The DMFA and the Kimbell move into the big time

IN THE FALL of 1980, three museum officials were interested in an early 19th Century Romantic painting by one of France’s greatest artists, Jacques Louis David. The picture, The Anger of Achilles, was one of the few major Davids in private hands. Most of the rest are in French or Belgian museums, destined never to leave Europe except for special exhibitions.

The Anger of Achilles is from David’s late neoclassical period when he was in exile in Belgium, a fugitive after the defeat of Napoleon, whom he had painted and admired. David’s late neoclassical pictures are not widely popular now, although art historians and art buyers are beginning to show interest in early Romantic painting. This particular picture, although brightly colored, finely painted and considered by the artist to be one of his best, is theatrical, almost sentimental, a difficult picture for the contemporary sensibility.

It was not a difficult picture for Sir John Pope-Hennessy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Such a picture would wonderfully complement the Met’s early neoclassical David, The Death of Socrates. Nor was it a difficult picture for Steven Nash, the newly appointed chief curator of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Nash had written his doctoral dissertation on David’s drawings. His assignment for the DMFA’s director, Harry Parker, was to acquire first-class works for the museum. Nor was it a difficult picture for Edmund (Ted) Pillsbury, newly appointed director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, although David is not his scholarly interest.

How The Anger of Achilles came to hang on the Kimbell’s elegant travertine walls rather than in Fair Park or Manhattan reveals much about the changing natures of this area’s two major museums.

Parker and Pillsbury have different personal styles of leadership expressly suited to two very different museums. But they share, with a new generation of young museum directors in their late 30s and early 40s, a vision of museums as wide-open educational institutions that must reach a broad spectrum of the community, rather than as repositories of beautiful objects for the enlightened few.

Two years ago, neither museum would have tried for the David. The Kimbell was in a holding pattern, virtually paralyzed by the death of its founding director, Richard F. Brown, in November 1979. While its trustees searched for a new director, it prepared for such major traveling exhibitions as the huge “Great Bronze Age of China.” Its one major purchase without the guidance of Ric Brown was to be Cezanne’s Peasant in a Blue Smock, bought at auction in May 1980 for a record price of $4.3 million. Peasant was a safe enough purchase, a fine portrait by a certifiably great painter, worth breaking a Kimbell policy of buying from dealers only and keeping prices confidential.

Two years ago the DMFA was trying to get Dallas voters to pass a $24.8 million bond issue to build a new museum downtown and release it from its cramped and increasingly shabby quarters in Fair Park. A 1978 bond issue for the new museum had failed miserably, chiefly because it was attached to an extravagant list of other projects totaling $250 million. Harry Parker was not about to let the new building slip through his hands a second time. This time he had the request for a museum isolated from other projects. Posters and bumper stickers all over town proclaimed “A great city deserves a great museum.” Parker’s highly organized trustees had a team of volunteers on 800 telephones ringing up support.

Parker had come to Dallas from the Metropolitan in New York because he wanted to create something new. Stanley Marcus had told him it would take nine years to accomplish his task: three years to get people to agree to a new museum, three years to plan it and three years to build it. He was just about on target.

Parker is an organizer, an educator, a leader, even, in one of his modest metaphors that keeps everybody working with him, a “conduit” for other people’s wishes and ambitions. Parker is not himself a scholar and connoisseur like Pillsbury, but as soon as the bond issue was passed, he began adding the scholarly depth to assure that once the new museum is built, something worth seeing will be in it. Parker believed that if any city in the country had a chance of building a great public museum, it was Dallas. Dallas had the energy and the money and the growth. The Met was a fine place to learn the ropes in the turbulent Sixties under Thomas Hoving. But Dallas was a place to make something.

The bond issue passed, of course, and before one could say Robert Rauschenberg, Parker had another $28 million from private sources, and Rauschenberg had agreed to a long-term loan of a major work from his personal collection. To do this, Parker had to orchestrate trustees, collectors, curators, corporate executives, museum volunteers, voters and city politicians into a collective vision, making them feel that he was guiding them toward something they wanted, rather than leading them into the unknown.

In many ways, Ted Pillsbury had an easier situation to deal with when he was named director of the Kimbell in December 1980. He had a Louis Kahn building that is cited as an architectural jewel as often as Lincoln is cited as a great president. He had a sound but not thoroughly tested staff of curators, some of them hired by Brown only months before his death. And unlike Harry Parker at the DMFA, Pillsbury had money to buy art. That fact alone put him ahead of both Parker and Pope-Hennessy in the fight for the David.

The Met is obviously a great institution, with many thousands of objects compared to the few hundred at the Kimbell or even the 10,000 at the DMFA. It annually spends about $25 million for art, but it has to raise most of that money from the trustees, collectors and patrons. Frequently a curator at the Met has to persuade somebody to either buy a picture and donate it to the museum, or find the money in other ways. This often takes time, and a picture can be lost in the amount of time it takes a curator to raise the money or persuade a patron to buy and donate. Pillsbury had a small board that was willing to be led. It spent $12 million to $15 million this year, making it one of the most significant buyers of art in the world.

