Since the doors of the Mari and James A. Michener Gallery Building opened in 2006, the Blanton Museum of Art has been writing an important history. Though the museum was not immune to the highs and lows that have plagued Austin’s art community, it has been steadily stabilizing and growing. Artist collectives have been created, lasting friendships formed and creativity nurtured within those walls, not to mention the thousands of students who have been introduced to art for the first time or the children wow-ed by the soaring atrium. (Full disclosure, I have worked for the museum as a gallery assistant, a marketing and public relations intern and a social media coordinator contractor).
Organized in conjunction with Into the Sacred City: Tibetan Buddhist Deities from the Theos Bernard Collection, Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery were invited to create a sand mandala. Browsing pictures posted on Twitter on Saturday (the fourth day of the process) I saw monks and the rows of spectators filling around them. Still, no number of tweets could prepare me for the scene during the closing ceremony on Sunday.
The event was slated from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and I planned to show up around 2:30 p.m. What I was not expecting was the traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. or the hoards of people still making their way toward the building. Two lines, one for the general public and the other for UT students, staff and faculty, spread out from opposite sides of the front door. A third line, almost empty, for museum members contrasted with the non-member lines.
I did make it in before the sand mandala was swept away, but I could hardly tell. Not courageous enough to fight through the center crowd, I listened from twenty feet away to the chanting of the monks and instruments. The foreign clangs accompanied by surprisingly deep voices floated through the atrium, a natural amplifier. I surveyed the people, of all types of walks of life. Some dressed in what I could only assume was Tibetan clothing, some students, some parents with their children, or artists. A woman with her eyes shut stood leaning against the stairwell, just listening.
When the ceremony came to an end and the monks began to distribute sand in plastic packets to the hoards that came even closer, I walked up the stairwell. It was a sight, the people coming for a packet of sand to keep as a memento, or to take home to forget and eventually throw away. When the sand was all gone and the monks continued to take the other half of the sand to Waller Creek, people still came up to the table to run their hands over the surface to catch a few grains. Some rubbed this on their foreheads, like ash.
It was an awesome event, in the truest sense of the word. Not only the sight of the mandala, if you could get close enough, but the thousands of people that came to the museum to participate. It demonstrates the power museums can have to attract the public who do want to experience something. Whether or not it will always take a ritual performance wrapped up in centuries of history and religion, is yet to be shown.
Blanton Museum of Art Presents Never Exhibited Sacred Tibetan Art – September 14, 2012