Not a Pretty Picture

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."

Board president Louisa Stude Sarofim told The Dallas Morning News that Glaser "was not up to board expectations"; to the Press she said only, "It's a long, long story."

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.

Winkler, too, had spent years in the de Menils' inner circle. He met them as an undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas, where the de Menils ran the art history department. He has a particular interest in architecture and oversaw the design and construction of the Menil Collection. Winkler's pet projects included the Cy Twombly Pavilion and the recent permanent Dan Flavin installation.

Friends say he understood Dominique's vision even better than she did. "He was that student that exceeded the teacher," Slavka says.

In the Byzantine, rivalrous familial world of the de Menils, Winkler and Glaser were old allies who supported each other during the trying final years of Dominique's life, when she worried increasingly (and, Glaser says, needlessly) about money. Still, Winkler's resignation took the board by surprise, leaving an unexpected power vacuum.

When the board unanimously voted to ask Winkler to reconsider, he came back with a list of conditions that says a great deal about the intricate alliances and enmities threaded through Menil circles. First, he asked that Glaser be reinstated. Second, he asked that Elsian Cozens, Dominique's longtime assistant, who now has the ear of Sarofim, be fired. Sharon McGaughey, who worked in Glaser's office, also had to go. Cozens and McGaughey refused to comment. Most significant, Francois de Menil, Dominique's son, had to step down from the board before Winkler would rescind his resignation.

Sarofim says Winkler's conditions were "unacceptable." Three of the five de Menil children serve on the foundation board, but according to Glaser, he, Winkler and Dominique decided after many discussions that the presidency should go to Sarofim. "I always thought very highly of Louisa; so did Mrs. de Menil," Glaser says. "She understood Dominique's sensitivities and spirit." Many people hoped Sarofim's presence would keep the children in check; sources close to the board say that Francois, in particular, would have preferred a more powerful role. Francois referred all questions from the Press to Sarofim.

Francois and Glaser were good friends in the '70s; they shared a joint stock-trading venture some say ended with Glaser threatening to sue Francois. "Let's put it this way: We lost a lot of money in the end," says Glaser, who declined to comment on whether he blamed Francois.

As for bad blood between Francois and Winkler, a rivalry is not difficult to imagine. In a recent New Yorker profile of Dominique, Calvin Tompkins wrote, "To Francois, it sometimes seemed as though his mother's students -- the ones she virtually adopted -- were closer to her than he could ever be. 'One thing you learned was that there was a premium on creativity,'" Francois told Tomkins, "'and that the works on the wall were in some ways more precious than the child.'"

In the mid '90s Francois got the chance to prove his own creativity to his mother when she selected him as the architect to design the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. The chapel, made to house artwork on loan to the Menils until 2012 from the Church of Cyprus, came at a bad time for the museum. Ten months before the groundbreaking, the museum had been forced to lay off a third of its staff, many of whom were longtime employees. Dominique had decreased her annual support for the Menil Collection, presumably to divert funds to the chapel. Winkler reportedly did not lend his full support to Francois's chapel. That may have signaled a role reversal in the good son/bad son drama; the following year, Dominique replaced Paul with Francois as an executor of her estate.

If Sarofim was intended to buffer the Menil from the whims of the de Menil progeny, the plan backfired. Although Sarofim denies that Francois lead the effort to fire Glaser, Glaser says, "Obviously, the children are the ones who wanted to get rid of me."

By some accounts (Winkler did not return messages from the Press), Glaser's sacking was the last episode in an ideological battle between Winkler and the board over how the museum should be run. From the time its headquarters were at the de Menils' house on San Felipe, where everyone would gather in the kitchen for lunch, the Menil Foundation has always been conducted more like a royal court than a professional institution: Loyalty is supremely important, job descriptions unheard of. Even in the family company, the oil-service business Schlumberger, memos and paperwork were frowned upon, and "the main contribution" of one high-ranking employee was to prevent the company "from becoming an establishment," according to art lover and left-wing philosophe Jean Riboud, the company's CEO.

The Menil Foundation board has made it a goal to professionalize the museum. "We have very little structure here," says Sarofim, adding that the board wants to make the museum "more accessible to the city of Houston" by doing more exhibitions and improving the development campaign, public relations and marketing -- "kind of basics in the museum world."

Since the museum has always regarded bureaucratic regulations as vulgar and has prided itself on the difference between it and institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, where the art objects' importance is subsumed by a variety of civic and bureaucratic goals, talk of implementing more customary museum practices does not sit well with the staff. Still, staffers have complained that the museum's lack of structure interferes with their ability to do their jobs, and the need for outside financial contributions is obvious. A gentle formalization, such as the board's plan to add an administrative director and badly needed curatorial staff, might have been welcomed.

But the board has already gone far beyond that. As part of Winkler's new contract, the board proposed a job performance review. Winkler, a gangly, gentle man known more for his ability to develop close relationships with artists than for his ability to charm perspective patrons, would be rated on a scale of 1 to 5 on such issues as "Does the director function consistently in an objective and rational manner regardless of pressure?" and "Does the director's appearance and demeanor express executive style and confidence?"

Claiming fiduciary responsibility, the board has also entertained the idea of selling the de Menil residence, which was architect Philip Johnson's first commission and probably Houston's first modernist structure. Architecture historian Stephen Fox has appeared before the board to make a case for the house's significance, and last week Johnson spoke to a small gathering at the house. There, architect William Stern, who helped organize the event, stood before the plate glass fronting the lavish tropical garden and earnestly pointed out that the house would be even more important at 100 years old than it is at 50.

Of course, maintaining a house for guests, cultural events or meetings would be an added expense. "Our first hope would be to save the house," Sarofim says.

And while she can understand the staff's concerns, Sarofim says, "It's not our intention to change the uniqueness of the museum or to dilute it. ...[Dominique] didn't want it to just stay in a static situation."

But many insist the board's changes weren't what Dominique had in mind. "If Dominique were alive," Berg says of Glaser's firing, "it never would have happened.

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Shaila Dewan