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The Grow Family’s New Arts District Museum Transforms a Barren Corporate Space into a Glittering Palace of Asian Art
By Mary Brown Malouf |

“TRAMMELL, YOU’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING RIGHT NOW. YOU BE in charge of this.” The Crow family had gathered together in Margaret Crow’s office at the summons of Mom and Dad. Margaret wanted to make “an announcement.” She and Trammel] Sr. had decided-rather suddenly-to create a museum out of the family’s sprawling Asian art collection. The location, the pair of galleries abutting the rear of the Trammel! Crow Building on Flora Street catty-corner to the DMA, had been (obviously and easily) determined. They had hired Asian art expert Clarence Shangraw to act as a consultant. And now Margaret had abruptly annointed her son, Trammell S., as director of the brand-new, papers-not-even-filed Crow Family Foundation.

Margaret Crow’s offhand dictum transformed Trammell S. Crow, the ponytailed rebel who had never quite committed himself to one business, from the family eccentric into the family museologist.

In a hurry. He had just 18 months to shape the huge, motley family collection into a first-class museum.

REAL ESTATE MOGUL TRAMMELL CROW AND HIS WIFE HAD BEEN collecting Asian art for decades, buying sculpture by the lot at auctions to decorate hotels and offices, selecting sofa-sized paintings tor their businesses, often choosing a piece for no better reason than, well, they liked it. Now the Crows’ collection was spread out all over the place-some pieces were in the family’s homes, some were displayed at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel, some were still crated in the warehouses, and others adorned the yard at the family ranch. “I’m an accumulator, really, more than a collector,” Trammell Crow has always said.

And the art critics mostly agreed.

There was a general nose-lifting towards the Crows’ collection in high-falutin art circles-it was too disparate, too varied, too vast, too indiscriminate. Not picky enough. After all, the Crows had put the lowbrow longhorns at the Dallas Convention Center and the deer along the shore of Turtle Creek. The critics hated them. too.

But when the jewel box of a museum opened, introducing visitors to a world of Asian art in a Sensurround-like setting with Asian music, videos, and gardens, the same critics loved it.

Of course, the museum ended up cost- ing $5.5 million instead of the $3.5 mil- lion that was naively projected.

His family, says Trammell S., didn’t get over the price tag until the opening parties brought ooh’s and aah’s. Then they were unanimous:”MyGod,Trammell,youdidit.”

THE MUSEUM, LIKE ANY OTHER CROW project, would be built in Crow Time, the legendary warp speed between when Trammell Sr. says “Let’s do it” and when whatever it is gets done.

But some problems seemed impossible to solve in the 18 months the family gave itself. First of all, the size of ^ the collection was formidable. No one really knew what À was there or what condition it was in or, ultimately, how 1 much the whole thing was worth. It had never been , j-9 expertly assessed and catalogued, As often happens, the value of the collection turned out to be greater than the sum of the pieces added together. More than7,000 pieces of Asian art had to he inventoried-from ” dizzyingly intricate carved ivory to fragile silk paint-ings to Trammell Sr.’s pet collection, which included more than 1,200 pieces of jade.

Shangraw, the Curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and director emeritus of the Tsui Museum of Art in Hong Kong, set about sorting through the collection to determine what was truly valuable and what was merely pretty. With Charles Venable, acting director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Shangraw traipsed through various Crow backyards to look at a Confucius perched on some concrete blocks behind some bushes; he also looked through the family’s offices and found a lapis lazuli piece next to a lava lamp on Trammell’s desk. And- the biggest find of all-he discovered the huge Mughal wall still packed in hay and dung in the original 144 crates. The numbered stone pieces

went together like a jigsaw puzzle (the biggest problem was removing the numbers from the stone).

In the end, 569 pieces were tagged for the Collection-indubitably worldclass, impeccable pieces that any museum in the world would be proud to display.

There were some easy aspects of the project: The family already had the building-they ’d sold it to Crescent Realty in 1997 but retained a 60-year lease on the outbuildings. Fortunately, this was an indoor project-so, for once, the variable Texas weather wasn’t a problem. “The family was already in the building business,”points out museum architect Bill Booziotis, who had some museum design experience from consulting on the Hamon Building of the DMA. “They had an idea of what to expect. They took risks that inexperienced people would he afraid of.”

There was no bureaucratic red tape to deal with because this was a project that the Crows gave to the Crows. No one outside the family was on the board because no one but Crows had funded it. So decision-making was simple. Or, as Trammell S. points out, “ignorance made it possible.”

