The Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, began as a vision of H.J. Lutcher Stark. As early as 1927 he had discussed with associates his hope of someday opening a museum. His interest in the arts followed that of his mother, Miriam Lutcher Stark, an enthusiastic collector of art, furniture, and decorative items from around the world. Lutcher Stark developed a similar passion for collecting, with a particular interest in nature and art depicting the American West.
Lutcher Stark began building his collection as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he collected American Indian objects and paintings of the American West.
He married Nelda Childers in 1943, and together they continued to build the collection. From 1944 to 1962 they traveled annually to their ranch in Colorado, stopping along the way in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, to meet with artists. From these visits they built a collection that strongly represents the Taos Society of Artists and other artists in the Taos colony, drawn to the area for its scenery and culture.
In the 1950s, they expanded the collection with the rare five-volume set of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America as well as letters and first edition copies of publications by Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon. In that same decade, they collected porcelain birds and flowers by Dorothy Doughty and Edward Marshall Boehm, as well as a series of Steuben Glass pieces, including the complete set of The United States in Crystal. In the late 1950s, the Starks added 230 works by Paul Kane, and in the following years they strengthened the holdings of Western art.
Inspired by their shared passion, Nelda and Lutcher Stark founded the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation in 1961 to enrich the quality of life in Southeast Texas through education and the arts. Although Lutcher Stark had envisioned a museum in his hometown of Orange, Texas, he did not live to see it accomplished. Upon his death in 1965, the majority of the art collection in Lutcher Stark’s Estate passed to the Foundation. Under Nelda C. Stark’s direction, the Foundation built the Stark Museum of Art, which opened on November 29, 1978. The Foundation continues today to acquire additional works of art for the collections. Today, the Stark Museum of Art houses one of the nation’s most significant collections of American Western art.
The Stark Museum of Art’s architecture projects a monumental, elegant presence. The design of the two-story building features clean lines and rectangular shapes with a white marble surface. The corner entry forms a bold focal point. There the second story marble mass contrasts dramatically with the expanse of open space created by the recessed entry.
The Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, under the leadership of Nelda Stark, commissioned the building from the architectural firm Page Southerland Page of Austin, Texas, with Ernesto G. Liebrecht as architect. Nearly 2,000 pieces of Vermont White Imperial Danby Marble, each weighing 250 pounds, cover 33,000 square feet of the exterior of the building. Because of its location, the Museum was built to withstand Category Five hurricane winds of 200 mph.
The Stark Museum of Art has more than 60,000 square feet of space for exhibitions, visitor services, storage, and work areas. On the interior, the center area of the large lobby is open to the second floor and illuminated by a bank of lights. This creates a dramatic atrium effect to highlight works of art from the collection. The lobby, five exhibition galleries, and Museum store are all located on the first floor. The remaining space is dedicated to storage exhibition preparation, a research library, staff offices, and the mechanical requirements of the building.
Two years and five months after breaking ground, the building was completed in 1976, and staff began preparations for exhibitions. The following year the Museum received the Building Stone Institute’s prestigious national Tucker Award for excellence in construction and use of natural stone. The Stark Museum of Art opened to the public on November 29, 1978. Today the Museum continues to welcome visitors and provides an appropriate setting for the exhibition and preservation of the collections that originated with Lutcher and Nelda Stark.
In December 2015, the Stark Foundation announced a new addition to the Stark Museum of Art grounds. The two-story addition illustrates the Foundation’s on-going commitment to service and education through preserving and sharing art and history.
The first floor Art Education Wing will provide the Museum with much needed space to continue program growth, including two studios, a multi-purpose room, gallery hanging space, public restrooms, storage, offices, and a small catering kitchen. In 2015, over 6,000 guests created original works of art in the current studio space.
The second floor Eunice R. Benckenstein Library and Archive will include a research room, small exhibition area, library collections storage, secure archival storage, workroom, offices, and a rest room. The Benckenstein Library and Archive will provide a space to take care of the Stark Foundation Archive collections at the same standard of care for items in the Museum and Stark House collections. These historic documents and photographs tell the story of the Stark and Lutcher families and document their social and charitable activities as well as their business concerns.
Staff are excited to keep the community apprised of progress on the 15,000 square foot addition and the wide range of art and history experiences they can participate in once the facility is open in 2017.