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As Fort Worth seeks a new location for its Central Library, residents reflect on its impact

July 13,2023

See full KERA News article by Marcheta Fornoff here.

June 30 marked the end of an era for Fort Worth’s Central Library.

With the branch’s closure, some residents are also mourning the loss of an important space for arts and culture in the city.

Fort Worth is home to world class museums, and many of them can trace their lineage back to Fort Worth Library’s Central Branch.

“This entire museum system you see here behind you would not exist in this form, without the library,” local art historian Scott Barker said. He recalled his own history with the library, which he credits for fueling his passion for art history.

But the storied institution, now in its third permanent downtown location, is closing the chapter on its 500 W. 3rd St. building and seeking a new, smaller space downtown.

The current site was sold to the investment firm Dart Interests LLC for $18 million in December. Dart Interests plans to bulldoze the building and redevelop the site as a mixed-use development with housing and office space.

“It changed my life going there, it really did make me into a different person,” Barker said. “And it breaks my heart to know that going forward other people are not going to have that same opportunity.”

As the city charts a new course for its downtown library, the Report looks back on the lasting legacy of its predecessors on Fort Worth’s public art scene.

Lighting the spark for art in Fort Worth
The first public library in Fort Worth was built with a gift of $50,000 from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. His gift came with the requirement that the city allocate $4,000 annually to maintain the building.

It opened to the public in 1901, thanks in large part to the efforts of a woman named Jennie Scott Scheuber, who obtained a charter to start the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Museum a few years prior. Barker said Scheuber was deeply involved with the layout of the Carnegie Library, which included an art gallery as a key component of its design.

“Back in those days, art and library were synonymous in Fort Worth, totally synonymous,” Barker said. “The libraries were where all the big art shows were held. All the receptions, anything that had to be done on a big scale art-wise happened at the downtown library.”

His friend Morris Matson, a former Fort Worth City Council member and long-time assistant city manager, agreed. He said the story of a city can be seen through its art, and under Scheuber’s leadership, the Central Library infused art into the culture of Cowtown.

“The library became a very important function of the heart of Fort Worth,” Matson said. “The city believed in it, (and) the people believed in it.”

Today, the little museum that got its start in the Central Library is known as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and is considered the oldest art museum in the state. It has changed names and locations several times in the intervening years, but the curation of contemporary works extends back to its founding.

While the Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art didn’t begin in the library itself, the library’s art exhibitions and sales still left an impression on the civic leaders the museums were named after.
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Kay Kimbell bought his first piece of fine art at one of the library’s art shows. Amon Carter Sr., a prominent businessman and local leader, also attended one of the library’s shows and was moved by his experience, Barker said.

One of Barker’s friends, a teenager at the time of the city’s centennial celebration, offered to escort Carter through the crowd outside and into a smaller reception inside the library.

“Mr. Carter said, ‘No, sir …I think I’ll stay right here.’ And he stayed outside during the reception on the front steps of the library, basking in the atmosphere, the electricity that surrounded this art show,” Barker said. “He understood from that night on how powerful art is … to get people energized and excited by something.”The thriving museum scene that exists today — and the spirit of the city that formed around it — is a direct result of visionaries like Scheuber, Carter and Kimbell, Matson said.

“Those guys saw the value of a library. This was in a western town, an outpost city almost, but they had the vision to be able to see the future —and their vision paid off,” he said. “After the Library was built they added to Fort Worth’s greatness by building their museums. Look at us today — Fort Worth world leader in museums and art. It really paid off.”

An evolving mission
More than a hundred years after the opening of the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Museum, fine art plays a more reserved role in the library’s branches.

Sculptures, mosaics and other public art installations still dot many of the city’s libraries. But the practice of collecting framed works and bronzes has taken a back seat to offering more laid-back craft classes and music-focused initiatives like Amplify817.

Blockbuster library-sponsored visual art fairs are a thing of the past. Recently, local and regional art shows have cycled in and out of the library’s central branch without the same traffic-stopping fanfare.

The Central Library’s dedicated gallery space was unique. The art owned by the city that was in the central branch will be displayed in other branches and city facilities. None of the foundation’s art that was displayed at the Central Library has been sold yet, but some of the other pieces owned by the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation have been sold privately.

Andrea Ash, president of the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation, said the foundation first began accepting art donations in 2001 or 2002. At the time, those donations supported funding priorities for the foundation and the library.

Now, donating artwork to the foundation is no longer encouraged, according to its gift acceptance policy. Any art gifted must be given with the understanding that it could be sold, donated or auctioned.

Up until now, the foundation has only displayed its collected art at the Central Library. Foundation staff are in discussions with the library about how to support the library in its other branches in the future, Ash said. The foundation is evaluating the best approach for each art piece, she said, including displaying them in foundation offices or other library locations, selling them to support the foundation’s endowment, or donating them.

“As needs arise, the Foundation board will evaluate requests and determine the best course of action to ensure they are in alignment with our mission and strategic initiatives,” Ash said.

The Fort Worth Public Library Foundation isn’t alone in shifting its focus. While a city’s downtown library is often considered its center of operations, Fort Worth’s library department has focused in recent years on branching out further into areas of town that don’t have a library presence and increasing access to library resources.

The new downtown library will likely be smaller than the now-closed Central Library, and won’t host the same volume of archival materials. But the same artistic spirit long captured by the Central Library can still be seen in a different format at the other branches.

The Reby Cary Youth Library has an interactive LED light installation hanging from its ceiling. The Northwest Library Branch has several “art-glass windowpanes” that create a stained-glass effect both inside and outside the library. And the Vivian J. Lincoln Library, which celebrated its grand opening July 8, features a public art installation from Area C Projects.

He recognizes that the number of people using the library and how they use it is changing, but said he’d like to see an investment in helping the library’s central branch thrive. He subscribes to a view shared by Hardy Sanders, one of the city’s well-known philanthropists who said that a great city has a great library.

“The spirit of the Central Library and what it can contribute to the heart of the city is something we’re overlooking, in my opinion,” Matson said.

The city is looking for a new director as it also searches for a new central library location downtown. Several options have been floated, including using the current City Hall building as a combined police office and library branch, but nothing has been set in stone.

No matter where the next library is, officials say they’re committed to it being a fully functional space. While the extent of its potential gallery or performance space aren’t yet known, Matson said art is essential to keeping the artistic spirit of Fort Worth’s downtown branch alive.

“The history of Fort Worth is revealed by the people who lived it at the time and they put it on canvas or paper or in wood or stone or bronze. The art is a living document. It’s like taking a Polaroid picture of what happened,” he said. “Our library saved it for us. Let’s not lose it.”

Location Mentioned: Central Library