By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
But Marzio had other demands on his time, other people to impress. On this particular evening, he was at the University of St. Thomas, giving a talk on the upswell of marketing techniques used by museums across the nation to draw in more patrons to a crowd of buttoned-down MBA students. Framed by potted palms and theatrical lighting, standing with the easy grace of a man who has done his time with a lectern, the suave, neatly coiffed and elegantly suited Marzio leaned into his audience like a confidant at a dinner party. With a smile, he ladled out praise for business to a room full of future chief executive officers. The thrust of his informal speech was the narrowing gap between nonprofit and for-profit institutions -- a gap that, he noted, has required fine arts museums to use the very tactics his audience of blossoming young marketers was in the midst of learning. And a gap that, someone else might have noted, he was helping close himself by ingratiating himself to a group that, sometime in the not too distant future, would be writing the very corporate checks that museums such as the MFA have begun to covet.
If a discussion of the marriage of art and commerce seems strange coming from a museum director whose first nine years in the profession were spent at the Smithsonian Institution researching and writing books on art and cultural history, it might help to notice how indelibly the stamp of corporate sensibilities has altered the MFA. From the sleepy institution handed over by William Agee, who was director from 1974 to 1982, Marzio has made a bigger, sleeker and, some would argue, more publically available museum. Part of becoming more public has meant becoming more popular. "There is a frantic search to be more popular," Marzio said at St. Thomas, "to earn more income, to be of the people." And at the MFA, being of the people has meant, to some extent, elaborate marketing campaigns that include museum parties, radio spots, billboards and an internet address for the museum's blockbuster show, "The Splendors of Ancient Egypt." It has also meant staying competitive in a city where the Museum of Natural Science sells tickets to its attractions like hawkers sell rides at the fair.
What Marzio was referring to on a broader level that October evening, however, was the tidal wave of change in American museums, including aggressive fiscal policies and a never-ending flood of splashy shows that too often, critics contend, sacrifice content for marketable appeal. The change has been brought about by museum administrators realizing that a blockbuster exhibit can bring in more people in six months than two years' worth of smaller, scholarly displays that, though they may contribute to the history of art, do little for the bottom line. Museum directors are increasingly leaned on by their boards of trustees to achieve balanced budgets; the new fine arts museum, Marzio said, is an enterprising creature.
"For us to ignore the marketplace and to make believe that a new kind of art institution isn't evolving is to forfeit the opportunity to help form a hybrid which could be healthier and of greater service than any earlier form," Marzio said to his captivated crowd of future MBAs, a bold statement that elicited a question from a student who wondered if a for-profit museum might be inclined to sell off its Picassos after a particularly bad year.
In some cases -- such as with the Florida International Museum, which organized the tour for "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" to help balance its books -- the answer might be yes. But for the MFA, Marzio said, the answer would be no. And anyway in Houston that question won't come to pass for at least a generation, since part of his legacy as director is a string of healthy endowments.
Not that Marzio will admit to a talent for either fundraising or marketing. "If you ask me what the best 'image' for an exhibition is," he claims, "I have no idea. It seems so superficial, and it's something I never thought I'd hear in art museums." The same goes for his charmingly smooth party persona, detailed in gushing society column chatter (one early story in the Houston Post likened Marzio to the god Apollo). "If you watch me at parties," he insists, "I don't mix well."
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.