Hiram Butler

Houston arts pioneer shoots straight on gallery growth, a happy marriage and closeted gay Republicans

Houston pioneer shoots straight on art growth, gay Republicans

01, The Influentials, Hiram Butler, April 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com

When Hiram Butler opened his gallery in 1984, there was no Menil Collection, there were only three curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (today there are a dozen), no one dreamed that the MFAH endowment would reach $1 billion, and only a handful of galleries existed (now there are more than 50). The Houston art scene has exploded in those three decades and he could not be prouder of the city.

During that time, Butler has mounted more than 500 exhibitions, featuring the works of acclaimed artists such as James Turrell, whom he represents plus Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra and John Cage. His far-reaching connections with major, national talent have meant that his gallery is continually the source for nationally important artworks.

The Eagle Pass native, a fifth generation Texan, is a staple on the city's art scene, exercising his influence largely behind the scenes but with tentacles reaching to the art department at Rice University, the MFAH's Glassell School and the Live Oak Friends Meeting of which he is a trustee. He is also a board member of Williams College in Massachusetts.

Butler is married to Andrew Spindler-Roesle an antiques dealer in Essex, Mass., and divides his time between homes in Houston and in Massachusetts.

What is your chief characteristic?

Tenacity. It took me 17 years to work through three estates to purchase property that abuts my house and gallery. It was just like Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Dickens's Bleak House. I was told I couldn't do it, but I did. I've been working on a project at the National Gallery since 1997. One day it will happen. I think it is genetic. My grandmother planted acorns in her 70s, watered them religiously and enjoyed trees in her 90s.

Your idea of happiness?

I'm living it. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I would ever be able to say I was married.

Your idea of misery?

Being a closeted gay Republican.

Your pet aversion?

People who pretend to do their job.

Favorite motto?

Silence equals death.

Your favorite heores in real life?

I've been privileged to have a good number. Three friends come to mind — Moore Murray, Jeanne Lantz, and Chad Foster. Each confronted the inevitability of death in the bravest and most graceful way imaginable. I'm humbled just remembering. 

Your favorite pastime?

I love to cook and I love to cook with Andrew. And I especially like to eat food that he has cooked for me.  

The best advice you ever received?

The most extraordinary advice I've gotten was when I was working for the publisher Alfred Knopf. Before I opened my business he told me, “If you focus on quality, you will always make money. If  you focus on money, you might make money.”

Something people would be surprised to know about you?

I don't think I have many surprises for people. I'm pretty much an open book. Earlier than I should have, I came across the adage that "you're only as sick as your secrets." So I've tried never to have secrets.  

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I would buy all the townhouses that have surrounded my gallery and tear them down.