Isabel B. Wilson, Ron Tyler, Kathleen V. Jameson, and Laurie Fendrich present their reminiscences, along with excerpts from the memorial service at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Peter Cort Marzio (1943–2010), visionary director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), dedicated his career to making the art of world cultures accessible to all. He often recounted how art had changed his life. As a freshman on an athletic scholarship at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, he took a course in art history. A class assignment sent him to the Frick Collection in New York, where he was inspired by a Goya painting. This first museum visit was the beginning of his belief that art had the power to enrich life. He went on to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago in art history and American history. He began his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as a curator of prints and drawings. His prolific exhibitions and publications there were innovative and celebrated for their democratic spirit and broad appeal. In 1978, he became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he worked to expand its audience base, strengthen its art school, and promote its famous permanent collection of American and European art.
In 1982, he was recruited by the trustees of the MFAH. Houston and Peter Marzio were a perfect match. He loved the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, can-do attitude, and diversity. Houston welcomed him, and he embraced the city and museum. As MFAH director, Peter Marzio was the maestro. He directed major expansion and construction projects, including the Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi, the MFAH Administration and Junior School Building by Carlos Jimenez, the Beck Building by Rafael Moneo, and the Kilroy Education Center for Bayou Bend by Leslie Elkins. He also led capital campaigns and served on many boards and advisory councils, including the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities in Washington, DC, the Wallace Foundation, and the Houston Museum District Association.
During Marzio’s twenty-eight-year tenure, the museum’s collections grew from thirteen thousand artworks to 62,172. Annual attendance soared from 380,000 to more than two million. Exhibitions proliferated and grew from twenty-six in 1983 to forty-one in 2009. He established departments for Renaissance and Baroque art, American painting and sculpture, antiquities, prints and drawings, film and video, modern and contemporary art, modern and contemporary design, Latin American art, and art of the Islamic world.
But these remarkable statistics cannot convey the institution’s exciting chemistry and the interaction of ideas, programs, and people that Peter Marzio inspired. His vision and leadership brought extraordinary, diverse, and original exhibitions to Houston. They included Treasures from the Shanghai Museum: 6,000 Years of Chinese Art, Fresh Paint: The Houston School, Frederic Remington: The Masterworks, The History of Japanese Photography, and more. Marzio developed a multitude of programs to serve the diverse Houston communities he loved. In 1986, he initiated a policy of free admission on Thursdays. As an educator of the first order, Marzio was most proud of the museum’s outreach to schools and students through the Kinder Foundation Education Center, the Kilroy Education Center for Bayou Bend, and the Glassell School of Art.
Major collections entered the museum during Marzio’s tenure: the John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection; Rienzi, the house museum donated by Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III; the Caroline Wiess Law Collection; and the Glassell Gold Collections. Cornelia Long, chairman of the MFAH board of trustees, described him thus: “Peter was a visionary leader. He believed the museum was a place for all people, and he worked tirelessly to make the collections accessible and the educational and exhibition schedules exciting. He embraced diversity and the public. The trustees of the MFAH will continue to do so as well.” Peter Marzio died a proud Houstonian whose legacy will enhance the lives of generations to come.
Peter Marzio was a valued ally and friend of Humanities Texas. Under his direction, the MFAH hosted a number of our teacher workshops and collaborated with Humanities Texas on public programming related to MFAH exhibitions. Below, several of Peter's friends and colleagues share their recollections.
Peter Marzio, who died of cancer on December 9, 2010, was no ordinary man. He was the kind of person who always made you feel more intelligent than you really are. He put you up, not down. To know him was a privilege.
I worked closely with him for six years as chairman of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). I do not recall that he ever said a mean or unkind word about anyone. He teased a lot—but not in a mean way. He inspired those with whom he worked, curators and board alike, to grow and learn more in their fields.
When he came to Houston in 1982 from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, he was just thirty-nine years old. He worked with my mother, Alice Brown, who was active on the board until her death two years later. He was in Houston for twenty-eight years and helped the city grow in so many ways—not just in art.
He added some fifty thousand objects to the collection. It did not just grow in size, but it also grew in quality. The Audrey Jones Beck Collection, the Alfred C. Glassell gold collections, the Caroline Wiess Law collection of modern and contemporary art (and a very sizeable monetary bequest to continue that collection), the impressive photography collection, and many antiquities (Egyptian, Greek, and Roman), as well as other works of art were added during that time. In addition, the Latin American art department has become a recognized authority.
His death is not only a loss to the MFAH but also to the City of Houston, where he added to the city’s stature by defining the role of art in a city culture.
