an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Mask Tasks: How Texas Tinterow Pulled Off the Early Reopening of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As the Metropolitan Museum prepares to reopen to the public on Aug. 29 (with many other major NYC museums expecting to welcome visitors beginning in late August-early September), the experience of the the first major U.S. art museum out of the re-starting gate—the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which intrepidly invited its public back three months ago—is an object lesson on how it might (or might not) work for others.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s reopening riff on its Modigliani—“Léopold Zborowski,” c. 1916, which became a viral emblem of the return of museum visitors

Like Houston, the Met plans to enforce a long list of Covid-thwarting precautions, in compliance with government guidelines. Most importantly, “social distancing” will be facilitated by limiting attendance to 25% of the building’s capacity.

Even though Texas’ rush to reopen likely did contribute to the resurgence of Covid-19 in that state (including in Houston), the MFAH was probably not a spreader, its director, Gary Tinterow, sought to assure me yesterday. A former longtime Met curator and later head of its department of 19th-Century, Modern and Contemporary Art, Gary (who grew up in Texas) stated that his museum was “not aware of any transmission of the COVID-19 virus on our premises, among staff or visitors. We have been testing frontline staff weekly for two months now, and we have not seen instances of transmission among colleagues at work.”

Gary Tinterow at a 2015 NYC press briefing about ongoing expansion of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Sounds good, but my own senior-citizen timidity may keep me home (except for neighborhood walks and daredevil visits to my grandkids) for some weeks after museums in New York (which has much better Covid stats than Texas) unlock their doors. In case I can’t restrain myself, I did buy this yesterday, to wear over my “Modigliani”-style face mask (the belt-&-suspenders approach):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This is one time when lower-than-expected attendance could be a big plus: The Houston museum’s audience has exhibited more caution than the museum’s officials had anticipated. While 900 daily visitors could have been admitted to the MFAH (in accordance with the “25%” stricture), only about 300 to 400 doughty art lovers have roamed its halls on most days. (“About triple that on Thursdays, which is our free general admission day,” Tinterow told me).

Some of Houston’s original exhibition plans for the months ahead have been curtailed (a fate likely to be suffered by many reopening museums): “The Calder-Picasso and Philip Guston shows that we were to open in October have been postponed, due to travel and other restrictions,” Gary lamented.

The Met’s biggest loss was its sweeping Richter retrospective, which opened Mar. 4, only to close at the Met Breuer a mere eight days later, due to the pandemic. (That Whitney-owned building is being repurposed once again—this time as the Frick Madison, during the renovation and expansion of the Frick Collection’s headquarters.)

Two major MFAH shows, which, under normal circumstances, should have been big draws, are now on view to the brave and fortunate few:

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, organized by the Tate Modern, was originally to have opened in April but was postponed to June 27-Aug. 30.

Below is one painting/collage that had arrested me in 2019, when I admired that show at the Brooklyn Museum. (It is also in Houston’s display.)

Benny Andrews, “Did the Bear Sit Under the Tree?”, 1969, oil paint (with zipper and fabric) on canvas, Emanuel Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Houston iteration of “Soul” includes a new section devoted to local artists, featuring works from the MFAH’s collection. Tinterow told me it’s been “especially gratifying” that “almost all of the visitors who come to the museum” spend time in that vibrant, provocative exhibition.

Glory of Spain: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library opened on Mar. 1, shortly before the Covid closing, and has now been extended to early January. (Houston was the final venue on its international tour.)

The financially challenged lending institution in Upper Manhattan, closed for extensive renovations, gained fundraising cred (not to mention needed museum-management expertise) with the appointment in 2015 to the presidency of the Hispanic Society’s board of Philippe de Montebello (Tinterow’s distinguished former boss at the Met). Emily Rafferty, Philippe’s righthand woman as the Met’s former president, joined the Hispanic Society’s board last year. The Society’s director, Mitchell Codding, is retiring effective Oct. 1. When it will reopen is anybody’s guess:

Hispanic Society of America’s main court, with Goya’s “The Duchess of Alba,” 1797 (the signature work of the loan show now at the MFAH), on right
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Unlike many many other art museums (including the Met), the MFAH seems to have been largely undisturbed by petitions or protests, perhaps because of its sensitivity to diversity and its robust financial support, which has obviated the need for widespread layoffs (other than 25 who had been hired as temporary staff).

While others (including the Met) have been financially unable to maintain the status quo during these difficult times, the MFAH has carried on with its major campus redevelopment project, which resulted in the 2018 completion of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation. Also opened in 2018 was the Steven Holl-designed Glassell School of Art.

Now in construction: the Holl-designed, 237,213-square-foot Nancy and Rich Kinder Building for 20th- and 21st-century art, scheduled to open this fall:

Aerial view of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, Steven Holl Architects
Photograph © Richard Barnes

In his museum’s most recent annual report (p. 6), Tinterow boasted:

We posted a record-breaking operating surplus, to be saved, as in previous years, for future needs [emphasis added].

In the midst of Texas’ continuing Covid Crisis, that “future” could be now.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you value on my coverage (or want to subsidize my PPE for future museum visits), please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog