At least he didn’t say “world class”

7 Feb

As Gary Tinterow, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new director, settles into the position, it’s understandable that the former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator would take pains not to ruffle any feathers. Still, his introductory videos on the MFAH’s website require parsing, much like this message from my motel:

I get it: Motels can’t just come out and ask guests not to steal the towels and linens, and museum directors need the kind of job security the late Peter C. Marzio enjoyed before they can bluntly say, “We’ll never be the Met,” and “Houston will never be New York,” as Marzio told me on several occasions.

Still, I’m glad I didn’t have a mouthful of coffee when I heard Tinterow say, “The level of quality is absolutely the same between the MFAH and the Metropolitan.”

Ironically, he said this while sitting in the MFAH’s worst gallery, a hodge-podge that mixes a medium-size Elie Nadelman sculpture of a dancing couple (c. 1918-1924) with Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan — Ghost Version (1967); one of Frank Stella’s most reductive paintings, Palmito Ranch (1961); and a depressingly mediocre selection of abstract expressionist paintings, including one of the most lackluster Robert Motherwells — just because it’s big doesn’t mean it’s good, folks — and easily the worst Adolph Gottlieb I’ve seen anywhere, an early, sketchy pictograph I can’t find an image of online. Making matters worse, the Nadelman sits on a ginormous table in the middle of the room; the Oldenburg — the only Pop piece in the space — crowds out the best painting in the gallery, Jackson Pollock’s pre-drip The Blue Unconscious (1946), on loan from a private collection; and the bright yellow hard-edge Stella, a significant recent acquisition, is sandwiched between two black-and-white Franz Klines. (Discusing that juxtaposition with me last year, MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene mentioned the Menil Collection’s recent-ish accession of a Kline knockoff drawing Stella made during his student years, when probably every art student in the country was doing Kline knockoffs. Knowing that background doesn’t make the placement make any more sense.) Topping off the incoherence, a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass window peers in from the adjacent decorative-arts alcove. (Specific pieces may have been rotated out since I hit the road, but this is basically how the gallery always looks, as if the MFAH is determined to put its worst foot forward.)

Forget New York. Having visited museums across the country for the last two-and-a-half months, I can only think of a handful of galleries as you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me bad as the one in which Tinterow sat giving Houston the last thing it needs, another soothing, self-esteem-boosting pep talk. Yes, it’s a meet-the-director message on a website, and yes, museum directors have to be civic boosters, but cheerleading is one thing; cognitive dissonance is another.

As for Tinterow’s “ambitions for the MFAH,” here they are:

I’ve got my eye on some very important works of art that I hope we can attract to the museum either as loans or as acquisitions. I hope to be able to maintain the same high level of exhibition programs and educational programs that Peter Marzio and the staff and trustees have maintained all these years.

I have ambitions for Tinterow’s ambitions. I’ll outline them in an upcoming post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: