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He wants to be the director of a major museum. And if Dallas doesn’t give him one, someone else will.
By David Dillon |

Harry Parker arrived in Dallas two days after Christmas in 1973, accompanied by his wife, three small children, and two large dogs. None of them slept much that first night because the dogs bayed at every plane that flew over their Love Field motel. In the morning they discovered that their Christmas presents were missing. Two days later their car was stolen. It was a depressing introduction to a city that was, over the next five years, to be very, very good to Harry Parker.

In fact, the only serious rebuff in his tenure as director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts occurred last June, when voters turned down the arts portion of the municipal bond issue. The defeat left Harry dazed and wondering, momentarily, why he had ever left his cozy niche as Vice Director for Education at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Two setbacks in five years isn’t bad, and it should be pointed out that in neither instance was Parker allowed to exercise his formidable powers of persuasion. Whether they would have made the slightest difference to car thieves is uncertain, but they just might have saved the bond election. At least that’s the opinion of most museum supporters, who are still kicking themselves for allowing the city to talk them into keeping a low profile when they had Harry Parker on their side. It was like restricting Tony Dorsett to specialty teams. “We should have said to hell with the council and their strategy and gone out on our own,” says one disgruntled board member. “Harry Parker can sell anything.”

Selling is what Harry Parker was brought to Dallas to do – sell the city on a new museum, sell the existing museum and its programs to as wide an audience as possible. Under his predecessor, Merrill Rueppel, who served as director from 1965 to 1973, the DMFA had grown from a small regional museum, heavy in Southwestern art, into one of the more progressive public museums in the South. Rueppel had exceptional taste and made some truly outstanding purchases, including the Stillman collection of Congo sculpture and the bulk of the present Asian and Oceanic collections. But Rueppel was also a willful and arrogant director with the habits of a mole and the disposition of a badger. He browbeat staff members in public and tended to treat reporters, scholars, and students as interlopers in his private domain. Normally strong-willed trustees shriveled in his presence, and local artists shouted obscenities whenever his name was mentioned. He once told a reporter that he wouldn’t walk across the street to see the work of any Dallas artist, that it was all junk. The remark is still quoted by those who want to paint a particularly dark picture of the Dallas art scene. Not surprisingly, museum attendance slumped during Rueppel’s tenure, and many influential supporters began drifting away to less arduous duties. The DMFA became a kind of Bluebeard’s castle, the object of a lot of grim jokes and very little affection.

One of Parker’s first jobs was to humanize the museum, which meant essentially convincing the public that there was a human being at the head of it. For openers, he didn’t really look like a director, a definite advantage in 1974. He was short, smiley, naturally ingratiating, and usually just slightly disheveled. He could have passed for the neighborhood paperboy or maybe an usher at the Loew’s Quad. Consequently, people were charmed when they discovered he could pronounce Rou-ault and Modigliani. More important, from the beginning he demonstrated a natural, unstudied talent for public relations. Where Rueppel was an intensely private man and a nine-to-five director, Parker had the instincts of an old ward politician. He was on the road day and night, shaking hands, talking to Rotarians and golden agers, listening hard. Wherever two or three were gathered together, there was Harry Parker spreading the good news about the Dallas museum. In his first six months as director he became a rumor to his family and ubiquitous to just about everyone else.

Even now, after five years on the job, Parker still gets satisfaction out of pounding the pavement. When David Novros was here working on his fresco series for the UT Health Science Center, Harry Parker was up on the scaffold beside him, shoes off, beer in hand, chatting about Giotto. He was among the first to climb the new di Suvero sculpture at the museum and helped unwrap the Henry Moore before it was placed in front of City Hall. Last spring, just prior to the bond election, he was photographed in the City Council chambers standing over what appeared to be a site plan for the new museum. Yet the angle was such that he might also have been playing hopscotch, adjusting a back brace, or performing the old disappearing chair trick. The possibilities so intrigued a local radio station that it immediately began a “Who-is-this-man-and-what-is-he-doing” contest. No other Dallas arts administrator has had as much exposure, or from such odd angles, as Harry Parker. The museum trustees, accustomed to running for cover whenever Rueppel opened his mouth, were delighted to be so articulately and diplomatically represented. For their part, the city fathers immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Sure, he was from the East, and his A’s were a bit too broad, but, by God, the fellow was a worker, not afraid to get out of his office and meet people on their own turf. With a lot of hard cramming, Harry Parker had passed his qualifying exams.

