Expanding on the Vision of an Icon

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum was never intended to be a shrine to the queen of Southwest Modernism. Neither was the institution--which opened two years ago in a handsomely renovated, historic adobe building near Santa Fe Plaza--conceived as the artist's mausoleum.

O'Keeffe, who spent much of her life in New Mexico and died in 1986, at 98, left a body of work that seems to encapsulate the spiritual riches and natural beauty of the American Southwest. Indeed, she has achieved such mythic status that some of the 600,000 people who have visited the museum so far undoubtedly have approached it with a worshipful attitude.

But deifying O'Keeffe isn't the point, and preserving memories of her life and work is only part of the museum's mission, said director George G. King. What he and curator Barbara Buhler Lynes have in mind is a living museum that examines O'Keeffe's artistic legacy within a broad cultural perspective.

"We want to contextualize her," said Lynes, who has written three books and numerous articles on the artist. Her latest book, "The Georgia O'Keeffe Catalogue Raisonne," a seven-year project that documents 2,029 works, is scheduled for publication next year.

One way to accomplish the museum's goal, Lynes said, is by presenting temporary exhibitions such as "Artists of the Stieglitz Circle," on view at the museum to July 25. First in a planned series, the show displays O'Keeffe's paintings with photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, her husband, and works by other American Modernists who showed their adventurous abstractions at Stieglitz's New York galleries, which operated between 1905 and 1946.

But the current exhibition merely hints at long-range plans to recognize O'Keeffe within the big picture of art history. The most ambitious development, now shaping up, is the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center. Founded last year and expected to make its debut in fall 2000, the center will support and promote scholarship on the artist and her milieu.

"The bottom line on the center is that it will be devoted to American Modernism," said Lynes, who is director of the new enterprise. Designed with a purposefully broad scope, the program will embrace architecture, photography, literature, music and conservation, as well as art history, she said. Similarly, the time span will be expansive, reaching from 1910 to the present. "Studies of American Modernism are generally limited to the period of 1910 to 1930 or 1945, but a lot of aesthetic issues carry over, so we don't have a sharp cutoff date," she said.

The center will be launched next year with a yet-to-be-scheduled conference, "Defining American Modernism." "We will address the meaning of American Modernism and position ourselves as an interdisciplinary program so that people understand what the center represents," Lynes said.

Then, in spring 2001, the center will launch a fellowship program. Plans call for concurrently hosting six fellows, each of whom will be in residence for one to four months. "This will be a place to finish a book, write a chapter or deal with an idea," Lynes said. Fellows will be selected on a competitive basis, with preference given to candidates who are completing a research project or organizing an exhibition for the museum. But the program also will be open to graduate students who are beginning projects in American Modernism, she said.

Fellows will have access to the center's library and archives. Outside scholars may use these materials as well, and a program is being developed to publish papers on O'Keeffe and editions of her letters. In addition to its private activities, the center will sponsor a year-round public program of exhibitions, lectures and seminars to complement events presented by the museum, Lynes said.

All these projects require space, which is not available at the museum, so the research center will be housed nearby, in a late 19th century wood building on Grant Street. The historic two-story structure, known as the Bergere House, is being renovated and expanded by Richard Gluck, architect of the O'Keeffe Museum.

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Seen from the street, the center's future home is a gracious residence with a wooded lawn bordered by a white picket fence. Perusing Gluck's architectural drawings, King noted that the original exterior of the building will remain intact, in keeping with local historic preservation codes, but the interior will be reconfigured as offices and a conference room for staff and fellows.

Major changes will take place in the rear of the building, where a relatively recent addition will be torn down and replaced by a much larger new wing. The elongated structure, with a portico along one side, will provide about 23,000 square feet of vault-like space, where the archives will be stored and books will be maintained in open stacks, Lynes said.

The evolution of the fledgling research center is the latest chapter in the short but eventful life of the museum, which was founded in 1995 by Anne Marion, a Texas heiress and O'Keeffe collector, and her husband, John Marion, retired chairman of Sotheby's auction house. Major funding was provided by the Burnett Foundation of Fort Worth, which was established by Anne Marion.

The museum opened in July 1997 with a collection of about 90 paintings, works on paper and sculptures. Since then, the holdings have grown significantly with the addition of purchases and gifts. The museum now owns about 130 works by O'Keeffe, including oils, watercolors, drawings, pastels and photographs.

It's the world's largest collection of O'Keeffe's work, but it has "some major weaknesses," Lynes said. "We weren't around when many of the great paintings went to other museums." To help fill gaps and provide visitors with new things to see, the museum frequently borrows O'Keeffe works from other museums and displays them with the permanent collection.

In another effort to broaden its program, the museum hosts traveling exhibitions, Lynes said. From Aug. 6 to Oct. 17 will be "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things," a show of 64 still-life paintings and related objects organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Among other developments, last year Juan Hamilton, the artist's longtime assistant and principal heir, gave the museum a large collection of O'Keeffe's personal property. The assortment of studio equipment, art materials and found objects, such as bones, shells and rocks represented in her paintings, will be maintained by the research center.

In addition, the Burnett Foundation bought O'Keeffe's summer house at Ghost Ranch from Hamilton for $3 million and turned it over to the research center. The 12-acre property, located about 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe, near O'Keeffe's longtime home in Abiquiu, will be used for seminars and research activities.

Exhilarated by plans for the new research center, Lynes said it is exciting to think of new ways to examine a chapter of art history and engage other scholars in the process. But she is also looking forward to the museum's increased presence in Santa Fe. "We hope to create a community with the rest of the institutions in the area," she said.

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