By Camilo Smith
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An institution shaped by a singular vision, as the tiny, prestigious Menil Collection shaped was by its founder, Dominique de Menil, is at its most vulnerable after the founder dies, as de Menil did 14 months ago. While de Menil's vision is still the guiding principle of the institution, even those who were closest to her began to disagree almost immediately on what exactly that vision entailed. What shocked Houston cultural circles was not so much that change had come to the gracious art museum built for the collection of de Menil and her children, but that it came in a manner so swift and brutal.
On February 11, the board of the Menil Foundation, which oversees the museum, called its chief financial officer, 73-year-old Miles Glaser, in for a meeting. Glaser was a close friend of the de Menils and began his involvement with the foundation in 1970. The board asked Glaser to resign. The members gave him, according to Glaser's attorney David Berg, 21 days to consider what to do.
The next morning, the board called Glaser in again and asked him if he had made his decision. When he said he had not, they sacked him, reportedly by a near-unanimous vote. Museum director Paul Winkler and board member Susan O'Connor, both of whom had been kept in the dark about the board's plans for Glaser, resigned in protest. Consulting curator Walter Hopps, another Menil loyalist, abstained from the vote.
"In firing Miles in such a manner, you have in effect fired Paul and myself," O'Connor wrote in her resignation letter. "For me the Menil has always been a benchmark of excellence, of fairness and humaneness, that has been seriously damaged by these events."
Those who know the reasons for the board's stealth attack on Glaser aren't talking; everyone else is perplexed, especially given the fact that Glaser is already past the customary age of retirement. (Glaser made a point of correcting earlier news reports that said he was 74. "I'm not nearly that old," he said.)
"There's never been a suggestion that Miles was not doing a good job," Berg says. Glaser oversaw the growth of the foundation's endowment from about 1.5 million, left after the museum building was completed in 1987, to the $100 million or so it is now. That figure does not include an estimated $50 million from de Menil estate. In fact, one theory about the sudden sacking says those estate millions are about to come down the pipe, and the de Menil children, who received their inheritances long ago and thus were not bequeathed money in the Menil, want someone other than Glaser (who also acted as Dominique's personal financial advisor until a few years before her death) to control the museum's fortune.
Berg says whispers of financial or staff mismanagement on the part of Glaser are a "pretext," adding that Glaser did make a "mechanical error" on one financial form, but it did not affect "the bottom line."
The board's action was almost universally regarded as a grave error, particularly since in firing Glaser, Sarofim fired one of her closest friends. Glaser and his 27-year-old wife, Slavka, were married in Sarofim's New Mexico house and have traveled all over the world on her private jet. The two of them spent last Thanksgiving with Sarofim in Buenos Aires, and Slavka says Sarofim was "like my family."
But Sarofim won't hear much public criticism for her decision. As a trustee for the Brown Foundation, she is one of the city's most powerful arts patrons, and no one in the art world is willing to condemn her openly.
Until news of Winkler's resignation broke, most people knew little about Glaser. A Czech refugee who is one of the only members of his family to survive the Holocaust death camps, Glaser moved to Houston in 1949 and eventually owned a steel business. He met John de Menil, Dominique's late husband, in 1968, after Glaser's documentary of the Russian invasion of Prague was lauded at the New York Film Festival.
Recalls Glaser: "I got a call from John de Menil, and he says, 'How come there's a film [producer] in Houston and I don't know him?' " The two Europeans, both driven from home because of the war, became fast friends.
In a recent interview in his Montrose-area high-rise, Glaser, a lithe, Saul Bellowesque man with a robust giggle, spoke reluctantly and sadly of his relationship with Sarofim and Francois de Menil, a board member and one of Dominique's sons. While the self-possessed Slavka, who commutes to her job at a bank in New York City, sat ramrod-straight on a facing couch, Glaser declined to discuss his termination in any detail but loosened up considerably when asked to reminisce about John, whose vacations and left-wing political activities, such as support for the late Congressman Mickey Leland, Glaser had shared.
Glaser served as a pallbearer at John's funeral in 1973 and went to work for the foundation because, he says, John asked him to. "I felt I owed it to Dominique to stay as long as I could," Glaser says.