Inside the {Brilliant} Head of Gary Tinterow

A tête-à-tête with Tinterow and Catherine D. Anspon

Meet the new man at the top of the most important art job in Texas. Native son Gary Tinterow returns, after 28 years at The Met as curator, scholar and chairman of its incomparable 19th-century, modern and contemporary department, to lead the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

So, you actually grew up in Houston? I was born in Louisville Kentucky but was living in Houston within a few months. We first lived at Blodgett and Delano and then moved to Braeswood when I was five. I attended Pershing [Middle School], then Bellaire High School. In a way, I take after my mother. She was both a professional fund-raiser and an artist. She organized special events for various medical charities. My father was a violinist and an accomplished musician … In the ‘40s, he played with the Tommy Dorsey band. He played in Hollywood a lot, then was at the Balinese Room in Galveston, the Emerald Room at the Shamrock. He had a band, the Bobby Tinterow Orchestra, and played for functions, weddings, etc. … So when West Side Story came to town, or Rudolph Nureyev, or Aretha Franklin, often my dad was part of the backup orchestra. I remember when the Beatles came … My brother and I have our autographed picture of the Beatles. My Dad was in the backup.

In between being raised in Houston and returning to Houston … what happened? The short answer is that as an adult, I was able to pursue the interests that were sparked by growing up in Houston: to explore and travel and to participate in the world of museums and enjoy opera, music, theater, ballet and, above all, become friends with some of the most extraordinary creative talents of our time. This happened at Brandeis (1972-1976); Harvard (1976-1983); the Tate Gallery (1982-1983); and the Met (1983-2012).

Day one at the office: What was the very first thing you did? There was no real first day … I was appointed December 1. I spent a little time in the trustees conference room next door and had lunch with Gwen Goffe, who was interim director. Then
I was flying down every week or 10 days from New York City until I started full-time at the [end of] January. The real first item on my agenda was to attend the final meetings of the long-term planning committee, which had been meeting for more than three years to select an architect for the new building. They had burrowed down deeply into the careers and the performance of the three finalists. These architects were invited to present proposals … and on the basis of those presentations, we selected Steven Holl.

Favorite space in the museum? I have a deep affection for Cullinan Hall … because that was my museum when I was growing up in Houston. It was such a noble space. It seemed like a cathedral for art. And I remember the Cullinan Building so well, with its white steel trim, those huge windows facing Bissonnet and the lawn with the Olmec head. That Olmec head loomed large in my childhood … My life and the museum are completely imbricated … My entire career is a result of growing up in Houston, coming to the MFAH, going to Mrs. Menil’s trailers at Rice University … My goal, now that I’m lucky enough to be back in Houston, is to provide experiences for people like me when they’re 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 years old — to create the environment where that spark can occur and people can enjoy the arts as an integral part of their life. 

Greatest strengths of the MFAH? Latin American and the Glassell Collection of Gold: Indonesian, African, Pre-Colombian. At the time, it was the most important collection of its kind in private hands. Now it’s in public hands. So we’re up there with the great museums: the Field Museum, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum … Our European collection is quite fine. Photography — we have one of the great collections in the country. Eastman House, Metropolitan Museum, Getty, Chicago, Houston …. We’re right up there in the top five, in terms of breadth — especially American photography in the 20th century.

Wish list? I’d like to add a new building onto the north campus. And I’d like to grow our Asian and Islamic collections. I hope to acquire a few signal masterpieces that really are worthy of pilgrimage. It’s marvelous to have all these collections, but now that we have critical mass, what we really could use to good effect are just great icons.

Favorite restaurant growing up? I haven’t been back to Gaido’s yet, which is where we ate every Sunday afternoon after going to see the grandparents in Galveston. We ate in the private club in the back.

Your partner, Christopher Gardner, is an antiquarian. What about your home in Houston? We’ve been together, soon to be nine years, and it’s been great … We share a love for old things. Gardens are one place where we come together. And funny things … we both like British 18th-century ceramics, West African indigo cloth … Now what made sense to us was a traditional house on Sunset. Our furniture looks good in it. We don’t have a garden — thank God, because I would never get into the office. We have a terrace on the top floor. It’s like a loggia, and we pretend we’re in Venice. We bought a bunch of citrus trees, so we have Meyer lemons, key limes, ruby-red grapefruits and Valencia oranges ripening right now.

Tell us about your famous political relative, Ann Richards. I didn’t know her that well growing up, but I knew her mother very well. Her mother was my great aunt … Summers growing up, we would have all kinds of adventures driving around West Texas, picking up turtles on the side of the road. Ann was a wonderful person and so inspirational. It’s very clear to me that the reason I am sitting in this office today is because of Ann. When she left politics and came to New York, she sat me down and gave me a talking to. She picked me up by the scruff of my neck and said, “You should be a museum director. You’re having a good time being a curator, but you’ve got more in you. And there’s more you can do. You need a larger canvas.” … That would have been around 2003 or 2004.

Have you met some of the Texas artists? I haven’t. And I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to meeting artists in the community and seeing what I can do to help them … There is so much that will be exciting to do. We can’t do everything, and we can’t do it all at once, but I am filled with optimism with the quality of the projects we are going to be able to work on. People ask me all the time, do I miss New York. Of course, I miss my friends … You know I lived at the Met for 28 years, and that was my family … And yet, it is just so thrilling to be here in Houston. It’s a great team. It’s a marvelous institution. The trustees could not be better. It’s a dynamic city. The weather’s been cooperating (laughing). I am just really,
really so happy here.

