The Art Museum of South Texas, located in Corpus Christi, offers a variety of exhibitions and programs. The museum originated in 1944, when an enthusiastic public response to an art sale prompted the Corpus Christi Caller-Times Publishing Company, the Corpus Christi Art Guild, and the South Texas Art League to establish the Centennial Art Museum. From 1944 to 1972 the museum was located in South Bluff Park, in a small building constructed in 1936 to commemorate the Texas Centennial.
During the 1960s the museum grew rapidly. In 1960 it hired its first professional director, Cathleen Gallander, and formed a support organization, the Art Auxiliary. The following year the museum was chartered by the state of Texas as a tax-exempt, nonprofit, educational organization that was legally identified as the Corpus Christi Art Foundation, Incorporated. The Junior League of Corpus Christi began offering docent tours for schoolchildren, and the museum's educational program subsequently expanded to include films, lectures, and workshops. Concerned that the original facility would limit the museum's growth, museum supporters, led by Edwin and Patsy Singer, conducted a 1967 fund drive that raised a million dollars for a new facility. During the fund-raising campaign the museum was renamed Art Museum of South Texas in order to emphasize its service to the entire region.
New York architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed a striking museum building of white cast concrete accentuated with bronze-tinted windows that flood its galleries with natural light and offer spectacular views of the Corpus Christi Bay. The 30,000 square-foot building includes four galleries, an auditorium, a gift shop, a library, classrooms, administrative areas, and two outdoor sculpture courts. After its completion the $1.3 million facility was deeded to the city of Corpus Christi, which assumed all maintenance and security costs. The new museum opened to the public in October 1972 with the exhibition Johns, Stella, Warhol: Works in Series.
In the new building the museum personnel placed an emphasis on exhibitions and educational activities rather than acquisitions. Thus available funds have supported an ambitious exhibition program that presents art from a variety of periods and locales. In an effort to serve the interests of its constituency, which is over 50 percent Hispanic, the museum organized Spain and New Spain: Mexican Colonial Arts in Their European Context (1978) and featured major traveling exhibitions on Fernando Botero (1980), José Luis Cuevas (1984), and Mexican Colonial painting from the Davenport Museum of Art (1992). The museum also presented a series of group exhibitions of contemporary artists, including American Painting of the 1970s (1979), which was curated by leading art critic Barbara Rose; Numerals 1924–1977 (1979), which examined the use of mathematical systems, numbers, and serial progressions in the work of such artists as Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, and Robert Smithson; and Variants: Drawings by Contemporary Sculptors (1981), which included the work of Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, Judy Pfaff, and James Surls.
The museum staff supplements exhibitions with lectures, gallery talks, readings, films, and music and dance performances. Docent tours serving students in the Corpus Christi public schools form the core of the museum's educational program. The museum offers tours by appointment to other groups, and a Mobile Art program consisting of slide lectures, mini-exhibitions, and hands-on projects serves in peripheral school districts, hospitals, and other sites. Classes in painting, printmaking, drawing, and other media are offered to children in the summer, and special classes that complement various exhibitions are offered to adults throughout the year.
Despite its emphasis on exhibition and education, the museum has gradually acquired a small permanent collection of 400 objects. Included in it are a substantial number of works on paper by contemporary such artists as Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol. In addition, the museum owns collections of pre-Columbian artifacts, silk carpets from the Near East, School of Paris paintings, American Regionalist paintings and prints, Color Field paintings, and contemporary sculpture. Such leading Texas artists as Terry Allen, Vernon Fisher, Roy Fridge, James Surls, and Michael Tracy are represented in the museum's collection. Items from the permanent collection are exhibited periodically throughout the year, with curators selecting groups of objects to complement the themes of traveling exhibitions.
A 125-member board of trustees oversees museum activities and elects twenty-one of its members to the Board of Governing Trustees, which meets on a monthly basis to make policy decisions and establish budgets. Daily operations are guided by the museum director. Cathleen Gallander left the museum in 1980 and was succeeded as director by Ric Collier (1981–87) and Gus Teller (1988–90). In October 1990 Lillian Murray became director of the museum, which employed a staff of eighteen in 1991. The city of Corpus Christi, the Corpus Christi Independent School District, and various local, state, and federal agencies provide financial support. The museum also depends on membership and admission fees, income from its gift shop and art classes, and fund-raisers to meet its operating budget, which was $800,000 in 1991. The Art Museum of South Texas is a member of the Texas Association of Museums, the American Association of Museums, the American Federation of Arts, the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce, and the Corpus Christi Arts Council.