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.

Though Marzio emulated Brown's style of exhibition, he wasn't close enough to call the National Gallery's director a mentor -- their backgrounds were separated by an expanse of wealth and social class. The child of first generation Italian immigrants, Marzio was raised in a humble Philadelphia household; he was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a talent for football and earned an athletic scholarship to Juniata College in rural Pennsylvania. It was at Juniata that Marzio met his first mentor, Dr. Steven Barbash, an art history professor who was also a painter and printmaker. It was also while he was in college, in a string of events that would become vastly significant later, that Marzio made his first visit to an art museum, the Frick in Philadelphia. The young football player stopped in front of Francisco Goya's painting The Forge and was stunned by his reaction to it. "I felt like I understood that painting better than anyone -- it was like an epiphany. I understood it as lines, color and volume rather than subject matter," Marzio says of the moment, "and I still look at art that way, which sounds arrogant, but it's true. I still look at it formally."

It was a defining moment. Marzio went on to get his doctorate in art history from the University of Chicago, where he met his second major influence, the scholar Daniel Boorstin, for whom he worked as a research assistant, collecting material for Boorstin's Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Americans: The Democratic Experience.

Marzio says that when he decided to go into museum life, his academic comrades were disgusted, arguing that art could only stay "pure" in a university setting. But the promise of contact with objects, travel and exhibitions lured Marzio into the museum field. Finding a guide in Carter Brown was pivotal for his career. The boy who grew up without the advantage of discussing high finance at the dinner table had found his calling in the exclusive and ego-driven world of museum directors.

"Fifty years ago," says Marti Mayo, director of the Contemporary Art Museum, "the role of the museum director was to fall gently asleep in their office, discussing connoisseurship with three trustees. When the museum changed focus from a sleepy institution that existed for the convenience of a few wealthy patrons, the role of the director shifted as well, and it shifted to someone who could acquire resources, do programming and reach larger audiences." By that formula, Marzio has been a remarkably good director.

But what is curiously absent from his record at the MFA is a show that illustrates his particular interest in the cultural history and art of Europe and America. Every other MFA director, Marzio says, left his mark on the museum's collection: "James Johnson Sweeney, who was a fair director [from 1961 to 1968] but a great curator, collected brilliantly in those abstract Europeans who are now out of fashion but who will come back. When you talk about Agee [1974 to 1982], you immediately think of the American abstract paintings of the '20s, '30s and '40s, and we may have the best collection in the world of that. When you think of Phillipe [de Montebello, director from 1969 to 1974], you immediately think of the Favrot bequest [a gift from the Louisiana estate of Laurence Favrot, which de Montebello used to fill out the MFA's slight medieval collection]. There's nothing like that in mine. What I've tried to do is buy masterworks in different areas, which has really meant saving the dollars and saying, 'Okay, let's gulp and go after it.' "

Some of the notable gulps include Sir Joshua Reynolds's Portrait of Mrs. Mathew, Eugene Delacroix's Andromeda, Jean-Camille Corot's Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, Edouard Manet's Les Travailleurs de la Mer, Jasper Johns's Ventriloquist, Alberto Giacometti's Large Standing Woman I and a large Tiffany window. They are the kind of works that illustrate Marzio's hope for the MFA -- to be respectable on its lowest level and world-class on its highest.

If there is a general grumble of dissatisfaction about the MFA in Houston's small community of curators and collectors, it has to do with the museum's paltry display of late 20th-century painting. The few contemporary paintings that usually hang in the museum's main gallery, a Rothko and a Pollack most recognizably, were acquired during Sweeney's directorship, while very few of the acquisitions Marzio has made in contemporary art have seen the light of day.

While Marzio staunchly argues the MFA's 20th-century collection "can hold its own against any encyclopedic institution," others disagree. Emily Todd, the DiverseWorks administrator who was formerly with the Andy Warhol Foundation, argues that the MFA isn't doing enough in contemporary art. "This town could use a lot more leadership in terms of collecting excellent contemporary art from local, national and international artists," she says, "and I don't see the MFA doing that." Still, Todd points out, the Core program -- a residency for eight artists that pays a small stipend and provides studio space -- at the MFA's Glassell School is a significant asset for the support of Houston's contemporary artists.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Houston Concert Tickets