Fort Worth loses a guiding spirit: Ruth Carter Stevenson dies at 89

FORT WORTH -- Ruth Carter Stevenson, who stepped out of the shadow of her legendary Fort Worth father, Amon Carter Sr., to create a world-class museum and become a national figure in the American art world, died Sunday night after a long illness.

She was 89.

Under Mrs. Stevenson's long leadership, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art went through major expansions and acquired a collection considered one of the finest anywhere.

"It was her commitment, her vision, her desire to see the Amon Carter as something more than just a small museum in a Texas town, to be an institution with national stature," said Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., who sits on the board of the Amon Carter Museum. "She did that and it was an amazing achievement. She was certainly one of the great museum founders and museum overseers that we can identify in the last half of the century in the United States."

Kay Fortson, who founded the Kimbell Art Museum just down the hill from the Amon Carter in the Fort Worth Cultural District, said she and her daughter visited Mrs. Stevenson the day before she died. Fortson said Mrs. Stevenson mentored her when both young women were cultural pioneers, and the two remained close friends.

"We felt the necessity to go say goodbye," Fortson said of Mrs. Stevenson, who had been in failing health for several months. "We grieved and knew it wouldn't be long.

"She took me under her wing and really taught me about museums," Fortson said. "I will forever be grateful. We never had a disagreement over museums. We understood each other and we never had anything that came up that divided us. That's most unusual."

Friends, family and civic leaders mourned a person known for her strength of will, capacity for friendship, love of gardening and flowers, generosity and philanthropy.

"Fort Worth has lost a great friend," said Bobby Brown, vice president of the Amon G. Carter Foundation, one of Texas' top philanthropic organizations. "Ruth used her intelligence and determination to advance so many causes which have made her communities better places to live. Her leadership and experience are irreplaceable and the love felt for her by so many will be enduring."

Mrs. Stevenson was the youngest and only surviving child of Amon Carter Sr. She was born on Oct. 19, 1923, the same year her father became publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Carter was also an oilman, philanthropist, friend to American presidents and national celebrities, and a voracious collector of Western paintings and sculptures, mostly by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.

By the time of Carter's death in 1955, his collection had grown to about 400 pieces. It was left to Mrs. Stevenson by her older brother, Amon Carter Jr., to carry out a key provision of her father's will, building a Fort Worth art museum to house the collection. Collaborating with famed architect Philip Johnson, Mrs. Stevenson presided over the opening of the Amon Carter Museum in 1961.

In the years that followed, Mrs. Stevenson, as president of the museum's board, demonstrated her father's fierce will and insistence on quality. She also discovered and refined her own eye for great art. Within a few years of the museum's opening, Stevenson and the Fort Worth museum had pushed far beyond Amon Carter Sr.'s Western aesthetic, buying paintings and art objects across a broad spectrum.

"Mrs. Stevenson dedicated her life to fulfilling her father's wishes by seeing that a museum housing his art collection was built," said Andrew J. Walker, the Amon Carter Museum's director. "We will miss Ruth's tenacious spirit, thoughtful guidance and loyal friendship. Her legacy will enhance the lives of generations to come."

Mrs. Stevenson also became a fixture on the American art scene. She was a close friend of Georgia O'Keeffe until the legendary artist's death in 1986. In 1979, she became the first female board member of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and later the first woman to become the board's chairman.

"It's a great institution because of her," Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery and a longtime friend, said of the Amon Carter Museum. "Over its history, the Carter has put together one of the great collections of American art. ... It's a great, great place she has created for Fort Worth and the nation.

"Ruth was beloved by all and indefatigable in her support of the Gallery over several decades," Powell said.

Fort Worth investor Sid Bass said Mrs. Stevenson was one of the giants of Fort Worth history.

"Like the death of her father, Ruth's passing marks the end of an era," Bass said. "Her contributions to Fort Worth and influence over its life cannot be overstated. She was a world figure in the arts, and we were lucky to have been her local stage."

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the city "suffered a huge loss with the passing of Ruth Carter Stevenson."

"She was a charming, elegant leader driven to make Fort Worth a better place than when she found it," Price said.

Despite her passing, her legacy and that of her famous father will endure through the museum and foundation, said Sheila Johnson, the oldest of Mrs. Carter's five children.

"The dynasty is far from over," Johnson said on Monday. "We will continue the legacies that he left her and she left us. There is no expectation that will change. There will just be different faces and different names."

Amon Carter Sr. was 45 when Ruth was born to Carter and his second wife, Nenetta. (The couple divorced in 1941). The tycoon's immediate and lasting devotion to his daughter was such that it strained the relationship between Ruth and her brother, Amon Jr., who was four years older. (Amon Carter Jr. died of a heart attack in 1982).