A private memorial service was held at the museum on January 30, 2011. Speakers included Philippe de Montebello, recently retired director of the Metropolitan Museum and former director of the MFAH; Cornelia Cullen Long, chairman of the MFAH; Rich Kinder, a good friend and supporter of the museum; and a representative of the Wallace Foundation, where Peter served as a director since 2001.
One day, shortly after we had moved to Austin in 1986, I opened the local newspaper and saw a familiar-looking face. “Why would the Austin newspaper run a picture of Peter Marzio at a Houston party?” I asked my wife. Then I read the caption and found that it was a picture of Warren Beatty at a Hollywood party.
By then I had known Peter for a number of years, ever since he had been the enfant terrible of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, where he organized the bicentennial exhibition Nation of Nations, among others. He had also served as guest curator for a seminal 1979 exhibition entitled The Democratic Art: An Exhibition on the History of Chromolithography in America, 1840–1900 at the Amon Carter Museum. After a few years as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, he became director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1982.
While other directors of the MFAH had seemed to come and go with little noticeable impact on the state, Peter immediately engaged his peers in Texas institutions. His Washington experience had taught him the benefits of working together, and he soon convened a meeting of members of the Texas Association of Museums in his office to discuss how museums might present a unified case for support to the legislature. The legislature quickly proved to be a much less fruitful source than his own Houston community, and Peter soon had to redirect his efforts, but I have not forgotten the effort and the obvious respect that he had for his colleagues at smaller museums.
Peter was well trained in American history and art, having studied at the University of Chicago with Daniel Boorstin (you will recognize his prose in various parts of the third volume of Boorstin’s monumental history of American culture)* and Joshua Taylor. Perhaps it was there that Peter learned to look at the “big picture.” I especially remember a lecture that he gave at the Carter Museum a number of years ago. He was invited to speak on an artist about whom little personal or professional information was known, and several curators in the audience wondered somewhat skeptically what Peter would say. Peter began by acknowledging that while little was known of the artist, the quality of the work spoke directly to us and of its time—a “big picture” interpretation that proved to be thoroughly illuminating.
He applied the same “big picture” ideas to the museum. His historical training taught him to appreciate that American entrepreneurs (among others) have created one of the greatest countries in history. Peter suggested that the same kind of spirit and initiative could propel cultural organizations, and he had the ability to charm and convince his audiences. His success in Houston proved that his was the right message at the right time and in the right city.
Several years after Peter had established himself in Houston, he invited me to serve on a committee to consider the future program at Bayou Bend, the estate and collection that Miss Ima Hogg had left to the museum. I met several of the new people that Peter had brought into the museum’s education department and was impressed with the program they were developing. I had learned early in my career that teachers are busy individuals and will not attend a program or workshop unless they feel that they and their students will benefit from it. At that point the MFAH had more than five hundred area teachers actively participating in its educational programs—and they were still growing. Needless to say, many museums observed the Houston model and copied it for their communities. Peter had a dramatic impact on the museum and the city: collection, program, campus, attendance and memberships, prestige.
*Editor’s Note: Marzio was Boorstin's research assistant for his book The Americans: The Democratic Experience, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Peter Marzio was an extraordinary mentor who transformed my life in innumerable ways. His impact on the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the city of Houston, and the museum field has been celebrated eloquently by many others. His quiet influence on those who had the privilege to work with him may be less well known.
Unlike many executives, Peter had a true "open door" policy, and he was committed to providing access to all—just as he was committed to the principle of the museum as a place for all people. He knew how to motivate and inspire unlike anyone I have met, and he could also give you a hard time in the most congenial way.
I remember approaching him as a new staff member at the MFAH. He was sitting alone at a table at the annual Christmas party, and I asked to sit down with him. We ended up talking about poker and motorcycles and American art; from that moment, I always felt I could talk to Peter about anything.
Peter knew I wanted to be a museum director someday, and he thoughtfully and strategically provided countless opportunities for me to develop the skills I would need for the role. His confidence in me often exceeded my own, and I feel daily the tremendous loss of my champion. Now, as executive director of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, I am reminded every day of the commitment to community and to artistic excellence that Peter taught me and so many others. I can only hope to continue and celebrate his legacy in my own small way, and I could not feel more lucky or proud to have called Peter Marzio my mentor.
Editor's note: the following is reprinted with permission from the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog.
Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston since 1982, died on [December 9, 2010,] at the age of sixty-seven. During his tenure, the MFAH grew from a sleepy place to a world-renowned institution with a stellar collection, an active and strong educational outreach program (more than 750,000 people were involved in it last year), and a finger on the pulse of contemporary art.
Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said, "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." Put another way, Marzio accomplished that rare thing in a democracy: a fusion of elitism and populism into what we might call the "elitist populist" outlook.
His life is also a lesson for those who think there’s a way to get a firm, programmatic understanding of how education works on the young. Although Marzio was the first in his working-class, Italian immigrant family to graduate from high school, he did not do well academically. Yet he won a sports scholarship to Juniata College in Huntington, Pennsylvania, where he took an art history class. During one of the lectures, he saw a projected image of Goya’s Forge—a magnificent, stunning painting at the Frick Collection in New York that celebrates the power and fierce dignity of labor. Seeing this single projected image of an Old Master painting changed Marzio’s life. He visited the Frick—his first visit to an art museum—to see it in the flesh. Here are his words (originally quoted in The New York Times) about that experience:
"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. 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."
Marzio was said . . . to be most proud of the fact that under his leadership, museum attendance grew from 380,000 a year to more than two million. He dedicated his life to making his own particular, visceral experience of art available to all. That the sight of a single painting transformed the life of the young Peter Marzio—a kid who came at it without any trace of a fancy background—is something for all of us to ponder.
Editor's note: The following five tributes are excerpted from remarks made at the January 30, 2011, memorial service held at the MFAH. They are reprinted with permission from the Houston Chronicle, February 6, 2011.
In his twenty-eight years as director, Peter worked with four chairmen of the board: Isaac Arnold Jr., Alfred C. Glassell Jr., Isabel Wilson, and me. We all came with different viewpoints and styles. The constant was Peter. He thought of the museum as a large family, sometimes coordinated, sometimes not so. You, the museum’s trustees, supporters, and friends, are part of this great effort. For all these years, our successes have far outnumbered our disappointments. Peter’s legacy is precious in so many ways. The works of art and buildings are tangible objects of beauty that enhance our lives and our city. But most of all, Peter leaves us his philosophy. The MFAH is and always will be 'A Place for All People.'
In my view, Peter was first and foremost a builder in the broadest sense of the word. During his twenty-eight years at the museum, he never stopped building, whether it was the scope of the collection or the campus itself. He was tremendously interested in expanding the role of the museum to embrace all segments of the community. That goal led to an education outreach program to help teachers throughout Texas better appreciate and understand the art history they were teaching. It also resulted in the creation of additional galleries to better represent the artistic heritage of many of the great cultures represented in the Houston community.
No one handled success as well as Peter. It never affected him. He treated people as one without regard to their so-called station in life. He was truly one of the great persons I have known. He brought a knowledge and understanding of the problems facing people to his approach in directing the museum. He brought a great dignity and humility to his profession. This museum, the beauty of it, the importance of it, these are the things he believed in. In his calm, quiet way he communicated to many people and friends who were privileged to know him his total dedication to making this the best museum. All of this would count for much of his life but Frances, his wife, his partner, his adviser, his friend, was the most treasured and valuable part of his life. I have never known anyone with more dedication, loyalty, and devotion to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. He was the least judgmental person I have ever known. He is what I call a wise person. His dedication to dignity and fairness for everyone is exceeded by no one. We live in a better community because of him and because of him, we are better people. It is an honor for me to be Peter Marzio’s friend.
He believed passionately in being inclusive, not by diluting the program—that would have shown a lack of generosity toward the very communities he was courting—but on the contrary, by being sensitive and alert to the individual aspirations of different cultural groups. He was fond of pointing out that he was not delivering universal truths from on high, but engaging in a true and open dialogue, a word he used a lot. And through that dialogue, through the creation of a polyphony of voices from around the world, not just meeting but embracing the challenges of our global age and in the process, upending one aspect of the Enlightenment: namely, the notion of the West as center of the universe. Instead he gave the so-called periphery, notably Latin America, pride of place amont the world's major cultures. He called this, aptly, an ecumenical approach. By creating the Latin American Art Department and its companion research institute, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, he showed the seriousness with which he engaged with these constituencies and the success of these initiatives was not lost on the museum world, and many of Peter’s colleagues have since scrambled, literally, to follow Houston’s example.
Peter was a warm and witty man with a gift for friendship. Time spent with Peter and Frances was precious time indeed. Our board is small, ten of us, and Peter was a dear friend to each one of us. He made you feel special, smart, and interesting and we all love him for it. We had our first meeting without Peter two weeks ago and after dinner I rode home with another board member. She thanked me for joining her because she had always shared the ride with Peter. She told me that in those twenty minutes she invariably had the most interesting conversation that she’d had with anyone since the last board dinner. That’s just how Peter was.