Athenaeum approved

The Athenaeum is being designed by the architecture firm Morphosis, designers of the iconic Perot Museum (above). Photo courtesy of Perot Museum

After receiving approval from the University of Texas System Board of Regents, UTD is looking to move forward with construction on the Athenaeum project.

Projected to be built in three phases, the Atheneum is an expansive undertaking for the predominantly STEM-focused university, which University president Richard Benson said is much-needed to better integrate the arts into UTD’s campus culture. The finished complex will occupy the undeveloped space to the southeast of JSOM, and is highlighted by plans for the fourth-largest Asian art museum in the US, a new performing arts center and an additional parking structure to increase access to those facilities. Benson said that construction on Phase I – a $56.8 million project, funded entirely by private philanthropy – will begin within the next month.

“We’ll walk through the doors (of Phase I) almost exactly two years from now: March 2024,” Benson said. “The first phase deals with the visual arts and the anchor piece is the Crow Museum of Asian Art. We’ll have other display spaces, study spaces and the like, but that’ll be the focus, [which] we got approval from the board of Regents for last month. We have to go ahead to start the construction.”

The Crow Museum already has a space downtown in the Dallas Arts District, where the museum is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Sr. Director Amy Hofland said that space is expected to remain in operation once Phase I is completed, but the majority of the Crow’s collections are not currently on display, due to the limited space afforded in downtown.

“We show about 15% of our collection right now. We love being in the Dallas Arts District … but I think our museum has always been growing beyond its seams: this first phase will allow us to really fulfill the dream of the Crow family,” Hofland said. “We want to create a museum that is relevant and meaningful to students and to the communities around UT Dallas, that [is] celebrating the Asian community and really lifting the voices of Asian artists. So, I think that this is the really the completed version…we like to think of it as one museum in two locations.”

With the additional space afforded by the Phase I location, Hofland said that the museum would regularly display about 80% collection, in accordance with conservation best-practices. But the additional space would also open up the opportunity for visiting collections, with an eye towards creating a hub for appreciating Asian art that isn’t located on one of the coasts.

“Bringing in contemporary artists, bringing in collections that are outside the scope of the Crow [collection], that’s essential, because we say we’re building the Asian art museum of Dallas in these incremental steps,” she said. “We’re looking at some of the national collections of India and thinking of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, [to see] what is in storage that we might create an international partnership with tobring objects here on a yearly rotation.”

While the expanded Crow Museum has potential to become an internationally-recognized “epicenter” for Asian art, the project also entails several components designed to cater directly to Comets. Benson said that Phase II, while further out, is equally important to the goal of better integrating the arts into UTD.

“Two years from now, if we can raise the money, we will move on to Phase II. That’s for the performing arts,” Benson said. “That will be a 600 to 800 seat performance auditorium. Right now, we just don’t have that. We have the AEC auditorium, but if you know music and performance and dance, the stage isn’t big enough…so we’re hoping to have that first-class performance hall in another 2-3 years.”

Phase III will be a parking garage on the east side of the development, to provide easier access to the facility, and Holfand said there was community interest in a possible Phase IV – an additional visual-arts museum – although that remains tentative. Benson envisions a completed Athenaeum as a place where students can congregate not only to learn and appreciate the arts, but also as a place for Comets to practice their own crafts and engage with the work of their peers.

“Among the performers in our performance hall will be our own students,” he said. “It isn’t just visiting guests who would come to town. We have our own set of sculptors and painters and the like, and you already see some of that here… [the Athenaeum] just broadens everything out.”

Despite being a mechanical engineer, Benson spent much of his time as an undergraduate performing music. He said that he hopes that the influx of access to the arts will similarly enhance the experience of Comets at UTD.

“In my inauguration address, I talked about putting the A into STEM. We’re sort of known as a STEM-focused school…we might actually have three ‘M’s at this point: math, management and medicine,” Benson said. “But it’s not an either-or kind of situation. There are all sorts of people here with a STEM focus who are also musicians or dancers or singers or poets…this just adds dimension to what we already are.”

In the meantime, Hofland said she hopes Comets get involved as they look forward to the completion of Phase I and the opening of the Crow Museum’s second campus.

“It’s not Trammell Crow’s museum. It’s not my museum. It’s not the president’s museum,” she said. “I really think we need to work with student advisory right off the bat…we want to listen to the student voices of what they’d like to see in this space, what will create a sense of belonging, a sense that ‘I want to linger here a little bit longer.’”