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Arts / Galleries

Major Shake-Up in the Texas Museum World

The Story Behind Dallas Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson’s Sudden Resignation

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 10.16.15

Amidst the flurry of the Texas Contemporary Art Fair rolling into Houston, a major announcement that will be a visual arts game-changer was nearly overlooked — one that created the second high-profile vacancy at a Texas institution.

The charismatic Maxwell L. Anderson’s sudden and swift departure from his post at the Dallas Museum of Art — the DMA’s Eugene McDermott Director — stunned the art world, both in Texas and beyond. Anderson – smooth, debonair and intelligent – is armed with impeccable academic credentials including a Harvard doctorate and a stint at the Met’s vaunted ancient art department; since his tenure as Whitney director (1998-2003), he had been on a trajectory to remap American museum culture.

Anderson’s new post? He’s the director of grant programs for the New Cities Foundation.

Reached in Manhattan, Anderson shared details about his next chapter, which promises a global imprint. (New Cities is headquartered in Paris, but works on initiatives — including inner-city mobility, sustainable food sources and fresh concepts about place-making — from Jakarta to Helsinki.)

“I am helping develop the Foundation’s focus on urban innovation, by supporting start-ups in cities internationally through our “What Works” platform,” Anderson explained. “I am also tasked with fostering sustainable cultural investments … We support clusters of cultural organizations rather than single institutions. My role at the Dallas Arts District gave me great insight into what can be accomplished in other cities nationally and internationally.”

Gary-Tinterow
Gary Tinterow succeeded Peter Marzio at MFAH in 2012, a little more than a year after the popular director’s death, the same time Anderson began at the DMA. Tinterow’s reign at the Houston museum — he arrived fresh from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with curatorial expertise in the 19th and 20th century but no directorship experience — has been praised for putting money in the bank for a third building.

During his brief time in Dallas — Anderson arrived in early 2012, concurrently with his colleague to the south, Gary Tinterow, the man at the top of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — the DMA director appeared to usher in a new era, after replacing Bonnie Pitman, who moved to the less stressful field of academia. (Pitman is currently Distinguished Scholar in Residence and co-director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Museums at The University of Texas at Dallas.) Anderson had been lauded in Dallas for bold initiatives including offering free admission to the museum, part of a mission to broaden and engage the North Texas community. (Two years and counting since its launch, the DMA’s Friends Program tops 100,000 members.)

Anderson’s spouse will also be missed in Dallas. Jacqueline Anderson defied the expectations of many; she wields an art history degree and a bio packed with roles in TV and film, and her independent sense of glamour and fashion has fascinated media for decades. Dallas high society, especially the Art Ball and Silver Slipper Dinner, will be losing a bit of luster, especially in the costume department.

(Anderson’s departure comes not so long after a Houston institution, the Menil Collection, announced that director Josef Helfenstein would be returning to Europe and a prime museum post in his homeland.) During Anderson’s tenure, there was also an emphasis on fields of study beyond the European canon. This spring marked the important acquisition of a Pre-Columbian masterpiece, the Maya Effigy Vase, circa 700 to 900 A.D. Around the same time, the museum presented a Post-War Japanese stunner — the first American museum show for Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Motonaga, which was a revelation about artists who broke ground that went beyond mere painting. The blockbuster received national praise and extensive press for its explosive imagery and performance aspect; the pair of painters who exemplified the Gutai movement were largely unknown in the states until the DMA green-lighted this show co-organized by curator Gabriel Ritter.

This fall’s dual blockbusters — “International Pop” and “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots”— are also the fruits of Anderson’s commitment to his curators, especially the contemporary department, and projects that require deep pockets and in-depth scholarship. Curator Gavin Delahunty reportedly blazes new ground in the Pollock exhibition, which opens on November 20, and will be seen at the Tate Liverpool and at the DMA only.

Screen shot 2015-10-16 at 10.59.59 AM

Then there is the Keir Collection initiative, which improbably makes Dallas a North American center for Islamic art for the next 15 years; the long-term exchange, with its glorious offerings, also serves as a vehicle for understanding the Arab world.

Also noteworthy is the Anderson endeavor to open up the museum to the public in the digital realm, including allowing the online scrutiny of the provenance of artworks and artifacts. One example of this in action was the repatriation of the ancient-world Orpheus Mosaic, whose return to its Turkish homeland took place in December 2012.

MFAH
Gary Tinterow has raised $363.7 million to date for an ambitious MFAH building program, which includes the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, scheduled to open in 2019. The Kinder Building was designed by Steven Holl Architects.

If Anderson reminds us of anyone, it would be the late Peter Marzio, director of the MFAH for nearly 30 years, who steered the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston into new, democratic directions, and who was a champion of art far from the usual suspects. Marzio was, like Anderson, unafraid of making big-budget commitments to projects in which he believed.

Who will assume leadership at the DMA? That’s the main assignment before the trustees, and the person they install will stand at the epicenter of the region’s most watched and influential museum, as well as being the crown of the Dallas Arts District (which recently has received a much higher profile thanks to the Dallas Art Fair). Dallas Museum of Art board president Walter Elcock steps up as interim director, and board VP Catherine Rose will occupy the position of interim board president during the search process.

Meanwhile, back in Houston, the MFAH prepares for ambitious campus growth as Tinterow triumphantly leads a capital campaign that is the envy of many other American museums, raising to date $363.7 million for a new Glassell School of Art (slated for its premiere in 2017) and a third building designed by Steven Holl Architects (on the 2019 calendar).

In closing, as Anderson and Helfenstein take flight in a white-glove way, we fondly recall the stepping down of Jim Harithas, a legendary director of the Contemporary Arts Musem Houston. He freely bucked trustees, and his departure took place in the wake of the infamous CAMH Bread Riot of October 28, 1977. Hear the story here:

Kind of makes you mourn the good old days.

 

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