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.

There are a few former curatorial employees who charge that the MFA doesn't accomplish enough on the scholarly side. They aren't, however, willing to make their feelings public. And the criticism Marzio received at the Corcoran -- that he left acquisition and curation details to subordinates -- doesn't seem to ring true at the MFA. Instead, the more frequently launched arguments are that the museum hits a middle-of-the-road stride, or that the emphasis on big shows dilutes exhibition quality, panders, even, to a base level of entertainment. For his part, Marzio argues that it has never been the museum's role to produce scholarly material, but rather the university's.

The MFA did publish a catalog of its Renaissance paintings this year, the culmination of a 14-year project. The payoff for such a catalog is the trickle down: "That book will go to all the major art libraries around the world. The education people, if they want to know about the Strauss Madonna, will go to the book and, for the first time, have accurate information," Marzio says. Even with corporate strategy and blockbuster shows in his vest pocket, Marzio knows that the MFA's impact in the museum community depends a great deal on its ability to produce legitimate research material.

In describing what he insists is his lack of personal flair, Marzio recalls a series of ads for Barney's clothing store that featured the handsome Kurt Vonedot, an art historian who was teaching at New York University. One of Marzio's colleagues, Martin Friedman of Minneapolis's Walker Institute, called Marzio when the ads appeared and asked him if he'd seen them. "Yeah, he looked pretty spiffy," Marzio answered. To which Friedman replied, laughing, "You know, I always thought of us as Sears men."

Marzio smiles when he tells this joke about himself, and that lack of pretense weighs in as one of his charms -- instead of inspiring people to whip out the checkbook by bowing and scraping, he encourages the generosity of Houston's philanthropic base by making them like him. The difference illustrates how Marzio fits into a redefined notion of a museum director, that of a man of the people.

Not that everyone is a Marzio admirer. "If anyone thinks that every staff member loves me and loves each other, forget it," he says, laughing. "All of us have massive egos, and watching a curatorial meeting is always a great event."

Nor, for that matter, does everyone like the way he goes after money for the MFA. When he asked for a $423,000 Community Development Grant to expand the Glassell School, a number of people were appalled; development grants are almost exclusively targeted for low-income areas, and it was difficult to argue, as Marzio did, that the Glassell School, situated in the tony museum district, qualified for such funding. A few members of City Council and several community level organizations argued against the grant going to Glassell, especially because grassroots organizations were having trouble finding money. But the arguments didn't matter. Marzio got what he wanted, though with the proviso that the MFA would have to provide income figures on participants in its programs. It didn't hurt, obviously, that Elyse Lanier was an ex-officio member of the MFA's board.

While a few criticize Marzio's ambitious advertising campaigns -- and even he admits that the museum is something of a nightclub with its endless string of corporate parties -- he has earned the devotion of many supporters. Among these is George Shackelford, Marzio's first curatorial hire at the museum. The European painting curator who created the installation of 18th-century paintings that hung in the Brown Pavilion from 1985 until the middle of last year, Shackelford remembers his experience at the MFA as wonderful, largely due to the freedom he was given. "The training that I got from the MFA, in everything from gallery installation to interpretation and label writing to connoisseurship and conservation experience, is how I got to be a good curator," Shackelford says.

Shackelford left the MFA to take on the larger collection of 18th-century paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and was promptly written up in the New York Times for hanging paintings in Boston the same way he'd hung them in Houston for nearly 20 years -- contextually, so that museumgoers could see art from different countries and different periods hanging in the same gallery, a break from the one artist or period per gallery that most museums use.

Where Marzio may face his biggest battles in the future are among his peers, and dealing with the inevitable creep other institutions are making toward for-profit status. As the museum world has become competitive and increasingly corporate in its planning and financial structure, Marzio has been tapped as a person who can keep such goals in mind while preserving a museum setting. "Our end," Marzio said at St. Thomas, "is not to emulate corporations and worship at the altar of 15 percent compounded growth. Our business enriches our lives."

But the question of whether the MFA will be able to live up to that credo in a new building that's designed, at least in part, to house mammoth exhibitions is waiting for Marzio on the other side of the millennium like a big, unwrapped package.

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