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 has to be a little bit of show business in the presentation of art," Marzio said in a 1992 Houston Post article, a formula that certainly holds true for the museum's current blockbuster. Traipsing up the long stairway of the Mies Van der Rohe gallery toward "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" is something like queuing up for a movie, and the eerie soundtrack, narrated by Channel 11's Steve Smith, is the aural equivalent of a high-definition IMAX experience. With opening day activities for patrons that included opportunities to pose by a giant pyramid cake and view a film about King Tut, the exhibition opened with an attendance bang that hasn't let up. What the substantial and largely positive public response to the exhibit seems to prove is that marketing, at least marketing for rare Egyptian artifacts, works.

A large part of that effort fell in the lap of Frances Marzio, the exhibition's managing curator. In a position that's best described as filling in the gaps, Frances has worked at the museum since she arrived in 1982 with her husband. Her first office was a renovated broom closet, and she didn't draw a salary until 1992, when the board of trustees asked that she be given a title and a salary. Around that same time, Frances, a petite bundle of focused energy and intelligence, went to Egypt in an attempt to secure artifacts from the Egyptian government for an exhibition. The trip was unsuccessful, but her desire for a large Egyptian show never waned, and when the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg announced that financial trouble might send them into the red after the high cost of opening their show, the timing was right.

In a strange string of coincidences, and due in measure to Peter Marzio's negotiating abilities, "Splendors" made its way to Houston. The Florida International Museum had originally wanted its Egyptian show to come from Cairo's Egyptian Museum, but when the Egyptians held out for more money, the Florida museum turned to the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, whose Egyptian collection was on its way to storage during renovation. Because Houston was ready to install a new sprinkler system in the Brown pavilion, the 18th-century paintings on that level were to be put in storage, freeing up the gallery so that the Egyptian show could slip in after its date in St. Petersburg.

Few people outside the museum district had ever heard of Frances Marzio before she worked on "Splendors," but several TV news spots, an interview on Channel 8 and publicity from the show's co-sponsor, the Chronicle, thrust her into the spotlight. It also thrust her into criticism: The occasionally odd elements in the exhibitions, such as a series of fake plaster pillars installed in the same gallery as a selection from The Book of the Dead, the spelling errors and sometimes awkward prose found on some objects' labels started a whispering campaign among the first gaggle of visitors. It was suggested that Frances was less than prepared for her role in the exhibit, and that her only qualification was a B.A. -- enough to send a shudder down the spine of museum purists. In fact, Frances holds two M.A. degrees, one in English literature and one in museum education, as well as the distinction of being chosen as an intern in the Corcoran Gallery, where she met her husband.

Taking in stride the negative commentary that filtered back to the museum in the form of letters and phone calls, Frances points out that show's label writing and curation were completed in Hildesheim and by the curators at the Florida International Museum. "What I was doing," she says, "was walking around with a screwdriver."

One thing she didn't install with that screwdriver was a map that showed Egypt as part of the African continent. It might have seemed a minor detail -- after all, the "Asia Society" and the "Pierpont Morgan Masterpieces" exhibits didn't have maps indicating the origin of their objects -- but it wasn't a minor detail to some museumgoers. Sylvia Brooks, president of the Houston Area Urban League, wrote a letter to the MFA noting that in "all the public relations activity, signage, speaking events, press kits and packets and tour and guide information, there is not one mention of the fact that Egypt is on the African continent." Museum life, as Peter Marzio probably discussed with his wife, is not always about art. Sometimes it's about politics. After receiving the letter, Frances added a map to the exhibit.

Being of the people can obviously be complicated, even for someone as genial as Peter Marzio. Big exhibits draw bigger crowds, and if the squabble over Egypt's geography is any indication, silly demands. Marzio, though, seems to have a talent for smoothing over ruffled feathers, a talent that could be tested when the Audrey Jones Beck opens in 1999, adding 185,000 square feet to the MFA and making it even more blockbuster friendly. The ability to be everything -- scholarly, entertaining and pertinent to the community -- at least some of the time is the skill that Marzio used to build the MFA into a new museum. Given that he'll be nearly 60 by the time the Beck throws open its doors, it's possible that he'll retire before his mettle is truly tested in running the museum he built. Then again, maybe he'll use the space to show just how completely the next century of fine art in Houston has been defined by a Sears kind of guy.

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