Will you be curating, too? I don’t think so. We have great curators here. My job is to help them find the resources … I really want to fulfill, to the extent that I can, [Peter Marzio’s] ambition for the museum, which is a place for all people — Houston’s hub for all things cultural … I also want there to be real visible cooperation between the Menil, CAMH, Craft Center, Asia Society. We are looking at a number of initiatives where we can visibly join arms with our colleagues and walk proudly into the future. And make the rest of the world understand what a great cultural destination Houston is.

You and Peter Marzio were friends? We were friendly. Not intimate friends. But I would, especially in these last few years, see him when I came down to Houston. And we had lunches here. I always enjoyed talking to him. He was a real legend in the museum field because he was so successful in shepherding his institution, building that great Moneo building, attracting the Caroline Wiess Law Collection and ultimately her bequest for acquisitions, and really extending the family to include new communities — Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, his huge Latin American initiative, which is so impressive … What Peter understood was that with Houston being one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the country, the museum ought to … reflect the identity of the community … He was very quick to respond to that, and I applaud that effort, and I am looking forward to doing everything I can to continue all the various initiatives which he began.

Is the next big collecting initiative extending Latin American? I think some 500 items have been acquired [for this collection]. The team will continue to enrich, extend and acquire masterpieces that illuminate the context they have already developed. We need to do the same with European and American. We are very strong in post-war American, less strong in post-war European. Contemporary Asian … South African art is very interesting. Art from the Middle East, from Egypt through Iran, is fascinating now … Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of that here.

What do we have at the MFAH that’s astounding? What can we build on? Houston is fortunate to have a number of collections which are outstanding in their field. The Latin American collection is unequaled in any North American institution. [Curator] Mari Carmen Ramírez recognized that the study of Latin American art was inhibited by a lack of access to the documents, and so with [Peter Marzio’s] approval, she founded the International Center for the Arts of the Americas and is using that as a platform to collect and document the lives and work of these artists and to publish it both in print and online.

What do you consider the MFAH’s equivalent to Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago? The Glassell Gold Collection is really our Grande Jatte. The Latin American Collection is like the Surrealism collection at the Menil. Just great depth. We have marvelous works here, from antiquity, Egyptian, the great Roman emperor, the beautiful Hellenistic mask. We have acquired some extraordinary African tribal art. The great Rembrandt portrait that was bought around 2000 … I’m hoping that we can aim for that level.

What’s the budget and ETA for the new building? Projects of this size — roughly 200,000 square feet — tend to cost anywhere from $250 to $350 million … We’ll be landscaping the entire north campus north of Bissonnet and extending the sculpture garden, rebuilding the Glassell School, probably. Hopefully excavating two floors of underground parking up to around 700 parking spaces. Our goal here is not only to make a new building ... but to activate the Museum District ... so that the corner of Bissonnet and Main becomes a real magnet for those interested in the arts in the entire region and for anyone interested in this material from around the world ... We’re looking at about a five-year timeline.

The sculpture garden seems so underused. Plans to remedy that? With the simple addition of the food trucks, we doubled our attendance to the sculpture garden. We initiated a program for a limited time called Lunch and Look, whereby if you come to Cafe Express at the Beck Building, or if you go to our food truck and bring your receipt to our admissions desk, we’ll let you in for free between noon and 2 o’clock. The goal is to get more people into the building.

Tell us about your Upstate New York historic house, which has quite a pedigree. It’s called Wynkoop House. It’s in the Hudson Valley, in a town called Marbletown. It is certainly my most prized possession. The kitchen wing was a tenant farmer’s house, around 1720, and the main block of the house is around 1767. Five-bay Georgian, gambrel roof, stone house, What attracts me to it is that it has great integrity. The surfaces, the floors, the walls have their 18th-century paint on it. I’ve learned so much about human nature and trying to understand how people lived in it in the past … It gave me a window onto 18th-century American life, which had previously not been an interest of mine.

Personal collections? I’m not an art collector and have never been able to afford to be an art collector. And also didn’t feel the compulsion because working in a museum you’re doing it professionally, you don’t feel that you need to go home and do that. If I had time and money, there are a million different collections that I would like to pursue and maybe one day in my retirement I can. This [Wynkoop] house in the country has been the black hole for any disposable income, and the garden and all that. It’s also been a great source of pleasure

Good luck charm or talisman? I’m not superstitious. I don’t have one. I wake up every day feeling like I’ve been handed such good fortune.

We heard that you play an instrument. About 12 years ago now, I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to play the harpsichord. And by end of the day, I had a harpsichord in the back of my truck and hauled it upstate. That was an entrance key to a new world. In the last 10 years, I’ve become very interested in early music, Baroque music especially. It makes me happy that there are very good groups here. Ars Lyrica, Mercury Baroque … And there’s a lively early music scene, between Shepherd and Moores School at U of H.



Ann Richards

Prized possession: Wynkoop House, Marbletown, N.Y. Photo © Geoffrey Gross, 2012.

Bobby Tinterow and Ed Sullivan, Shamrock Hilton, circa 1950s

In Tinterow’s bookcase, catalogs and volumes he’s authored. Photo by Jenny Antill.

Cullinan Hall, 1961. Photo courtesy MFAH Archives.

Olmec head. Photo Edward Mayo, 1964. Photo courtesy MFAH Archives.

Cullinan Hall, 1959. Photo Maurice Miller. Photo courtesy MFAH Archives.