s last stop brings her to an abstract painting by Stuart Davis, its powerful primary colors seeming to come from a completely different spectrum from the blue of her eyes and wavy, powder-white hair. “When I bought this in 1962, my mother said to me, ‘Your father is turning over in his grave.’ Maybe so, but she just didn’t understand my taste in art, either.”
Ruth Stevenson didn’t seek this legacy, but she’s made it her own. “I’ve loved every minute of it,” she says.