My Two Encounters with Peter Marzio

11 Dec

By JOHN DeMERS 

For the longest time, I was aware of Dr. Peter Marzio – the director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who died yesterday at age 67 – without actually meeting him. As the editor of ArtsHouston and now of Houston ArtsWeek, I certainly found myself at receptions with him across a crowded room. But I never had or found a reason to say hello until two writing assignments forced me to do so, in what proved the final months of his life. 

Three months ago, I sat down with Marzio in his office at the museum and reflected on his long career in Houston in a line of work not known for longevity. He seemed dazzlingly well-dressed and perfectly groomed, and definitely tanned. There was nothing about the man that made me think he was going to die before the new year. And then I caught up with him by phone less than a month ago, for an article in the current Houston Magazine.  

For the longest time, Marzio explained to me in his office that afternoon, art museums in the western world used their collections to, essentially, pay homage to themselves – to the forms and functions of art as defined by the West, as well as to those handful of ancient cultures thought to have made such art possible. In the 28 remarkable years he served as director of MFAH, the world of art has changed dramatically. And often as not, Houston has been out front, leading the way. 

“Art is no longer a one-way street,” offered Marzio, who was born on Governor’s Island, N.Y., and served as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and as curator of prints and chairman of the department of cultural history at the Smithsonian before coming to Houston in 1982. “We don’t treat art like medicine: it doesn’t taste good but it’s good for you. No, we create a dialogue with the various communities in Houston, and then we build the museum around that dialogue.”

Seeming almost as surprised and definitely as delighted by the evolution as anyone else in the museum world might be, Marzio pointed to MFAH’s remarkable advances in Latin American art as a particularly meaningful step reflecting the deep roots of Texas, along with its efforts to gather Islamic art, African art and elements from the often-snubbed world of design. At key junctures, he insisted, it’s been as much about listening as talking – and that’s when the director allowed himself a laugh. “It’s hard for professionals to give up their authority sometimes,” he said, “in order to become more knowledgeable.”       

Those were 28 remarkable years for MFAH and for Marzio himself, not least since the typical tenure of a museum director is about four years. Still, this “28” is only one of the numerals that have attached themselves to the period. Under Marzio’s leadership, MFAH annual attendance increased from 300,000 to 1.6 million and memberships from 7,000 to more than 40,000. The operating budget exploded from $5 million to $52 million, the endowment from $25 million to $1.1 billion, and the permanent collection from 20,000 to 63,000 works of art. 

It may be tempting, after seeing too many movies, to picture an art museum as a single huge marble building filled with paintings and sculpture. This is part of what MFAH is today, and certainly part of what it was envisioned to be when it opened its doors as the Public School Art League, the first art museum in Texas, on March 24, 1900. Over the century-plus that followed, though, it has become a multi-faceted setting and multi-layered operation, with not one but two gallery buildings: the Audrey Jones Beck and the Caroline Weiss Law. Other pieces of the puzzle include the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden; two house collections, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens for American decorative arts and Rienzi for their European counterpart, and the Glassell School of Art. 

“As we’ve pursued the community approach, we’ve also pursued the encyclopedic approach, and that means we’ve discovered what I call the ecumenical approach,” Marzio observed. “Art has a much broader definition now. It’s not just about our own roots but about understanding humanity.” 

More recently, in that phone interview for Houston Magazine, I talked to Marzio briefly about the arts initiatives of the museum’s close neighbor, Rice University. I’ve always hated asking people about efforts that weren’t their own, especially since long years as a reporter have taught me that most people prepare to talk about themselves, what they’ve done and what they’re doing. Marzio, however, responded with unusual grace and generosity. 

“The performing and visual arts at Rice serve as bridges to the citizenry,” he observed. “This just makes Rice a more creative place. It helps build audiences from Rice for what Houston has to offer. And it raises the standards of all the artistic offerings in the city.” 

Now, only 24 hours after Marzio’s unexpected death, anyone speaking with grace and generosity in his honor would say the same about him.

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