"I was his baby girl," Stevenson once said. "Amon Jr. and I didn't really get to be friends until we were grown because I got $5 to take a dose of castor oil, and he got a whipping if he didn't. That doesn't make for friendships. And I adored Amon [Jr.]."

Among Stevenson's childhood memories was a morning at the family home in Fort Worth, when entertainer Will Rogers and aviator Charles Lindbergh showed up at the back door. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a visitor at the family farm, Shady Oak, among other luminaries. Amon Carter Sr. credited Rogers with inspiring his interest in the work of Russell and Remington.

His collecting intensified when he struck oil. In the mid-1940s, Carter paid what was reported to be a record price for Remington's classic A Dash for the Timber, which had been part of the collection at Washington University in St. Louis.

Carter's daughter, meanwhile, was sent to an Eastern boarding school and then to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. In college, she dabbled in art history classes but was a chemistry major. She traces her true passion for art to a day in the 1940s, when her first husband, J. Lee Johnson III, was studying law at Notre Dame University. On a day trip, Stevenson took the train to Chicago.

"When I got to Chicago, I walked up the steps of the Art Institute, where the impressionist pictures were, and, bingo, that was it," she said. "I looked at one painting and I thought it was the most beautiful thing. It was by Monet, so I fell in love with the French impressionists."

With her first Star-Telegram dividend check, she bought an 1888 landscape by Vincent van Gogh. She hung it in her Fort Worth home, where her father first saw it.

"What in the name of God is that?" Amon Carter Sr. asked.

"It's a van Gogh," Stevenson said.

"I can read," Amon Carter Sr. said. "What did you pay for it?"

"I paid the same amount for it that you paid for A Dash for the Timber," his daughter said.

"To think your mother and I would entrust you with money and you would go do a damn fool thing like that," Carter said.

Stevenson had paid $25,000 for her masterpiece. Decades later, it was sold for $14 million.

"Unfortunately, he wasn't there for me to tell him," Stevenson said of her father, whose health began to fail in the early 1950s.

It was art that provided father and daughter with their strongest and most enduring bond. Despite his humble upbringing and lack of formal education, her father was a "born connoisseur" with an instinctive eye for fine art, Mrs. Stevenson said.

She would always remember post-war years in the 1940s when women were still not allowed in the 11th-floor library of the Fort Worth Club, the place where Amon G. Carter Sr. kept most of his beloved art collection at the time. But every so often, Carter and his daughter, then in her 20s, visited the room with the Western paintings and sculptures of Remington and Russell, masterpieces Carter had been collecting since the 1920s.

"His eyes would just light up, to share it with somebody, somebody he loved and who understood his passion," Mrs. Stevenson once said. "While we would look, he would reminisce about his friendship with Will Rogers. There was a twinkle in his eye and a lovely sense of, 'I did this, and I'm proud of it.' It was just the two of us. It is a very tender memory."

When Amon Carter Sr. died, Mrs. Stevenson took on the challenge of building a museum in his honor. Amon Carter, Jr. had settled in as Star-Telegram publisher and preferred to focus on that part of his father's legacy.

"Amon said, 'I'm running the newspaper. I don't have time to do it. You do it,'" Stevenson recalled.

By then, Stevenson had strong interest in art, but no clue about how to build a museum. She was a self-described housewife whose chief public pursuits had been projects with the Junior League.

"She was left out of many events and important things that occurred in her father's life," her daughter, Sheila Johnson, once said. "My grandfather didn't believe she needed to do that. She was a girl. ... When Amon Jr. said, 'You go ahead and take this project. I don't want to have to deal with it,' that was probably the best day of her life."

A crucial early step was hiring the internationally acclaimed architect, Philip Johnson, to design the museum. "I didn't have any idea of how to build one," Stevenson remembered. "But I did know that Philip Johnson was the greatest architect around, so I thought, 'Why not start with him?'"

Stevenson met Johnson for the first time in Houston in the late 1950s, at the dedication of a Johnson-designed building at the University of St. Thomas.

"I got down there and saw what he had done for the university," Stevenson recalled. "It was gorgeous, elegant. Well, Philip came up and we had a number of martinis. It was a big affair and all the people from the museum world were there. We chatted back and forth and I said, 'Why don't you come to Fort Worth and build us a museum?' He said, 'I'd be glad to talk to you.' He came about two months later and he signed a contract.

"So luckily I had Philip," Stevenson said. "I said, 'Philip, I don't know how to do this.' He said, 'No problem. I'll be on your board.'"

Johnson designed an east-facing shellstone edifice in Fort Worth's Cultural District, with pillars and walls of dark glass that allowed a singular view of the downtown skyline. The famous architect also provided entrée to some of the most eminent personalities in American art, including several who agreed to serve as trustees for the fledging institution.

They included Richard Brown, then director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and later the Kimbell's first director); Harry Grier, director of the Frick Collection in New York; John de Menil, one of the nation's most prominent philanthropists and collectors; and Rene d'Harnoncourt, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Through Brown, the Carter hired its first director, the highly regarded Mitchell Wilder. Wilder was friendly with Georgia O'Keeffe, which helped the museum land a major O'Keeffe retrospective in 1966. Stevenson and the legendary artist quickly became close friends. Stevenson once spent a week with O'Keeffe at her home in New Mexico, and they frequently dined together in New York.

"She was an extraordinary person, beautiful," Mrs. Stevenson remembered. "Of course, her art was just fabulous. We got along very well. I close my eyes and see her. Everything was adobe. She was always dressed in black. She would lean back against the wall and reminisce about the people she had known. All the great artists had been there. She talked about what fun they all were, and how smart."

On a visit to New Mexico, Stevenson first saw O'Keeffe's 1925 painting White Birch. Immediately smitten, Stevenson eventually persuaded the artist to sell it. But that was just one purchase in a period of broad acquisition -- paintings that had little in common with the mythological pictures of the West that made up the core of her father's collection.

"Once you started going to New York and seeing American art as there was, at the Whitney [Museum] and all of it, I realized what we could do to enhance the collection with great works of American painting," Stevenson remembered. "I knew we had to [go beyond Western art]."

Two years after the Amon Carter Museum opened, Mrs. Stevenson was part of a wrenching day in American history. In November 1963, she was among a small group of Fort Worth residents that assembled locally owned masterpieces and had them installed in a suite at the Texas Hotel for President John Kennedy.

On Nov. 22, 1963, she expected to meet the president at the hotel.

"I was supposed to go down there and say good morning to him," Mrs. Stevenson remembered. "I called the Secret Service about four in the morning and said, 'I've got a sick child. I'm not coming.'" We were watching [Kennedy's Fort Worth visit] on the television and the phone rang."

It was the President.

"I just wanted to call and thank you for your generosity," President Kennedy said in what might have been his final telephone call.

A few hours later, he was dead.

"It just shook her to the core," said her daughter, Sheila Johnson. "She literally had hung up the phone and 30 minutes later he was dead."

In the early 1970s, Mrs. Stevenson's influence in the art world greatly expanded. In 1972, Paul Mellon came to Fort Worth for the opening of the Kimbell Art Museum. Mellon was a major philanthropist and art collector whose family had helped found the National Gallery of Art in the 1930s. Stevenson, a close friend of Kimbell owners Kay and Ben Fortson, was assigned to drive Mellon in from the airport.

"I met Mr. Mellon under very pleasant circumstances," Stevenson remembered of that day. "So he drove into town with me in a pickup, just a delightful gentleman."

Three years later, Mellon and the gallery's director, Carter Brown, asked Mrs. Stevenson, who had divorced in the 1970s, to head up a new collectors committee for that institution. That led to her position on the board and an introduction to the board's chairman, prominent New York attorney John Stevenson.

"I can still remember the first time I saw him at a 'do at the gallery," Mrs. Stevenson remembered. "I can remember what I had on. I still have the dress."

In 1983, as Mrs. Stevenson said, "I married the boss." It was a happy union until John Stevenson's death in 1997.

Philip Johnson died in 2005, but one of his last projects was a major expansion of the Carter that was completed in 2001. The new space was large enough to display the Western works so beloved by Amon Carter Sr., and the dozens of masterpieces acquired under his daughter's leadership.

"In the 1950s and '60s, when Ruth began, Texas was a youthful part of the country, culturally, but it certainly isn't now," said Conforti of the Clark Art Institute. "You have to look at who changed that reality ... as opposed to it being central to the art world, as it is now. You certainly come up with Ruth, someone who took her father's legacy and went far beyond anybody's expectation."

Mrs. Stevenson is survived by her five children: Sheila Broderick Johnson; J. Lee Johnson IV; Karen Johnson Hixon; Catherine L. "Kate" Johnson and Mark L. Johnson; 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at Thompson's Harveson & Cole Funeral Home, 702 8th Ave., Fort Worth. After a private burial, a memorial and prayer service is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, 1206 Throckmorton St., Fort Worth.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

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