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Frank-ly Speaking

The MFA's focus on Frank Freed tells us a lot about the art world, but not much about art

You don't have to be much of a cynic to at least raise an eyebrow at the Museum of Fine Arts' exhibit "More than a Constructive Hobby: The Paintings of Frank Freed." After all, as curator William Camfield admitted in a lecture given when the Freed display was unveiled, the works of the late Houston insurance salesman who didn't begin to paint until he was in his forties, saying he needed a hobby for old age, are "uneven in quality. That's a euphemistic way of saying that some of them are not very good." The exhibit's catalog talks of Freed's not-so-successful attempt to paint a likeness of his wife, and of what one critic referred to as his "severe limitations as a draftsman." Freed was basically a Sunday painter, of which there have been many in Houston's history. It's likely that more than a few of comparable talent have gone semi-professional, as Freed did before his death in 1975. So the question then is, why is the MFA paying homage to this particular one?

The cynical answer would be money. Frank was more than just a salesman. He was a salesman with money. He and his wife Eleanor built up a tidy fortune that they were more than willing to share with the city's museums. According to MFA officials, they first considered the possibility of exhibiting Freed's work in the early '80s, when Eleanor Freed, who died in 1992, was still alive. In her will, Eleanor left a bequest worth almost $300,000 to the MFA, which included $100,000 for a lecture series devoted to narrative art -- the first of which was Camfield's lecture on Freed himself. The exhibit, furthermore, is "made possible by the generous support of the Eleanor and Frank Freed Foundation." According to one of its trustees, that foundation has also pledged $500,000 for renovations to the museum's Glassell School of Art, which Frank Freed attended and which contains the Eleanor and Frank Freed Auditorium and Image Library.

If this seems to add up to a wealthy museum showcasing the hobby of its wealthy supporter ... well, it does. The museum's romantic ordinary-Joe-turned-artist stories notwithstanding, if Frank Freed hadn't occupied the social position he did, we almost certainly wouldn't be seeing this exhibit. However -- and it is a big however -- if the Freeds hadn't occupied the social position they did, Houston's cultural life would have lost far more than money. It would have lost two ardent and courageous supporters. Moreover, Freed's paintings -- more sharply observant than nostalgic -- record a dynamic period in the city's history. So, cynicism aside, this exhibit is in some ways an appropriate one for the MFA, even though Frank Freed was no Edward Hopper, or even a Norman Rockwell.

Though Freed drew cartoons and illustrations in college, it wasn't until he enrolled in a painting class at Glassell in 1948 that he began to make art in earnest. He was 42 years old. That same year, the Contemporary Arts Association (now the Contemporary Arts Museum) was founded, and Freed quickly joined.

At the time, New York was experiencing a vital quickening of the art world -- abstract expressionism, heralded as the first wholly American art movement, was in vogue. But Houston's MFA, which had only a part-time director, declined to focus on the art of the day. So a group of architects, artists and businessmen formed the CAA to supplement the programs of the city's existing institutions. Run by volunteers such as Freed, the CAA, one of the first organizations of its kind outside of New York, was an immediate success -- its membership numbered 200 before its first exhibit, a design show of everyday objects, opened. The CAA's programming blended didactic, ambitious exhibits with the conviction that art should be available to everyone. One of the projects the Freeds, who married in 1950, helped with was an annual art rental program that gave those who couldn't afford to purchase art an opportunity to have it in their home.

Frank's father was an insurance salesman and a committed Zionist; his mother gave much of her attention to the Houston Symphony. Eleanor was from a wealthy Memphis family. Preston Frazier, an early CAA supporter, remembers that "Frank spoke almost not at all, and when he did, he said hilariously funny things. Eleanor never stopped talking. It was a golden time ... incredibly, you could start a new museum. The war was over, and people's minds were open." Houston artist Earl Staley remembers meeting the Freeds when he came to Houston in the late '60s. "Being an artist," he says, "that's who you met, you met Eleanor." For eight years, from 1965 until 1973, Eleanor was the art critic for the Houston Post; she resigned to devote more time to promoting her husband's work. She was always concerned that local artists didn't get the attention they deserved. "She was like the Eveready woman," says DiverseWorks director Emily Todd, who curated a Frank Freed exhibit at the CAM in 1983.

Though the Freeds championed the art vanguard, Frank's own work -- recognizably figurative -- was nothing like what that vanguard was doing. "It didn't look like art at all," Staley says. "Nobody painted stories in those days .... You couldn't help but like the man, and you couldn't help but like the work. For all us young macho painters, it wasn't any threat." In fact, many who knew the Freeds had no idea of how much time Frank invested in his painting. He exhibited in group shows, the first being the Texas General Exhibition the MFA used to host, but didn't have a solo exhibit until 1964, at the Tall Timbers Club. In the mid-'70s, aware that Frank was nearing death from cancer, Eleanor began to buy back works of his that she felt should be in museums. She and the Freed Foundation contributed Freed paintings to the MFA, the Menil and other art museums, among them the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, Freed's alma mater. The remainder of his work -- Camfield estimates that Freed made roughly 400 paintings -- was auctioned off in 1994.

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