A $5 million gift from Ernest and Sarah Butler has made it possible for the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin to become the first major museum to create a long-term space dedicated to sound art.
The future site of the Butler Sound Gallery will be a park-like area on the museum campus and will be an integral feature of the Blanton’s large-scale grounds revitalization led by acclaimed international design firm Snøhetta.
The new grounds initiative, which includes a mural commission by Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera and the new Moody Patio that incorporates multiple performance spaces, is under construction and expected to be completed in late 2022.
"Our new outdoor Butler Sound Gallery, which is an important part of the new grounds initiative on which we broke ground in March 2021, will change the way people encounter and experience the museum," says Blanton director Simone Wicha in a release. "For me, it felt especially important to launch this project with an artist whose work will not only surprise us and help us see more clearly through sound, but also will create a time capsule that captures the beauty and wonder of our rapidly changing world."
The Butler Sound Gallery will be situated just east of Austin, the iconic artwork by Ellsworth Kelly, and north of the Michener Building, which houses the Blanton's collection and exhibition program.
The outdoor gallery will open with a site-specific installation by sound art pioneer Bill Fontana that incorporates recordings of Texas wildlife and geological structures taken over the course of four seasons.
"We’re especially thrilled that artist Bill Fontana, who has shaped the field of sound art, will open the Butler Sound Gallery with a new, immersive work," says Veronica Roberts, Blanton curator of modern and contemporary art. "Fontana’s installation will offer an acoustic portrait of Austin and the Texas Hill Country and relocate hidden sounds of our geologically unique landscape to an inviting civic space."
Fontana’s process will be similar to that of his 2019 work Sequoia River Echoes, where the artist mounted high-resolution vibration sensors (accelerometers) to tree trunks at Sequoia National Park, recording the rhythm of the Kaweah River as it traveled through the ground and reverberated within the millennia-old sequoia trees. Other site-specific commissions by Fontana include a permanent sound sculpture at the entrance of MAXXI in Rome, inspired by the sound of water flowing through Roman aqueducts.
The Butlers' gift includes an endowment for future site-specific sound art installations for the gallery, ensuring that visitors will experience a dynamic program for many years to come. The Fontana work is expected to remain installed for two years.
"As longtime museum members and members of the Blanton National Leadership Board, we have witnessed what a vital cultural resource the Blanton has become — and will continue to be — for our community," the couple says in the release. "It is exciting to imagine the beautiful, unexpected, and powerful experiences that students and visitors will have with sound art as they explore the museum’s new grounds."