Dealer of the Art

In his 14 years as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Peter Marzio has increased the MFA's endowment tenfold, tripled MFA Membership and gotten it started on a huge new home. He hasn't done badly for himself, either.

Still, there was an opening night at the Houston Grand Opera a few years back that burned a public image of Marzio and his wife Frances into the minds of Houston's cultured class. A spotlight searched the audience to find HGO director David Gockley, and when the beam came to rest, it illuminated Peter and Frances beaming on either side of Gockley. That image, along with mentions of the MFA's social events in the society columns, helped craft an image of Marzio as a sophisticated man-about-town, the kind of guy who's as comfortable in his cummerbund as he is in his jogging shorts. The kind of man who can work a room like a master jeweler left alone in a diamond mine.

That image may have some truth. Whatever credit is due the deep pockets and social graces of the MFA's board of trustees, Marzio's ability to build funds, or to inspire others to build funds, is substantial. Since he took over the museum in 1982, the MFA's endowment, that precious fund that secures the institution's operating costs and ensures its ability to make future acquisitions, increased by a factor of ten, jumping from $26 million in 1982 to $260 million in 1996. The membership has more than tripled, going from 8,000 members to the current 30,000. Curatorial positions have been created for textiles and costume, prints and drawings, 20th-century art, film, Oceanic art and Asian art. Annual attendance has grown from 341,901 to 762,000. And the MFA has acquired almost 900 new objects per year with Marzio at the helm.

But perhaps Marzio's most enduring legacy will be the one that gets its official kickoff January 30. That's when ground will be broken for the new Audrey Jones Beck building, an expansion that, when it opens in 1999, will more than double the MFA's physical size, making it the sixth largest museum in America. The cost of the Beck will hover around $100 million, $71 million of which had been raised even before the capital campaign for the building was announced. It's an astonishing amount of money to have gathered in what, for many museums, are lean times, and it's the sort of figure that can make other directors both admiring and envious of Marzio.

The Beck will also give Houstonians a chance, for practically the first time, to really see what Marzio has accomplished in the way of the actual art in the MFA. Much of what has been purchased under his watch has sat in storage while the museum sought room to display it, and there has been grumbling among a few MFA watchers that what's sitting under wraps isn't as interesting as it should be. The opening of the Beck will be put up or shut up time for both Marzio and his critics.

Those critics do not include, however, the MFA's board. They decided a few years ago that Marzio was their man, and they'd pay what it took to keep him. What particularly caused the board to sit up and take notice was when, in 1994, Marzio's name came up as a top candidate for the directorship of New York's Museum of Modern Art. MOMA's interest was a commendation of Marzio's abilities, something that had been underlined two years earlier when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art came calling with an offer of a similar position. It was a heady time, and a chance for the board to evaluate what Marzio had done and could do for the MFA. To keep him, they came through with an eyebrow-raising fringe benefit in 1994: a home loan package from the museum's endowment that put the Marzio family into a 2,400-square-foot condo in the Bayou Bend Tower. The board also increased Marzio's salary to its current level of $250,000 -- a jump of $85,000 over the salary stated in his 1993 tax return, and an amount that places Marzio more than $100,000 above the national mean for art museum directors, according to the latest numbers from the American Association of Art Museum Directors salary survey. Add in a $91,488 expense account, and it's not hard to understand why Marzio decided to pass up the lure of either coast.

When he arrived in 1982, Marzio was taking over an institution whose previous director, William Agee, cared deeply about collecting and scholarly shows, and little, as one former employee puts it, for anyone who walked through the front door. As the director of Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery, which exists in the shadow of the colossal Smithsonian Institution, Marzio had increased membership, added healthy sums to the endowment and curated shows that spoke to Washington's largely African-American population. He did so with little experience in administration, having spent his first nine years working as a curator of prints and as the chairman of the cultural history department in the Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology. He was hired at the Corcoran as something of a surprise, he says, given his scant administrative experience. At the time he took the job, he remembers, he didn't own a suit.

Prior to Marzio, all the MFA's directors had resumes from New York, the somewhat flashier, urbane side of art in America. But Marzio's model for museum directorship was J. Carter Brown, the patrician head of the National Gallery in Washington. Brown's cool manner and articulate responses distinguished him as a formidable negotiator at art auctions and with foreign governments for blockbuster shows, giving Marzio a significant lead to follow -- specifically, the pairing of blockbuster shows filled with exotic artifacts in tandem with smaller, scholarly shows. The combination increased museum attendance at the National Gallery, while still providing a place for scholars and dedicated museumgoers who searched for substance beneath the glitz of the big shows. It was a formula that changed the face of American museums so significantly that, 30 years later, paper grocery bags that advertise special exhibitions are commonplace and the idea of fine art museums as pure temples of marble and Renaissance paintings is laughably distant.

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