Cowboys and Culture in Fort Worth

Explore the nation's third-largest arts district

When many think of Cowtown, as Fort Worth is affectionately known, they picture the cowboy-led cattle drives that amble down Exchange Avenue twice a day in the Stockyards National Historic District. What may not always come to mind is that Fort Worth is also the “museum capital of the Southwest” and home to the third-largest arts district in the nation. There are five major museums spanning the world’s history of art and artifact located just blocks from each other, all surrounded by yet more museums, cultural venues and historically significant stopping points. 

So how did a city that was first established as an army outpost in 1849, later playing a huge part in the American Longhorn cattle trade, come to be the home of everything from Andy Warhol’s silkscreened Marilyns to two Claude Monet masterpieces, of world premiere plays to big-budget musicals starring Broadway talent? The answer: A population’s desire to prove it could be a place where both cowboys and culture are welcome.

Western heritage

There are more than a dozen museums in Fort Worth proper, and unsurprisingly many of them focus on the area’s Western past. Besides the Stockyards Museum, housed in the historic Livestock Exchange Building, and the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame, which is dedicated to telling the stories of Quanah Parker, the Buffalo Soldiers, Sitting Bull and more, there is also the newly renovated National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. A $5.5 million rejuvenation of the second floor—and a new name, the Kit Moncrief Galleries—has built an exhibit dedicated to exploring the special bond between women and their horses, all through the lens of many of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame’s 750 honorees. These include pop-culture icons like Annie Oakley and Patsy Cline and fearless trailblazers like livestock expert Temple Grandin.

The Old West theme continues at the Amon Carter Museum (closed until September 14 for renovations), where the late Fort Worth Star-Telegram founder’s extensive personal collection of American art has been on display since 1961. Expect to find everything from paintings by Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, to sculptures by Lincoln Memorial artist Daniel Chester French, along with a collection of 45,000 photographic prints that make the museum one of the country’s major repositories of American photography. Likewise, the Sid Richardson Museum in Sundance Square specializes in more works by Remington and Russell, along with others who reflected both the romance and reality of the American West through their art. The museum welcomes more than 50,000 visitors annually.

Cultural District treasures

Many of Fort Worth’s more recognizable museums are located within the Cultural District, an easily walkable, parklike setting found just a few blocks west of downtown. Glance one way, and you’ll see the striking vertical lines of Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It displays post-World War II art in a permanent collection that includes almost 3,000 works and is the largest collection of modern art outside of New York City. Look the other way, and see the rolling curves of Louis I. Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, which is flooded with natural light and counts Rembrandt, Monet, Caravaggio, Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, Degas, and even the first painting ever done by Michaelangelo among its permanent collection. Renzo Piano, one of the world’s leading museum architects, designed the expansion that debuted in 2013.

Scratch that scientific itch nearby at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Yet another Wild West component is found here in the 10,000-square-foot exhibition known as the “Cattle Raisers Museum,” which employs lifesize steer replicas and antique accessories to illustrate the industry’s impact on society. But you’ll also find a three-story-high steel beam from the World Trade Center’s North Tower as part of a permanent 9/11 tribute, along with “Tornado Alley” and “DinoDig,” replicating a local paleontological field site.

In the center of the Cultural District, next to the Will Rogers Memorial Center, is a distinctive domed building that’s home to the largest performing arts organization in Tarrant County. Casa Mañana, or “the house of tomorrow” as the original structure was dubbed in 1936, stages acclaimed productions of musicals, cabarets and children’s theater. First constructed by Amon Carter as part of the Texas Centennial Celebration, the (then-outdoor) theater featured the world’s largest revolving stage and accommodated 4,000 guests. Broadway producer Billy Rose staged an elaborate revue with showgirls, dancers, and beauty queens, a large moat surrounding the stage and fountains projecting a wall of water that doubled as the stage curtain. It would be a little more than two decades before Casa Mañana returned, this time housed in the geodesic aluminum dome.

Musical masterpieces

Fort Worth is home to a thriving theater scene, with the award-winning Stage West, Circle Theatre, Amphibian Stage Productions and Jubilee Theatre all located near the city’s center. But a true jewel in the arts crown is Bass Performance Hall, a classic European-style opera house adorned with two 48-foot-tall angels sculpted from Texas limestone by Marton Varo. The inside is just as incredible, with a Great Dome measuring 80 feet in diameter and artfully painted by local artists Scott and Stuart Gentling. The hall is the permanent home of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Texas Ballet Theater, Fort Worth Opera and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and Cliburn Concerts series, as well as the stop for national touring Broadway shows brought in by Performing Arts Fort Worth.

The astonishing classical pianist Van Cliburn brought fame to Fort Worth in the 1960s, when a competition founded (and funded) by the president of the National Guild of Piano Teachers was established in his honor. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a quadrennial contest attracting top talent from around the world, with the winners and runners-up receiving substantial cash prizes and concert tours at world-famous venues.

Whether through music, theater, art, or mementos from the area’s rich Western history, Fort Worth has placed a priority on preserving and nurturing its culture. Though it can hold its own against global arts leaders, there’s no mistaking that when you’re visiting Fort Worth, you’re in a place like no other.

Lindsey Wilson
About the author

Lindsey is the former Texas editor for Where. She has lived in the West, East, Southwest and Midwest and has now land...