By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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On the last night of October 1996, members of the Museum of Fine Arts attended a party. They frolicked in the crisp air of the Cullen Sculpture Garden, sipping drinks and downing canapes amongst the statuary, celebrating both Halloween and their connection to one of Houston's major cultural entities. But the man who was responsible for many of them being there -- the man who, since taking over as MFA director 14 years ago, had more than tripled the number of people willing to pay for the honor of being associated with his institution -- was notably missing. Given his regular presence in the Houston society columns that describe such events, it was something of a surprise that Peter Marzio wasn't mingling with the masses.
But Marzio had other demands on his time, other people to impress. On this particular evening, he was at the University of St. Thomas, giving a talk on the upswell of marketing techniques used by museums across the nation to draw in more patrons to a crowd of buttoned-down MBA students. Framed by potted palms and theatrical lighting, standing with the easy grace of a man who has done his time with a lectern, the suave, neatly coiffed and elegantly suited Marzio leaned into his audience like a confidant at a dinner party. With a smile, he ladled out praise for business to a room full of future chief executive officers. The thrust of his informal speech was the narrowing gap between nonprofit and for-profit institutions -- a gap that, he noted, has required fine arts museums to use the very tactics his audience of blossoming young marketers was in the midst of learning. And a gap that, someone else might have noted, he was helping close himself by ingratiating himself to a group that, sometime in the not too distant future, would be writing the very corporate checks that museums such as the MFA have begun to covet.
If a discussion of the marriage of art and commerce seems strange coming from a museum director whose first nine years in the profession were spent at the Smithsonian Institution researching and writing books on art and cultural history, it might help to notice how indelibly the stamp of corporate sensibilities has altered the MFA. From the sleepy institution handed over by William Agee, who was director from 1974 to 1982, Marzio has made a bigger, sleeker and, some would argue, more publically available museum. Part of becoming more public has meant becoming more popular. "There is a frantic search to be more popular," Marzio said at St. Thomas, "to earn more income, to be of the people." And at the MFA, being of the people has meant, to some extent, elaborate marketing campaigns that include museum parties, radio spots, billboards and an internet address for the museum's blockbuster show, "The Splendors of Ancient Egypt." It has also meant staying competitive in a city where the Museum of Natural Science sells tickets to its attractions like hawkers sell rides at the fair.
What Marzio was referring to on a broader level that October evening, however, was the tidal wave of change in American museums, including aggressive fiscal policies and a never-ending flood of splashy shows that too often, critics contend, sacrifice content for marketable appeal. The change has been brought about by museum administrators realizing that a blockbuster exhibit can bring in more people in six months than two years' worth of smaller, scholarly displays that, though they may contribute to the history of art, do little for the bottom line. Museum directors are increasingly leaned on by their boards of trustees to achieve balanced budgets; the new fine arts museum, Marzio said, is an enterprising creature.
"For us to ignore the marketplace and to make believe that a new kind of art institution isn't evolving is to forfeit the opportunity to help form a hybrid which could be healthier and of greater service than any earlier form," Marzio said to his captivated crowd of future MBAs, a bold statement that elicited a question from a student who wondered if a for-profit museum might be inclined to sell off its Picassos after a particularly bad year.
In some cases -- such as with the Florida International Museum, which organized the tour for "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" to help balance its books -- the answer might be yes. But for the MFA, Marzio said, the answer would be no. And anyway in Houston that question won't come to pass for at least a generation, since part of his legacy as director is a string of healthy endowments.
Not that Marzio will admit to a talent for either fundraising or marketing. "If you ask me what the best 'image' for an exhibition is," he claims, "I have no idea. It seems so superficial, and it's something I never thought I'd hear in art museums." The same goes for his charmingly smooth party persona, detailed in gushing society column chatter (one early story in the Houston Post likened Marzio to the god Apollo). "If you watch me at parties," he insists, "I don't mix well."