Harry Parker was born in Florida but grew up in Boston, where, like any right-thinking native, he spent a good deal of time in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. One day he was standing in front of John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” when two elderly ladies stepped in front of him. He stared at them, then at the painting, and realized that they were indeed two of the Boit sisters, now probably in their nineties. It was one of those memorable collisions of art and life that can turn potential stockbrokers into museum directors, a lucky hit that helps to shape a career. Harry Parker has a history of being in the right place at the right time. He majored in art history at Harvard in the late Fifties, one of about ten in his class. His tutors were some of the most eminent scholars in the world, such as Seymour Stive in art history and James Ackerman in Italian architecture. After graduating magna cum laude, he went to Europe and studied Dutch painting with van Gelder and iconography with Erwin Panofsky. He says, with more astonishment than vanity, that he can’t think of another museum director in the country who had the same kind of academic luck. “It was all very elitist, of course, but absolutely wonderful.”

Then, at 23, he was plucked out of graduate school at NYU and brought into the Metropolitan Museum, not as an assistant curator in some narrow historical specialty, which would have been the usual procedure, but as administrative assistant to the legendary director, James Rorimer. Rorimer himself was only 23 when he entered the Met’s Department of Decorative Arts in 1928. He subsequently became the motivating force behind the construction of the Cloisters, one of the outstanding collections of medieval art in the world, and presided over the greatest period of expansion in the Met’s history, building new galleries and wings, and acquiring many important works of art, including the Annunciation altarpiece by Roobert Campin and Rembrandt’s “Afis-totle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.” Thus, by executive decree, Harry found himself a member of the inner circle of one of the greatest museums in the world.

Several times a week Rorimer would collect his staff and take them on a guided tour of the Met, commenting on the placement of works (he was a master at arranging art in the museum’s vast and intricate spaces), asking everyone which three objects he’d most like to have and why. Harry always went along, and in the process got insights into running a museum that he could never have found in textbooks. In the evenings, he and some of the curators might walk the two blocks to Rorimer’s apartment where they’d sip Scotch and talk about medieval tapestries or Greek marbles or whatever else came to mind. Rorimer’s enthusiasm for art was matched only by his eagerness to share it with his disciples. Later, as Thomas Hoving’s Vice Director for Education, Harry was allowed to sit in on all meetings of the acquisitions committee, another lucky break since even the head curators had to leave the room once they had made their presentations. Here he learned how to evaluate a work of art, how to negotiate a price, when to wait and when to move. By the time he arrived in Dallas he was on speaking terms with most of the major dealers and scholars in the world. In terms of expertise, he was 34 going on 60.

One of the most important things he learned from working with Rorimer was how to deal with trustees. They were not, in Rorimer’s eyes, the enemy to be placated and circumvented but the key to the continued vitality of American museums, the factor that distinguished them from their government-operated European counterparts, whose decisions all come through the ministry of culture. Rorimer had a deep respect for the amateur spirit, and saw his own role as that of facilitator, as someone who enabled the trustees to work their collective will for the good of the institution. He consulted them regularly and in unusual situations. He knew when key board members got up in the morning and would time his phone calls accordingly. When he discovered that he and Robert Lehman, the noted collector and donor of the Lehman wing, had the same masseur, he arranged for the two of them to have their pectorals pounded together so that they could discuss Met business. The building of the Cloisters was not, as is sometimes said, simply Rorimer’s coup, but the product of a long and creative collaboration with John D. Rockefeller – two men with similar vision coming together on a single great project.

In less eccentric fashion, Harry Parker has followed his mentor’s lead in working with his own trustees. He attends their dinner parties, escorts them on museum tours of Europe, advises them about purchases and affirms those they’ve already made. He has cultivated the Associates, at $1000 a head, until now they provide nearly a quarter of the Museum’s annual operating budget. Compared to Rueppel, he is civility incarnate. One of the major achievements of his first five years, insiders say, has been in getting a group of strong-minded, independent trustees to agree not only on the need for a new museum but on a site and an architect. The challenge of the next five years, they add, will be to keep this coalition intact.

