Cooperate -- or Die?

Houston's major art museums map a road to partnership, and worry about survival

If institutions alone, however, can't drag us all to the Promised Land, the answer isn't simply to divvy up the turf. For the average American has begun to disrespect art -- or have we always regarded art as a social trophy rather than as integral to a pleasurable life? Why else does art fare so poorly in our public school curriculum, and why is our federal appropriation for the arts the lowest in the developed world?

Speaking in a debate last year about the death of the museum audience, Whitney Museum of Art director David Ross waved farewell to his own job, allowing how the museum might very well disappear, just another road kill on the data highway. Indeed, the state of things seems ripe with tragedies, ironies and oddities. How, pray tell, does culture locate itself in the visual arts? Indeed, the nation's overall mood seems dazed and confused, so it's not surprising that the climate for art, even the whole art system, is suffering from economic and emotional malaise. Over the past few years, a fascination with the pathetic, with the abject, has cut across American culture. From high theory in the academy to TV talk shows, a celebration of trauma seems to rule the day. An aesthetic of the victim -- an ethic of the down and out -- has similarly emerged in contemporary art.

Most people, I think, would agree it's a little difficult to focus. Just about everyone is grappling with the question of where we are right now. Nobody can really come up with an answer. No wonder our own institutions have opted for a unified front, a safety-in-numbers strategy that leaves no one set adrift. Those who sense a sea change in Houston is under way can point to the changing roles of our museums -- both subtle and operative measures -- that seemed to commence in the early fall.

In danger of losing its art public after months of dry, insular exhibitions, CAM trustees last year convinced the affable Marti Mayo to leave her position as director of the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery and assume the task of providing -- with limited resources -- broadly based and speedy access to CAM. One of Mayo's first steps was to fling wide the CAM's gates by presenting the shamelessly appealing "Elvis + Marilyn: 2 X Immortal," the first major exhibition to examine the impact of these two quintessentially American figures on art and culture.

Not only are Houston audiences able to see work by more than 100 important international, national and regional artists, but they've been entertained by a flurry of connected programs, which began with a derring-do act designed to reel in the public hook, line and sinker: members of the E-Team from Memphis -- three white-suited Elvis look-alikes and one voluptuous Marilyn -- last Saturday parachuted into Rice Stadium.

Meanwhile, at the MFA rumors persist that director Peter Marzio is being courted for posts in major museums throughout the country, even as he works steadily to strengthen the museum's magazine format with shows that present a broad expanse of art from all continents and major civilizations throughout the centuries.

In Marzio's view, people need art, and it's his job to provide them a variety. In an attempt to help the public look upon the MFA as a reliable source of outreach, Marzio has been consistently pulling together and rotating areas of the museum's vast permanent collection. It's no secret that Marzio regards that collection, most of which remains in storage, as the driving force in a multimillion-dollar building campaign. To be sure, Marzio's urge to grow fits neatly into his vision of the MFA as a museum of world art. But he also knows that the increasing size of contemporary artworks and demands of donors to have their gifts on display require more and more exhibition space.

Access. Service. Engagement. Information. Cooperation. Chatting up such buzz words is all part of Houston's growth process. But it's more than coincidence when all three of our major art institutions implement them into long-term plans. In December, just a few months away from opening the Renzo Piano-designed Cy Twombly Gallery, the Menil Collection rocked the art community by announcing staff layoffs, a budget reduction and increased fundraising efforts to avoid a projected deficit.

Susan Barnes, appointed as the Menil's chief operating officer, has the task of diversifying the museum's base of support to insure a sound financial future. Although the Menil layoffs and restructuring was devastating to the tightly knit and dedicated staff, the fiscal realities demanded that the Menil take a hard look at the organization to remain strong for future generations. For while the Menil has nurtured an almost spiritual philosophy in stimulating audiences, it's also stood for conviction and a steadfast belief in the power of communing with a work of art.

How is that accomplished? Menil director Paul Winkler maintains the exchange occurs through intimate engagement and resolute permanency, such as that invoked by the Rothko Chapel and now the Cy Twombly Gallery. To ensure those aspects can be received by anyone who seeks them out, Winkler knows that the Menil must reach a wider public and get them to participate not only in the Menil "communion," but as funding resources as well.

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