Humanities Texas recently visited Amarillo as part of our fiftieth anniversary celebrations. During that time, we spoke with Amarillo-based grantees about their work in the humanities, including the Amarillo Museum of Art and the Amarillo Symphony.
The Amarillo Museum of Art (AMoA) first opened its doors to the public as the Amarillo Art Center in 1972. As the only museum dedicated solely to visual art in the Panhandle region, AMoA serves more than four hundred thousand residents, covering twenty-six counties. Last year, they celebrated their own fiftieth anniversary.
"It was wonderful to revisit the past and see how much the museum has meant to our community throughout the years," AMoA Executive Director Kim Mahan said. "It is amazing to think that both organizations [Humanities Texas and AMoA] started at approximately the same time."
By the time AMoA opened as the region's home for the visual arts, the Amarillo Symphony had been operating for nearly fifty years itself, first as the twelve-member Philharmonic Club, then as the only professional symphony in the Panhandle. Next year, 2024, will be the Amarillo Symphony's one hundredth anniversary.
"That's huge," said Haley Cheon, development director for the Amarillo Symphony. "And that's in Amarillo, Texas. I mean, this is not New York."
The museum and symphony are two of forty-one Panhandle organizations that have received Humanities Texas grants in the last fifty years. During our fiftieth anniversary reception in Amarillo, we spoke with both organizations to learn how these grants have supported their service to local communities, in prior years and today.
In 1978, Humanities Texas awarded the Amarillo Museum of Art a grant to support its Farm Security Administration (FSA) Photography exhibition and program. Between 1935 and 1943, FSA photographers produced nearly eighty thousand pictures of life in Depression-era America. During January and February 1979, AMoA held a three-day symposium to explore the social history of the 1930s and 1940s as portrayed in the FSA exhibition. The symposium featured five of the surviving photographers, including Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein.
"And that's a really important thing too for our area, because there are so many people that remember those days, the older generations, or like me—I remember my grandmother and great grandmother's stories about living through the Dust Bowl," AMoA Executive Director Kim Mahan said.
The original 1979 symposium was captured on film. Over time, the AMoA digitized that footage and created seven new video segments from it, which are available online here.
Mahan said they are hoping to get the FSA photographs back out to travel to other museums. She plans to use those new video segments to inform and contextualize the exhibition.
"Either through your phone, or maybe through an iPad on the wall, you can see the actual photographer talking about that work of art or what was happening when he was creating it," Mahan said. "So, to me, that [1979 project] is still going."
The original FSA photography program took place in the thirties and forties. AMoA's grant-funded exhibition and symposium was in 1979. Today, the newly created videos provide room for continuing reevaluation of the original period and images.
Mahan expects the videos will serve as further interpretive materials for an exhibition the museum will circulate in 2024 or 2025.
More recently, in February 2017, Humanities Texas provided a grant for the Amarillo Museum of Art to display Montgomery H. W. Ritchie's collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum hosted three free public lectures that examined Impressionist art, as well as the life of Montie Ritchie.
Ritchie was the grandson of Cornelia Ritchie, whose second husband, John George Adair, started the JA Ranch with Panhandle legend Charles Goodnight. The JA Ranch is the oldest cattle ranch in the region, as well as one of the largest. Montie Ritchie, who managed the ranch and later took over sole control, had an interest in collecting Impressionist paintings, many of which were kept at the JA ranch house in Larkspur, Colorado.
"It was kind of unbelievable what he had—Monet and Renoir and a lot of French Impressionist stuff—just living out at this ranch house in the middle of nowhere," AMoA Curator of Art Alex Gregory said.
After his death in 1999, Ritchie's collection was left to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. The Dixon Gallery lent the collection to AMoA for the 2017 exhibition and lecture series.
"It was a big deal for the museum to have Monet, Renoir, to have French Impressionism in our building," Mahan said. "It took a lot for us to do it. We had to have extra security."
"We got to bring it all back to the Panhandle and show what was out here [on the JA Ranch]," Gregory added.
The lectures held in conjunction with the exhibition highlighted the relationship between the Impressionist style, local Panhandle history, and the practice of collecting art. Rick Brettell, a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art and friend of Ritchie, spoke, for example, on the paintings in the exhibition in the context of Ritchie's life and collection.
The JA Ranch is a large part of the Panhandle's history, and the Amarillo Museum of Art's 2017 Montie Ritchie program brought to the museum a rare collection of art notable not only for the style and artists included but for the collector of the works himself.
In both 2021 and 2022, Humanities Texas awarded the Amarillo Symphony grants to hold monthly lunch-hour lectures on the background and history of the works featured in the Symphony's upcoming concert series. In its current iteration, the program has existed for around five years, Amarillo Symphony Development Director Haley Cheon said. It is hosted by Kimberly Hieb, professor of musicology at West Texas A&M University.
During the lectures, attendees sit onstage in the musicians' chairs while the presenters face them from the edge of the stage, in the position usually reserved for the conductor. "Usually, audience members don't get to do that," Cheon said. "That is a very exciting experience."
In addition to covering the history of the repertoire, the program includes interviews with the symphony's music director, George Jackson, and visiting guest artists. Because these lectures are held prior to the symphony's performances, they offer background knowledge that can inform the audience's concert experience.
"It changes the way I think about Shostakovich, for example," Cheon said. "He's a Russian composer, and he was writing under Stalin. He had constraints on his composition. He had to write in a way that pleased the state. All those things matter in interpreting his work and how a conductor would choose to conduct a Shostakovich symphony."
"It's one thing to hear great music and enjoy it; it's another thing altogether to understand and experience music in the context of its origin," said a community member who attended one of the programs.
Finding new audiences, including younger and more diverse audiences, is a perennial challenge for the Amarillo symphony—or any symphony—and the Lunch and Listening lectures provide an opportunity to strengthen the organization's connection to the local community.
"It's not the organization sustaining itself," Cheon said. "It's always the community around it, and we would not be here without our community. We're very grateful for that."
These featured programs are just a few examples of what Humanities Texas grants have made possible for five decades, not just in the Panhandle but throughout the state. We look forward to sharing more stories from our grantees in forthcoming newsletters.