The Met was Rorimer’s whole life, to the point that he walked the halls picking up scraps of paper and returned at midnight to be sure all the doors were locked. Parker isn’t quite that compulsive, although he considers his greatest strength as director to be the degree of concentrated commitment he brings to the job. And concentrated it is. Mention politics, gourmet cooking, or the Dallas Cowboys, and his attention wanders. But the moment conversation turns to the dynamics of institutional life, he becomes an animated talking machine. He’s a complete museum man, capable of immersing himself in even the smallest details of its operation. When representatives of the Junior League come to talk about the proposed children’s education wing, he patiently goes over every item on the plan-lighting, seating arrangements, location of the easels and the finger painting materials.

“And how many toilets will there be?” someone asks.

“Two,” says Harry smiling. “Boys and girls.”

“But there could be 500 children in the museum at one time. What happens if they all have to go at once?”

Harry runs his finger over the plans, pointing to a second area with several more toilets. “See.”

“And what about coats? Will the children have to leave them on the buses?”

Discussion then turns to coat racks, storage space, and a dozen other seemingly peripheral matters. Harry fields all questions with the kind of equanimity that suggests that, yes, he realizes that a museum needs good toilets and coat racks as well as art.

In this respect he differs from his other mentor, Thomas Hoving, who was also plucked from the student ranks by Rorimer and brought into the Met, where he succeeded Rorimer as director. He wouldn’t think of picking up scraps of paper or discussing coat racks with the Junior League. He delegated such matters. Hoving’s forte is ideas, and as events have shown, he’s equally at home as Parks Commissioner or director of Tiffany’s or film producer or director of the Met. He opened up the Met to all kinds of new influences, for which Harry says he will be remembered as the great transformer of American museums. He is also prepared to take enormous risks to accomplish his goals; Harry Parker clearly is not.

“Hoving was never more excited than when the dark clouds started gathering over the Met. He thrived on controversy. He was always encouraging me to plunge ahead with my programs and not wait for approval from everyone who might be affected. My tendency, I suppose, is to muster as much support as possible before going ahead. Given the choice, I’d rather not offend anyone.”

Back in 1968 Harry was deeply involved in one of Hoving’s most controversial projects – “Harlem on My Mind,” a photographic history of Harlem that managed to offend just about everyone.

“Nobody would have been angered by ’Harlem on My Mind’ if it had been an exhibit of the black art of New York,” Parker says. “As it turned out, it was an exhibition of photographs of personalities who had been active in Harlem in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, but without a single painting by Harlem artists like Jacob Lawrence, for instance. Ironically enough, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a show that had nothing to do with art.”

When he came to Dallas, Parker exhibited caution born of such experiences. The DMFA’s “Poets of the Cities” show in 1974 was originally called “The Beat Generation.” Parker insisted on the more neutral title, even though in retrospect he believes that the original title was much better. This caution creeps into his conversation as well, though he never resorts to doubletalk or officialese. Ask good questions and you get straight answers, often festooned with asides and parenthetical elements. He’s clearly conscious of the way his statements will look in print, so he turns them around and around to be certain that he’s got it right.

Harry’s first major show was “The Degas Bronzes,” brought in from the Metropolitan as Hoving’s going-away present to his Vice Director for Education. Not only did the show salvage an otherwise mediocre season, it set the tone for things to come. In the first place, it was a crowd pleaser, drawing nearly 60,000 visitors in six weeks. You don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy Degas, and to a public that was beginning to think that perhaps art wasn’t for them, this was good news. But the show was also directed towards Dallas collectors, many of whom had their own Degas bronzes as well as important Impressionist works. It was a clear invitation for them to return to the fold, and maybe bring their collections along with them. A key element in Parker’s success, some would say the key element, has been his talent for striking a balance between popularity and elitism. He’s been able to mount crowd-pleasing shows without neglecting the interests of the people who build and endow museums. There are people, including some local artists, who feel that Parker has been almost too successful in this regard, that he has made the DMFA popular at the expense of hanging the kinds of provocative exhibitions that a vigorous art community needs. They recite names like Calder and Oldenburg, and ask, “Where’s the risk, the challenge?” One obvious answer is that what artists consider risky and what the public considers risky are different matters. To the average museum goer, Oldenburg’s “Ray Gun Wing” probably seems avant garde. But Parker doesn’t fall back on that argument. He appears genuinely concerned about the problems of local artists, particularly now that conditions at the Fort Worth Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston are so unstable. In relaxed moments, such as when he’s eating his daily club sandwich at the Fair Park El Chico, he’ll concede that the DMFA is milder than it ought to be. At the same time, he’ll also point out that there are other priorities.

“Our basic thrust has been to secure support from the community. If that means sacrificing ego or national recognition for being the first to attempt something, that sacrifice has been a calculated one. For better or worse, we want to be popular.”

Popular with the public, and popular with the key supporters of the museum. Right now there is more and better art in Dallas private collections than there is in the public museum. Before he was hired, Harry informed the trustees that one of his primary objectives was to keep the major private collections – Meadows, McDermott, Marcus, Murchison, Clark – in Dallas as well to encourage new collectors to buy with the museum’s needs in mind. His record so far is impressive. In the past five years more than six million dollars’ worth of art has been added to the DMFA’s collection, including a number of major acquisitions: Brancusi’s “Egg”; Modigliani’s “Le Garcon en Culottes,” a surprise gift from the Fikes family; Rouault’s “The Italian Woman,” donated by pianist Vladimir Horowitz. In 1975 the McDermott Foundation gave the Schindler collection of African sculpture, and shortly thereafter, as a joint gift from the Meadowses, Murchisons, Hamons, and McDermotts, the Wise Collection of Pre-Columbian art arrived, all 2700 pieces. Harry’s hand is clearly visible in all of these transactions.

His single biggest coup, however, was undoubtedly the O’Hara bequest, some $4.5 million from the estate of Mrs. John B. O’Hara, whose father invented Dr Pepper. Until Harry began “courting” her (no one ever uses a different verb), Mrs. O’Hara had shown relatively little interest in the museum. In 1974, she made her first major gift, George Inness’s “View of Rome from Tivoli.” A year later came the windfall. Throughout the protracted and delicate negotiations, interrupted by numerous legal squabbles, Harry drank nothing but Dr Pepper in public. If there was an opening or a reception, there he was with a glass of the brown bubbly for all to see. At cocktail parties it became the official mixer, and anyone who’s ever tried Dr Pepper with Scotch knows what a test of will it can be. To those who question the propriety of all this maneuvering, Harry quickly points out that, historically, great museums have been built by the careful collection of collections. Where would the Met be without Rockefeller, Lehman, and Mrs. Have-meyer? he asks. Or Fort Worth without Kimbell and Carter? Moreover, opportunities in the art market are almost always unexpected. A director has to be able to move swiftly. Harry Parker is obviously very fleet afoot.

The only way to house the new collections properly would be to build a new museum. And Harry Parker wants a new museum, has wanted one ever since he first set foot in the present building more than eight years ago.

“I was in Dallas for a meeting of the National Art Education Association, and during one of the breaks I came out to look at the museum. The state fair was on, so I spent about an hour wandering around the midway looking for the museum. Nobody seemed to know where it was. When I finally located it it seemed so incongruous that I had to walk through a carnival to get there. So when the search committee approached me about the job my first reaction was no interest. I’d been there and knew what a lousy situation it was for a museum.”

Parker has a deep personal stake in the new museum. He talks about it constantly, and even describes himself as obsessed with the subject, though not insanely so, he adds. It’s also clear that this is more than just an ego trip for him.

“All seem to agree that the present museum is not ideally situated,” he wrote to the search committee five years ago. “More important, it appears to me that the present location puts a wet blanket on optimism about the future and may well discourage art and money contributions. Though I realize that this will require patient and subtle work to satisfy all elements of the community, I believe the responsible inner group should now set as a primary objective the accomplishment of a move.”

As a blueprint for a strategy, this statement is fuzzy; as a description of Parker’s style, it is letter perfect. Patience and subtlety have been among his strong points from the moment he arrived in Dallas, especially subtlety. Having dramatically improved the image of the director, he shrewdly set out to change the public’s perception of the museum itself, mainly by showing that the existing facility couldn’t fulfill the great expectations Dallas had set for itself. Long before the bond election, he had his staff make a study of space and facilities, measuring every broom closet and crawl space so that when the right moment came along they’d be able to explain their needs down to the square inch.

The conclusion of the study, to no one’s surprise, was that the present building was far too small. The issue then became how to translate this conclusion into terms the public could understand. Press releases and public appearances were one way; another was to make the museum appear smaller physically. Gradually, partitions appeared where none had been before, shortening vistas and reducing any feeling of spaciousness.

A show such as “Calder’s Universe,” precisely because it was so popular, furthered the cause by appearing to burst through the walls. Stabiles and mobiles took over galleries; visitors had to creep about cautiously to avoid being hit by dangling arms and swinging metal balls. And whenever school buses decanted children into the museum, as they did at regular intervals, the place seemed ready to explode. What fun, any perceptive visitor would think, and how much more fun if there were just a bit more room. “Pompeii AD 79,” with its frescoes and large interior courtyards, will make the same point even more emphatically; in order to accommodate the show, the entire permanent collection has been stored or farmed out to other museums. And as the 300,000 or so visitors file toward the exit, they will pass by a model of the “new museum,” the hope of the future. One of the things they will notice first will be the proposed children’s education wing. The man in the street may not give a hoot about Abstract Expressionism, but how could he vote against art education for kids? They couldn’t have done it better on Madison Avenue.

When Harry talks about the new museum, it’s frequently in terms of his experience at the Met. Not that he expects to recreate the Met on Woodall Rodgers. Rather, he sees the new DMFA as a comprehensive institution that is strong in many areas: collections, library and research facilities, education, and public service. As someone who’s spent much of his career in art education, he’s particularly proud of the growth of the DMFA’s various outreach programs, which have given the museum much higher visibility in the community.

“Given a reasonable chance, I believe I could interest anyone in art,” he says. “The art does most of the work, of course, I’m just an aide, but I’ve never really believed that anyone is unreach-able, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.”

The museum’s most ambitious proselytizing project will, of course, be “Pompeii AD 79,” which has been acquired to accomplish a number of things: attract thousands of people to the museum, many of whom have never been before, and a percentage of whom might be induced to vote for a new building in the next bond election, which could come as soon as next fall; give the museum a higher national profile; and impress upon the city fathers and downtown business community that, in addition to being good for the city’s spiritual life, the arts are good for its pocket book. Not long ago such a pitch would have been dismissed as crass. In the current economic squeeze, it’s a commonplace. Everyone knows that the arts can be big business, particularly after King Tut generated more revenue for the city of New Orleans than the Super Bowl and the Sugar Bowl combined. What remains to be seen is whether the same magic will work in Dallas. The museum has bet that it will by purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of books and souvenirs.

Economics aside, not everyone thinks that “Pompeii” is such a great idea. Critics point out that it is really more about ceramics and cultural history than art. Interesting, but more appropriate for a museum of ethnology or natural history. What’s more, its presence means the displacement of the DMFA’s entire permanent collection, which, critics argue, is hardly in keeping with the objectives of a fine-arts museum. Parker’s own staff seems divided between those who believe that “Pompeii” is the best thing that could have happened and those who believe that it reflects scrambled priorities, more show biz than art appreciation. With only 35 people on the DMFA’s staff, compared to 500 in Boston and nearly 700 in Chicago, some are crying “uncle.” In fact, the only persistent criticism of Harry Parker as a director is that he has not been as attentive to the needs of his staff as to other aspects of the museum’s operation. One hears complaints that he expects them to pull rabbits out of hats as a matter of course, and that there is never enough time to think through programs and exhibitions because there is always another blockbuster just over the horizon.

Parker concedes that some of these criticisms are justified. He is demanding and doesn’t pretend to Socratic wisdom in instructing his subordinates, though in conversation he is quick to praise their achievements and to insist that they have borne the brunt of rising expectations without getting the credit. At the same time, it’s obvious that staff development is not, at the moment, his top priority. Building the new museum is. When that happens, he argues, other things will fall into place.

