To watch Gary Tinterow, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), walk the galleries is to see a man engaged as much with the art as he is with those looking at the art. He wants to see who is in the museum, who appears to have made a return visit, and how they are responding to what is on view. He covets the art and his public.
Even though he has likely seen every piece on display in the museum more than a few times (and many of them he has been responsible for bringing into the permanent collection), he stops at familiar works. Beneath the whirling fins of Alexander Calder’s International Mobile he pauses, as if to feel the breeze its parts might stir as they revolve over the staircase in the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. He looks at his own arm when walking through the underground colored light tunnel connecting the campus’s Glassell School of Art and the Kinder to see if he is bathed in the hue that is emitted. He examines everything as if for the first time—John Biggers’s 1950 drawing, The Cradle; a Fernand Léger painting; a Noguchi work in the outdoor sculpture garden. “I don’t know that I can ever see a work of art the same way twice,” he says. “Great works of art constantly surprise and instruct.”
Since assuming the position of director in 2012, Tinterow has continued to transform the museum into one of the world’s leading art destinations, though it had been given a big head start before his arrival at the helm. Tinterow, a native Houstonian, is well equipped for the role. He came to the MFAH after having served for some thirty years at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—as Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art and, prior to that role, as the department’s curator of European paintings. Apart from his natural charisma and palpable passion for art of every era and culture, Tinterow understands the city in which he grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and how it has come to be defined, in part, by its museums.
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PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD BARNES
WRITTEN BY DAVID MASELLO
This story appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of MILIEU.