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Peter Marzio, 67; transformed Houston museum

Peter Marzio (right) started a foundation for all-star basketball player Yao Ming (center) as part of a gallery of Chinese art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. At left is businessman Jack Zhao. Peter Marzio (right) started a foundation for all-star basketball player Yao Ming (center) as part of a gallery of Chinese art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. At left is businessman Jack Zhao. (Prnewsfoto/Museum of Fine Arts)
By Douglas Britt
Houston Chronicle / December 12, 2010

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HOUSTON — Peter C. Marzio, who guided the dramatic growth of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for three decades, died Thursday night. He was 67 and had a recurrence of cancer.

The museum’s longest-serving director, Dr. Marzio joined the museum in 1982. He previously was director and chief executive officer of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Under his leadership, the Houston museum’s permanent collection more than quadrupled in size, growing from about 14,000 artworks to 63,000.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the museum world had lost a major figure.

“He utterly transformed the Houston museum, turned it into a major and very professional institution with wonderful spaces and a hugely improved collection over the years,’’ said de Montebello, who directed the Houston museum from 1969 to 1974. “The key thing about Peter is that he was enormously enterprising and dynamic and showed that these qualities are not irreconcilable with the upholding of the highest standards of excellence. He never pandered to his public. He always kept everything on the highest level. He established, also, an international reputation.’’

The collection’s rapid growth was accompanied by many other milestones under Dr. Marzio’s tenure. The museum added the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by artist Isamu Noguchi, in 1986, and a European decorative arts center after Harris Masterson III and his wife, Carroll Sterling Masterson, donated their home and 4.5-acre estate, Rienzi, in 1991.

The Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by architect Rafael Moneo, opened in 2000, and at the time of his death, Dr. Marzio was working toward the goal of a third building for modern and contemporary art, which he envisioned as presenting a global view of art movements in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He called his plans for the third building the most intellectually challenging work of his career.

Aiming to make the museum a broad encyclopedic museum — one he described as ecumenical in reaching out to Houston’s diverse communities — Dr. Marzio launched the museum’s Asian art department in 2000 and a Latin American art department and its research arm, the International Center for the Art of the Americas, in 2001.

The Latin American department quickly shot to the top tier of the field among US museums, and Dr. Marzio championed an unorthodox approach to the museum’s small Asian collection, integrating ancient and contemporary works in the Arts of Korea Gallery, the Nidhika and Pershant Mehta Arts of India Gallery, and the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Arts of China Gallery.

For the Chinese gallery, Dr. Marzio had what he called the “crazy idea’’ of commissioning artist Cai Guo-Qiang to make his largest US museum drawing — created using exploding gunpowder in a live performance in a Houston warehouse — to line the gallery walls, creating a contemporary crucible for the ancient objects.

Asked if he had a backup plan if anything went wrong during Cai’s performance, at which a fire marshal was present, Dr. Marzio quipped: “No Plan B. Gunpowder is very, very reliable.’’

The museum’s endowment reached a whopping $1.2 billion before the 2008 recession dropped its value to about $800 million.

Born into a working-class immigrant Italian family in New York, Dr. Marzio was a gas station attendant while growing up and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., in 1965, and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago in 1966 and 1969, respectively.

Although he had a poor academic record in high school, a pivotal experience at Juniata College launched his career. Seeing a projected image of Francisco Goya’s painting “Forge’’ during a lecture, Dr. Marzio was inspired to visit the real thing at the Frick Collection in New York.

“I sat down in front of it, and for the first time in my life, I thought I knew more than anyone in the world about something,’’ Dr. Marzio told The New York Times in 2000. “I had a sense of how it was organized and what it was about. It felt so empowering. It’s impossible to convey the feeling it gave me.’’

A desire to give others a similar experience lay at the heart of Dr. Marzio’s work on the museum’s educational programs, which reached more than 750,000 people last year.

A memorial service and celebration of Dr. Marzio’s life will take place after the first of the new year. The date and location are pending.