- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - J.P. Bryan didn’t start out to make a museum.

He just needed to get stuff out of the house.

For about 40 years Bryan and his wife, Mary Jon Bryan, amassed more Old West artifacts than they could squeeze into their homes in River Oaks, West Texas and Colorado - rare documents, weapons, saddles and spurs, uniforms, fine art, religious art and books.

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1J6nvQDZ ) reports the new Bryan Museum, which opened Friday, holds that vast array of 70,000 objects. Reputed to be the largest and most significant of its kind, the collection traces the development of the American West across 2,500 years of civilization.

Much of it resided at the Houston offices of Torch Energy Advisors, the firm J.P. Bryan founded in 1981. Bryan enjoyed showing his artifacts to student groups, and he often loaned Torch’s offices for parties.

When he decided to retire and liquidate his company’s assets, he knew the collection would have to go. He considered selling it “just to be done with it,” he said. But history has always been personal for Bryan, 75.

He was born into one of Texas’ most storied families, a great-great grandson of the dynamic settler Emily Austin Perry and her first husband, James Bryan. Perry was the sister and sole heir of Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas.

Bryan’s great-great-great grandfather, Moses Austin, founded the American lead industry and initiated the Anglo colonization of Texas.

Bryan said he’s always felt he has a sacred charge to keep.

“Collecting is a fairly selfish pursuit, frankly,” he said. “But there is a point when you realize you can share it. That is far more gratifying than just going out and buying another gun or painting or document.”

With the opening of the facility, he’s joining a pantheon of legendary Texas museum founders.

Houston’s Ima Hogg was so besotted with early American decorative art she converted the interior of her Bayou Bend estate into a museum-like space while she inhabited it. John and Dominique de Menil fell under the spell of surrealist, contemporary and ancient sacred art; their collection fills a still-developing 10-block campus.

In San Antonio, the McNay Art Museum was born from the 700 works collected by Ohio-born heiress Marion Koogler. In Dallas, Trammell and Margaret Crow acquired enough treasures to bestow the Crow Collection of Asian Art.

Two kinds of collectors have built good museums in the U.S., Bryan said. J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick in New York and J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles invested resources and let others do the work. Hogg and the de Menils weren’t that kind; neither is he.

“A real collector knows his subject really well . and will put at risk most of what he has if it comes to that to build his collection,” Bryan said.

He can describe the circumstances of every rare map, dramatic letter and history-making contract on the Bryan Museum’s walls. He knows the stories behind every weapon and ornate saddle. He can wax eloquent about Spanish explorers, Comanches, Anglo settlers, famous cowgirls and artists.

Jamie Christy, the Bryan Museum director, said Bryan’s knowledge of his collection outpaces the organization’s state-of-the art database. “He’s not like any other collector I’ve met,” she said. “He knows what he has, and he remembers how he got every single piece.”

He’s been so hands-on, Christy and curator Andrew Gustafson have had to scold him about touching things.

“We’re constantly telling him to let the art handlers do that,” Christy said.

The biggest object of Bryan’s affection is the 30,000-square-foot museum itself, the former Galveston Orphans Home, built in 1895.

“We didn’t want to go into some contemporary edifice,” he said. “I like things that are warmer, that embrace you and don’t force you to stand a little aback like you were in an operating room or something.”

Some people thought he was crazy to place his treasures in storm-prone Galveston, but he liked the island’s historic buildings and colorful past. Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca landed there in 1528. Pirates and native Americans lived there, and generations of immigrants landed there when it was the Ellis Island of the South.

The orphanage operated until 1984. Battered during the 1900 storm, rebuilt in 1902 and damaged again in 1915, the building had been vacant for a decade when Bryan bought it in October 2013 for under $1 million. He’s put “a couple million” more into improvements and also bought adjacent property. But unlike the Gage Hotel in Marathon, which he has owned since 1976, the orphanage didn’t need much work beyond cosmetics. Its longleaf pine floors and moldings were in good shape, and its room divisions adapted well to an arrangement of artifacts by periods.

Keeping it open will require more funds. The nonprofit museum has 22 employees, and its operations will rely partly on memberships and daily admissions. Bryan also expects the facility to earn income as a wedding and event venue. To that end, he’s building a 300-seat glass conservatory and razing an adjacent building to create a parking lot. He also plans to establish an endowment and will soon solicit contributions, he said.

He’s mindful of the troubles faced by his friend John Nau III, a major collector and Civil War expert who committed $16 million to the recently scuttled Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage in downtown Houston, but Bryan sounded confident he’d find support from other descendants of the “Old Three Hundred” settlers his great-great uncle led to Texas. And the Bryan Museum is exponentially smaller than the high-profile, 70,000-square-foot center, which involved multiple organizations.

Bryan grew up near his ancestors’ Peach Point Plantation in Freeport. His father, J.P. Bryan Sr., owned a great document collection, including family heirlooms more than a century old.

Bryan liked guns and bought his first artifact, a Sharp’s Derringer four-barrel .22-caliber pistol, when he was 8 years old. He expected to inherit his father’s collection, but when his parents divorced it went to the University of Texas. That loss only fueled his desire.

Bryan majored in art history at the university, then studied law. Before founding Torch, he worked more than a decade as an investment banker specializing in oil and gas for J.P. Morgan in New York. Soon, he could buy whatever he wanted.

Rare documents are his collection’s strong point, including the only known copy of the Mina Proclamation of 1817 and a broadside with William Barret Travis’ poetic last plea from the Alamo.

“It’s not like we have the ‘Mona Lisa,’ but we have something incredible and tangible to present,” Bryan said.

History unfolds chronologically through the museum’s first-floor rooms. A research library, rare document storage, a space for rotating exhibits and a Texas Masters art gallery with works by Frank Reaugh, Jose Arpa, Robert Onderdonk, Julian Onderdonk, Elizabet Ney and others fill the upstairs.

School tours will begin in the basement, where a papier-mâché octopus sprawls across the low ceiling and an interactive pirate cave beckons. Christy preserved a cubbyhole under the stairs with graffiti left by orphans who once hid there.

She said staff members are tweaking displays. This week they installed a temporary Buffalo Soldiers exhibit for Juneteenth, and they’re building a diorama of the San Jacinto Battleground.

Christy said Bryan had tears in his eyes when the museum’s sign was hoisted into place last week.

“My father would have been so happy,” he told her.

He might acquire a few more artifacts to fill small gaps in the collection, but that phase of his life is mostly done, Bryan said.

There’s still one document he would fight for, though: the Texas Declaration of Independence.

“We came close to it, but we don’t have it,” he said. “We have some great things from California but need things from other states, like Wyoming and Montana. But that’s something the next generation can worry with.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide