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.

Marti Mayo, whose museum sits 20 brisk paces across Bissonnet from the MFA, argues that it's not in the museum's best interest to have extensive contemporary holdings. "The Museum of Fine Arts is a universal institution," she says. "They cover 5,000 years of history in all cultures. Their role is a larger role, and they need to, within that huge parameter, provide their audience with a great variety of things." Most of those things, Mayo points out, have been acquired during Marzio's administration: the education and outreach department are national models of what museums can do for their communities, she says. (Indeed, the MFA's education department is one of Marzio's proudest additions. Until 1984, there were only two staff members assigned to education at the MFA. Today, the education department employs 45 people and accounts for 20 percent of the museum's $70.6 million dollar budget. Though it's not part of the education department proper, the Glassell School, founded in 1927, also provides education and outreach programs, from art classes for poor children to curatorial lectures.)

"There's a big difference from where the Museum of Fine Arts was when Peter came and where it is now," Mayo adds. "And I think if you talk to Joe Schmo on the street here, he'll tell you Peter is doing exactly what he should be doing in reaching Joe Schmo and his wife, children and grandmother."

Marzio's own idea of what the MFA should be is a complex one, but with the central sensibility that in an age of endless entertainment options, museums must market themselves to their public in order to remain viable. What that means in terms of the MFA's look is a newly refurbished Cafe Express to the left of the admissions desk, which efficiently and profitably serves a more upscale dining need than does the McDonald's that wafts French fry odor into the lobby of the Museum of Natural Science. A newer and bigger museum store also lies to the left of the MFA's admissions desk, and a special Egyptian-themed gift shop (now termed a "profit center" by marketing-minded directors) sits on the upper gallery level, adjacent to the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exit.

Museum stores, Marzio pointed out to his listeners at St. Thomas, have been around since the 19th century, but it wasn't until recently that museums began expanding their location, and their inventory, throughout their galleries. That boldness, along with other innovations such as selling museum store items on cable shopping networks, won't happen in Houston, Marzio says, though he does seem tickled by the idea of grafting museum images onto ATM cards, as the Smithsonian and the Whitney have done. Perhaps the brashest example of marketing cultural collateral is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's satellite gift stores in upscale malls across the country, where it's possible to browse through jewelry and knickknacks from various historical periods and regions. That one of America's premier cultural institutions is willing to lay their goods out at the mall makes the MFA's radio ads seem mild in comparison.

Quoting Peter Drucker's theory of marketing in his lecture at St. Thomas, Marzio capsulized the aim of the MFA's recent efforts: "The aim of marketing is to make selling superficial," he said. Precisely what art museums are selling to their public, aside from T-shirts and coffee mugs, is unclear -- though it seems to be entertainment doused with enlightenment, or a dollop of sugar-coated high culture, guaranteed not to taste bad or be uncomfortable.

Perhaps a better litmus test of the museum's effectiveness as a cultural warehouse, though, is the schedule of exhibitions, over which Marzio keeps close watch. "Every artistic decision comes through me," he says. The personification of his style is most evident in his split focus between large-scale popular exhibits and smaller, gemlike shows -- retrospectives, personal collections and scholarly exhibitions. "When we had the Frederick Remington show [in late 1988], a lot of fine art people were critical of me, because it was Remington and populist and all that, but I happen to think Remington is a much better painter than many people do," Marzio says. "But when you left Remington, we had illuminated manuscripts from Edinburgh, which were so beautiful you lost your breath. Once again, we had many people who said, 'I came for Remington and wandered through and found this.' It's a little romantic -- I know my notion is romantic."

The same dual-pronged philosophy is evident in the museum's current exhibitions. The big show, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," is paired with two smaller exhibitions: selections from the Pierpont Morgan Library that include illuminated manuscripts, etchings and manuscripts from nearly every writer in the American and British literary canon, as well as a show from the Rockefeller collection of Asian art. "Think how many people are leaving the Egyptian show and going right into 'Pierpont Morgan,' " Marzio says with a bit of amazement, even while acknowledging that the billboards and radio spots bringing all those people in, ads that promise transportation to another place and time, can be misleading in regard to the museum experience. No matter how rare its objects or how enthralling its paintings, a museum requires work from its patrons, a notion that blockbuster exhibits often deny. Still, says Mayo of the MFA's marketing, "It doesn't do anybody any good if they don't know [the exhibits are] there." And the overflow from "Egypt," she figures, may just wander into CAM.

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