HE RESEARCHED HIS MUSEUM BY GOING TO OTHER MUSEUMS to San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Seattle. He thought about how people use museums and what they want out of them. Thinking like a retailer, he considered the con sumer in relation to the collection. And he relied on the Dallas Museum of Art, which was delighted at the prospect of another art museum in the Arts District. The DMA lent its curatorial and installation staffs and built all the mounts and displays. (Trammell S. paid for the DMA art handlers he employed full-time, plus an extra “corkage fee.”) Art consultant Rick Brettell contributed a laundry list of what would he needed, and Trammell S. asked the DMA for advice down to the last mundane detail: Who cleans a museum for you? What kind of secu rity does a museum need?

Trammell S. wanted to create the effect of a “museum without walls”-both because he liked the way glass walls communicated with the street, making the art part of the passerby experience, and, landlord that he is, because it would cost a million dollars to replace them. “No curator in the world would vote for a museum with glass walls,” says Booziotis. But Trammell S. was in charge, and from the beginning, he said, “We are not going to do a textbook museum.”

So the glass walls remained, coated with filters to block as much ultraviolet light as possible. Even so, fragile pieces like the Japanese painted silk and paper screens will have to he rotated out every few months to protect them. And Trammell S. will have to find someone to create some kind of screen or shades to cover the windows at least part of the time. It’s worth it for the collection’s drive-up appeal. From the outside, most museums look like institutions for preservation, not communication. The DMA looks more like a bank than a vibrant place to view art. But the Crow Collection, with its 2,000-pound bronze Confucius meditating among the falling fountains and the dramatically lit sculpture visible from the street, stops you in your tracks. How could you pass this up?

There are other design aspects of the museum that are dictated by the building itself. Past the “pre view” collection at the entrance is Gallery I, the only interior space in the museum, housing the Japanese collection, the most fragile works in the museum. In the Indian wing, Gallery III, the Mughal wall that divides the room had to be hung from the ceiling so the floor doesn’t have to bear its weight, on the site the engineer, not the designer, suggested. The same necessity dictated the placement of the two Indian baradaris. They simply could not he placed anywhere else.

Some decision-making was facilitated by the strict timeline-materials that could not be obtained in time weren’t even considered. And some decisions were personal-out of the two great, high-ceilinged spaces, Trammell S. wanted to carve some intimacy so visitors had time to soak up the idea of the pieces on display. He insisted on lots of chairs to allow for contemplation, and he piped in appropriate music to each gallery so the viewer could experience the culture in several ways at once. He wanted warmth as well as splendor, and the museum moves from cozy to vast in a few steps. He wanted the moon doors and the Japanese garden, un-museumlike, decorator touches that make the space friendlier. He regarded the people who would come to his museum as his guests, and he wanted them to be comfortable while he introduced them to his inanimate friends.

But by far the greatest challenge of the new museum was connecting the two galleries. Without flow from one half of the space to another, there would be no museum.

“i could just picture it,” says Trammel! S. “Little Ethel from Podunk drags her husband to this museum, and after they’ve gone through one gallery, she tries to convince him to go outside and then into another gallery. All the way, he’s saying, ’ Ethel, I’ve seen about all I want to.” And he’d have missed half of it.”The difficulty was connecting the two galleries without destroying the architecture of the building, which is the pride and joy of Trammel!’s brother Harlan. The problem plagued everyone until finally a technically beautiful solution was found: The 15-foot, 4-inch bridge, made from 8-inch steel beams, was put in place so it cambered-arched upwards. Then 60,000 pounds of playground sand were poured along the slope until the bridge became level. The slender columns are designed to keep the bridge level, not to hold it up. With its double glass walls and up-and-down lighting, the new bridge appears to float from gallery to gallery, enriching the design of the building rather than detracting from it.

George Balle of Roeder Design placed the lighting for all the galleries, and he faced special challenges: All the jade had to be lit from 360 degrees, for instance; the huge crystal ball, the second-largest in the world, had to be lit so it would glow. Balle spent hundreds of hours hand-placing and readjusting the light bulbs in each case and along each track. The result is a museum that shines at night like a wonderland.

NOW THAT THE CROW COLLECTION OF ASIAN Art has opened successfully, everyone has big dreams for the little museum. Charles Venable imagines a shared Asianist library and joint shows (DMA has a great 19th-century Japanese collection; the Crows have a great 19th-century Chinesecollection). He sees the DMA hosting traveling exhibitsfor the Crow until the new museum is able to add more gallery space. Trammell S. envisions an active community outreach program, with school tours and educational facilities, and i he hopes to forge a strong connection with Dallas’ Asian population. The Crow Collection is open congruently with the DMA in the hopes that patrons will visit both museums on one parking space.

It’s not comprehensive, and it’s not chronological.

The Crow Collection is a boutique museum, personal, eclectic, accessible, created by the force of the object on human sensibility and the desire to share the thrill of the beautiful.

And it is beautiful.