Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art will add a dedicated sound gallery as part of its campus refresh

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Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art will add a dedicated sound gallery as part of its campus refresh

View of the Blanton Museum of Art’s refreshed campus as seen from Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard looking north toward the new Faulkner Gateway. The Edgar A. Smith Building is on left and the Mari and James A. Michener Gallery Building is on right with Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin in the background. (Courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin)

The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas Austin (UT Austin) revealed earlier this week a new central feature of its ongoing, Snøhetta-led campus revamp, first announced in January. A dedicated outdoor sound art gallery will now be the first of its kind for a major American museum when it debuts in late 2022 along with the rest of the redesigned museum grounds.

Dubbed the Butler Sound Gallery, the space will be located to the east of Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental, chapel-like Austin and, per the museum, comprise an “integral part” of the $35 million campus overhaul. Other than the sound gallery, the project will also include refreshed landscaping, an open-air social space framed by a cluster of towering, petal-shaped shading structures, and the first major public mural installation by Cuban-American visual artist Carmen Herrera. The mural will span the entire length of an interior wall beneath the loggia of the Michener Gallery Building, which is to the north of the future Butler Sound Gallery.

In addition to announcing the first-of-its-kind gallery itself, the Blanton Art Museum also revealed its inaugural commission: a new site-specific work with the working title Landscape Soundings by acclaimed composer and sound art pioneer Bill Fontana. As detailed by the museum, Fontana’s installation will “transport the ecological zones of the Texas Hill Country to the heart of Austin, creating an inviting outdoor space and furthering the museum’s goal of bringing art beyond its building walls and into communal areas.”

To capture these natural, regional notes and bring them to the museum campus via an immersive multi-channel Meyer sound system, Fontana will travel across Central Texas on a sound safari of sorts. Per the museum, Fontana is interested in recording regional wildlife including birds and bats as well as naturally occurring sounds associated with the Hill Country’s unique geographic features like its limestone caverns and aquifers. Thus far Fontana’s initial field research expeditions have found him venturing to San Antonio’s Bracken Cave, home to the largest bat colony in the world, and the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.

“At the heart of this sound sculpture is my dedication to listening and belief that the act of listening is a way of making music,” said the San Francisco-based Fontana, whose previous site-specific works include a permanent sound sculpture at MAXXI in Rome that was inspired by the sound of water moving through ancient Roman aqueducts.

Fontana’s sound sculpture is expected to remain installed for two years; following that, the museum’s curatorial team will seek out a subsequent sound installation to fill the space.

“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,” said Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton Museum of Art. “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 was made possible by a $5 million gift, which includes an endowment for future site-specific sound installations, by Austin philanthropists and longtime museum supporters Sarah and Ernest Butler.