Exclusive CultureMap Interview

Museum addition and listening tour on new MFAH director Gary Tinterow's agenda

Museum addition and listening tour on new MFAH director Gary Tinterow's agenda

When Gary Tinterow takes over as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in January 2012, succeeding the late, legendary Peter C. Marzio, he plans to hit the ground running. The first order of business, he noted, will be vetting the final designers for a new modern and contemporary art building adjacent to the Glassell School of Art and the Cullen Sculpture Garden.

“Right away,” he said, “we’ll move forward with the architecture planning committee for the new building and meet with the architects.”

This summer, the MFAH narrowed its pool of possible designers to three firms, each with high-profile museum experience: Morphosis (Dallas’ forthcoming Perot Museum of Natural Science), Snøhetta (San Francisco Museum of Art’s upcoming expansion) and Steven Holl Architects (Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art wing).

A final decision on which architect is selected is expected in the early part of 2012.

In other areas, however, Tinterow indicated during a telephone interview with CultureMap Friday that he didn't plan to come in and quickly make major changes. He said it was too early to discuss any staff changes or the types of exhibitions he might favor.

“I think one of the most important things will be to listen carefully to understand the culture of the organization,” Tinterow said.

Tinterow — who in a 28-year career at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art oversaw two major gallery re-installations and played a key role in the museum’s planned expansion into the Whitney Museum’s iconic Brutalist building — will be on relatively familiar terrain as the MFAH looks to position itself as one of the nation’s largest art museums.

 “One never knows how a selection process like this will end,” Tinterow laughed. “I found that one way to ease the anxiety was to look at real estate."

“A major reason I was interested in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston was its exhibition program,” he said. “I was attracted by the museum’s ability to attract some of the most impressive shows available. The level of quality is of an exceptional standard.”

As the Met’s curator of 19th-century European art and later the Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art, Tinterow launched a number of blockbuster exhibitions that revisited and reinterpreted some of art history’s biggest names, from superstars like Degas and J.M.W. Turner to highly-regarded (though lesser-known) figures like Kara Walker and Francis Bacon.

In 2010, Tinterow’s “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” exhibition drew 700,000 attendees.

A return to Houston

The new MFAH directorship marks a homecoming for the 58-year-old curator, who grew up in the Braeswood area, attending Shearn Elementary and Pershing Middle School before graduating from Bellaire High School in 1972.

During a 2007 interview with The Bellaire Buzz, Tinterow recalled feeling a "a sense of wonder" during childhood visits to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. While a student at Brandeis University and an intern at the school’s Rose Art Museum, he worked two summers at the MFAH cataloging lithographs from the Alvin Romansky collection of prints and drawings.

Though briefly flirting with plans to attend law school, Tinterow eventually chose Harvard University’s art history program, which led to the first show of his career, an exhibit on Picasso drawing at the university’s Fogg Museum. “I’m very proud of that exhibition,” he said. “The catalogue is still regarded as standard reference on the subject.”

Graduating from Harvard in 1983, Tinterow took a curatorial position at the Met, where he has remained since. In the past three years, he has been on the short list for several major museum directorships.

“One never knows how a selection process like this will end,” Tinterow laughed. “I found that one way to ease the anxiety was to look at real estate.”

He said he’s already found some possible homes just east of the museum thanks to the always-popular Houston Association of Realtors website.

Tinterow will be joined in Houston by his partner, noted New York antique dealer Christopher Gardner, and his two dogs — a greyhound and a shepherd mix.

“I haven’t told the dogs yet,” he said, joking that rumors spread quickly among the dogs at Manhattan’s Riverside Park, where they regularly frolic.

Gardner, he said, is currently making plans to establish his business in the healthy Houston art and antique market.

When Tinterow joins the MFAH early next year, he will be one of only a few openly gay directors to head a major museum in the United States. Asked if he felt his sexual orientation was a hindrance in any way during the search, he approached the question simply and directly: "No, just look at the results."

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Current chair of the Met's department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art, noted curator Gary Tinterow begins his tenure as MFAH director in January 2012. Photo by F. Carter Smith