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Ruth Carter Stevenson forged an original path

Posted 2:13pm on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013

A few years ago, Ruth Carter Stevenson invited some arts-journalist types to the Amon Carter Museum for a brown-bag lunch in an upstairs employee lounge. At some point, she singled me out and beckoned me over to a window.

I was a little anxious (Who, me? You're talking to me?). We were all aware of her reputation for being, shall we say, formidable -- a word we always seem to reach for when describing smart, incisive, intimidating women.

But she just wanted to point down to a bright-yellow Volkswagen Beetle, complete with a flower in the dashboard vase, and tell me it was hers. She clearly took delight in my surprise. The car was brazenly parked on those no-parking stripes on the Camp Bowie bricks, and in that electric color, no one could fail to notice it. She was driving herself around in it, she told me proudly (she would have been in her early 80s then). It was disarming -- I felt like I was just joking around with an older friend who had an impish side. She was carrying an everywoman Vera Bradley-ish purse, too.

After that, whenever I'd see a yellow Bug around town, I'd try to look and see if it was her.

Stevenson, who died Sunday, had independent spirit from the start. She had her own sure tastes and opinions, in art and everything else. It might have been hard for many of us to step out of the shadow of such a father, to promote art that he actively disliked (anything modern), to know that his vision needed to be transformed and transcended. And do it under his name, no less.

That father, Amon Carter Sr., amassed the fortune, as well as a couple hundred top-quality works of Western art. But her love for modernism and whole scope of American art and photography provided the essential yang to her father's yin, and made the Amon Carter Museum something that we return to again and again. If it were just a Western-art palace filled with Russells and Remingtons, many of us wouldn't care as much about it. The larger art world wouldn't take much notice, either.

But the really interesting thing is that this yin and yang is the same dichotomy that characterizes Fort Worth itself -- that lovable juxtaposition of cowboys and high culture. The Carters are such a Fort Worth story.

Stevenson's role as the prime mover behind the Carter's collection is well known, but we also shouldn't forget all the other things she did for us. For one, her choice of the young modernist Philip Johnson to design the building gave the city its first masterpiece museum by a big-name architect, and defined and anchored the Cultural District we know today. It kicked off Fort Worth's life as an art destination. She also founded the Arts Council, hired Johnson again to create the Fort Worth Water Gardens, and was a leader of the social scene, starting when she headed the Junior League in the 1950s.

We think of Fort Worth as having been built by big men in big hats and baggy suits -- oil men, cattle men -- but this woman who wasn't even officially allowed on the Fort Worth Club premises (her dad took her there, anyway) did as much to shape what the town is today, at least for those of us who like to experience it as a sophisticated, amenities-rich, big-league city.

We'll miss her. And her sunny little car.

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