Saturday, December 11, 2010

Peter Marzio, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston Dies at 67

HOUSTON (Houston Chronicle Decmber 10, 2010) Museum impresario Peter C. Marzio, who devoted three decades to building the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, into a world-class cultural center and, in his words, "a place for all people," died Thursday at 67 after a recurrence of cancer.
Marzio, the museum's longest-serving director, joined the MFAH in 1982. Under his leadership, the permanent collection more than quadrupled in size, growing from 14,000 artworks to 62,000.
The museum world lost a major figure, Philippe de Montebello, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, said Friday.
"He utterly transformed the Houston museum — turned it into a major and very professional institution with wonderful spaces and a hugely improved collection over the years," said de Montebello, who directed the MFAH from 1969 to 1974.
"The key thing about Peter is that he was enormously enterprising and dynamic and showed that these qualities are not irreconcilable with the upholding of the highest standards of excellence. He never pandered to his public. He always kept everything on the highest level. He established, also, an international reputation."
The collection's rapid growth was accompanied by many other milestones under Marzio's tenure: the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen sculpture garden designed by artist Isamu Noguchi; the European decorative arts center, Rienzi, donated by Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III; and the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by architect Rafael Moneo.
At the time of his death, Marzio was planning a third building for modern and contemporary art, which he envisioned as presenting a global view of art movements in the Americas, Europe and Asia. He called this the most intellectually challenging work of his career.
"Peter was a profound leader and a great colleague," said Josef Helfenstein, Menil Collection director. "I came to Houston knowing very few people, a handful. Peter was very generous and straightforward and I thought, if he's like that, it's a great city."
Aiming to make the MFAH "ecumenical," reaching out to Houston's diverse communities, Marzio launched the Asian and Latin art departments. The Latin American department quickly shot to the top tier of the field among U.S. museums, and Marzio championed an unorthodox approach to the small Asian collection, integrating ancient and contemporary works in the Arts of Korea Gallery, the Nidhika and Pershant Mehta Arts of India Gallery and the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery.
Marzio was proudest of the fact the museum attracted visitors from all backgrounds during his tenure, his wife, Frances Marzio, said Friday.
MFAH's attendance grew from 380,000 people a year when he arrived to more than 2 million. A 10-year campaign he launched in 1993, "A Place for All People," summed up his philosophy, said Frances Marzio, who is curator of the MFAH's Glassell Collections.
"He truly believed that art enriched your life, and believing that, he wanted people from every walk of life to come together," she said. "He really felt that each community gives something of itself and has a mark, and together, we're all better."

Role model

For the Chinese gallery, Marzio had a self-described "crazy idea" to commission artist Cai Guo-Qiang to make his largest U.S. museum drawing - created using exploding gunpowder in a live performance in a Houston warehouse - to line the gallery walls, creating a contemporary crucible for the ancient objects.
Asked if he had a backup plan if anything went wrong during Cai's performance, Marzio quipped, "No Plan B. Gunpowder is very, very reliable."
After learning of Marzio's death, Cai offered to donate the original sketch for the gunpowder drawing, Odyssey, to the MFAH in the director's memory.
"He was such a role model for all of us, a director whose priorities were the collection and the community," said James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. "He inspired us, challenged us and helped us."
Marzio had an uncanny knack for tapping Houston philanthropy. Examples include Alfred C. Glassell Jr.'s gift of his collection of African, Pre-Columbian and Indonesian gold; Beck's gift of 47 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces; and Caroline Wiess Law's bequest of $400 million and major artworks by Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko.
The museum's endowment reached a whopping $1.2 billion before the 2008 recession dropped its value to about $800 million.

First to graduate

Born into a working-class Italian-immigrant family in New York in 1943, Marzio was a gas-station attendant while growing up. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and he went to Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., on a sports scholarship.
Although he had a poor academic record in high school, a pivotal experience at Juniata launched his career. Seeing a projected image of Francisco Goya's painting The Forge during an art-history lecture, Marzio was inspired to visit the real thing at the Frick Collection in New York. It was his first visit to an art museum.
"I sat down in front of it, and for the first time in my life, I thought I knew more than anyone in the world about something," Marzio once told the New York Times. "I had a sense of how it was organized and what it was about. It felt so empowering. It's impossible to convey the feeling it gave me."
A desire to give others a similar experience lay at the heart of Marzio's work on the MFAH's educational programs, which reached more than 750,000 people last year.

Got teachers involved

Marzio "created a real powerhouse education department at the Houston museum," said Ron Tyler, director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. "The thing that most impressed me was their outreach to the teachers. … They had attracted the attention of literally thousands of teachers in the Houston area and had them coming to their workshops, sending their kids to the (Glassell School), and I knew how hard it was to get teachers involved in the program. And we're doing that here now."
He earned a doctorate in art history and American history from the University of Chicago. He began his career in Washington, D.C., as curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian Institution, then became director and chief executive officer of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
A memorial service and celebration of Marzio's life will take place at the museum. The date has not been announced.
Gwen Goffe, the MFAH's associate director of investment and finance, has been named acting director. She pledged to continue all programs as originally planned.
Marzio was the driving force behind bringing the 2011 American Association of Museums' annual convention and expo to Houston. The meeting in May will be dedicated to his memory, the association said.

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