But what if it doesn’t happen? What if, after five years, after Calder and Pompeii, the museum still doesn’t fly? What will Harry Parker do then? The answer is simple. He’ll leave. He’s promised the board that he will stay on through 1980. He’s made it equally clear that he’s not the sort of person who will dedicate his life to chasing a bond issue that never passes. His current assessment is that, with work and a new, more aggressive strategy, it will pass next time. If not, or if for some reason it has to be postponed indefinitely, he’ll look around for another challenge. He’s temperamentally incapable of being a caretaker. He enjoys playing for big stakes, and if Dallas won’t provide them another city will.

Again, in talking about his career and the future, his point of reference is Rorimer and the Met: “Rorimer’s career was in three parts: ten years in the medieval department at the Met, fifteen years building the Cloisters, then another ten as director. The concept of a mid-career devoted to something that is creative, to building an institution, let’s say, was very important to him and not lost on me. Your opportunities go by so fast that the whole idea of doing something big and risky, that might never happen, but if it did would be a marvelous achievement, was very appealing to me when 1 took this job. It’s something I really want to do. And let’s face it, if at some point in your life you don’t take a gamble you’ll always feel, ’So what did I really do that was creative?’ “

Ten years ago the DMFA wouldn’t have known what to make of a Harry Parker; five years from now it may want or need a different kind of director, maybe someone more committed to scholarship or conservation. But right now, and once again, Harry Parker is in the right place at the right time. “I don’t know of another director in the country who could have done what Harry has done,” says DMFA curator Bill Jordan. “Perhaps there is one, but I doubt it.”

It would appear that most of the Dallas art community feels the same way.


That is, if it ever gets built

In choosing an architect for the new DMFA, the selection committee had two things in mind: They wanted a worthy rival for the Kimbell and the Carter and a building in which the art came first. In concrete terms, this meant that they weren’t much interested in flamboyant, avant-garde designs or in unknown architects.

Under the direction of Lawrence Anderson, former head of the school of architecture at MIT, a list of 55 architects was drawn up, including those in Dallas with relevant experience and an interest in the project. Each candidate submitted slides of recent work along with detailed information about staff, budget, work schedules, and so on. The committee trimmed the list to 15, then to 5. The finalists were flown down for extensive personal interviews, and their former clients were questioned about their qualifications. Does this person meet deadlines? Can he deliver on budget? Would you work with him again?

In the end, the choice came down to two: O’Neil Ford and Edward Larrabee Barnes. Ford was the sentimental favorite. The idea of choosing a famous Texas architect for a major Texas building had strong appeal for many members of the board. But Ford’s experience with museums was limited. Also, he was in his seventies and not in the best of health. Barnes, on the other hand, had done the Walker in Minneapolis and the Scaife addition to the Carnegie Institute of Art in Pittsburgh, two exciting places in which the architecture worked harmoniously with the art and the surrounding buildings. They are modern structures on the conservative side.

Eventually these considerations prevailed and Barnes was chosen. Since then, he has made numerous trips to Dallas to discuss the plans with the trustees and the museum staff. One of his strong points is that he thinks of museums as places where people visit and work, not as monuments to architects or donors. Another, obviously, is his ability to speak forcefully to a number of different constituencies – trustees, collectors, the women’s guild, city officials. In this respect he’s a good match for Harry Parker.

An intriguing sidelight in all of this is the growing Dallas-Minneapolis connection. Both cities are close to larger metropolitan areas with larger and more active art communities, Dallas to Houston and Minneapolis to Chicago. Both feel the urge to be better, if not necessarily bigger than their competition. Barnes, of course, has now designed museums in both cities. When Edmund Bacon was in town last June to discuss the revitalization of downtown Dallas, his model was downtown Minneapolis, where shops, hotels, and public buildings are linked by a system of all-weather walkways. He proposed that the new museum be located as close to the retail core as possible, preferably on top of Neiman-Marcus. Perhaps the next development will be a Cowboys-Vikings Super Bowl.

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