Steve Nash laughs ruefully when The Anger of Achilles comes up. It didn’t get past consideration as a slide among the curators and trustees at the DMFA. The board’s taste was more to a small Daumier, one that would contribute to the museum’s growing strength in later French painting of the 19th century. The Daumier is a fine painting in its own right, but not nearly as daring or ambitious a choice as the David.

A major problem with the David was whether it had been brought out of France to New York through proper channels. Enough questions were raised by both the Met and the Kimbell that the dealer sent it back to Europe to be reprocessed through the French ministry of culture, assuring that it could properly leave the country. This requirement satisfied, Pillsbury met with his board, and when the painting was returned to New York, he pounced. Pope-Hennessy and the Met didn’t have a chance against the Kimbell’s ready money.

The David, along with 10 other acquisitions made in Pillsbury’s first few months as director of the Kimbell, were put on display last April before official press announcements were ready. Pillsbury put them in a completely rearranged permanent installation, hauling everything up from the vault. The move shattered some beliefs about the Kimbell as Brown’s jewel box of aesthetic perfection. It dismayed not a few of the museum volunteers and patrons inside the “Fort” who regarded the Kimbell as almost sacred, Brown’s acquisitions unquestionable and his installation sacrosanct.

Brown had great personal charm. He involved everybody in the museum. When he had doubts about whether to buy an object, he would sometimes place it on a desk for the reactions of four or five secretaries. He was a storyteller of considerable skill. Few people left him without gaining a sense of their own importance to him and to art. The result was that he had a great many followers and was sometimes blindly adulated.

His accomplishments were not insignificant. It was Brown who commissioned architect Louis Kahn to build the Kimbell when it was a lot of money, a plot of ground on the near west side of Fort Worth and an eclectic collection of Western art and English portraits, many of them of pretty young women. It was Brown who bought Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Jew, and great portraits by El Greco and Goya.

When word of Pillsbury’s appointment reached Fort Worth, prediction was that whoever Pillsbury was, he had better be able to walk on water. Ric Brown was a Moses who had led his people to the Promised Land and built them a temple of art. Woe to anyone who desecrated the temple. The idolization of Brown was, of course, unfair to him. It created a picture without shadows and highlights. It was unreal.

No one more thoroughly disliked Pillsbury’s experiments and acquisitions than the art editor of the Morning News, Janet Kutner. In a long Sunday article in early April, she criticized Pillsbury’s acquisitions, and without mentioning Brown directly, continued his veneration as the man whose buying and installation were not to be questioned.

Pillsbury’s pictures were all right, she said, but they were not in the Kimbell’s (i.e., Ric Brown’s) league.

“Pillsbury’s obvious intent is to fill gaps in the Kimbell’s collection and to expand its historic context,” she wrote, “but one cannot help wondering why he has chosen to make so many purchases so fast rather than living with the collection a while first.”

While making occasional concessions to Pillsbury’s acquisitions, she painted him as a pedantic art historian who lacked Brown’s visual and aesthetic taste.

“One result of this concern for the educational value of the collection is a reduction of its visual impact,” she wrote. “In effect, Pillsbury asks the viewer to learn rather than inviting him to enjoy.”

It was a lamentable oversimplification, doing justice to neither man’s accomplishments, but in many ways, Brown encouraged it.

“Ric Brown’s point was, ’Is this a quintessential object?’ ” says David Robb, chief curator of the Kimbell who had worked with Brown for several years. It was not that Brown neglected historical significance, authenticity, condition and the rest.

But somehow Brown’s historical acquisitions got lost in a myth that he bought only the greatest of pictures, like the Rembrandt, the Goya and the El Greco. The Romanesque apse and the St. Barnabas Altarpiece and the 12th-century reliquary arm are acquisitions by Brown that were clearly made for reasons of historical significance and rarity rather than pure aesthetic delight (if such a mental category exists at all).

Brown furthered the pedantry of the Barnabas altarpiece by displaying it on a disproportionately large wooden table, as though it were still in ritual use. The table so distanced the viewer that it was difficult to see the three panel paintings. When people leaned on the table to get a better view, it wobbled, endangering the fragile wooden panels. Pillsbury got rid of the table and simply put the paintings on the wall.

He also moved the apse from the end of the long central gallery and put it in a side gallery. Kutner lamented the end of the “thrilling vista” of seeing the Romanesque reconstruction under Louis Kahn’s barrel vault, but as one museum official pointed out, the apse was a side chapel, not meant to be viewed from 100 feet away. And although the paintings are in good condition, the apse is a representative rather than quintessential work of art. Nor should Brown be blamed for not having bought the Rembrandts of medieval art. Such masterpieces are nearly impossible to find. Brown’s practice was clear, it his theory was not: When works of less than the highest quality are not available, significant and representative works will have to serve.

The medieval pieces may well have been about as good as could be found. But other of Brown’s purchases were not successful. Neither Pillsbury nor his staff has issued any press releases about them, but some of Brown’s pictures have been quietly removed from the permanent installation, including an 18th-century English “conversation piece” by Johann Zoffany, an inferior Frans Hals portrait, an oil study of Gustave Courbet’s famous self portrait (Brown bought the inferior copy of a masterpiece), and Rubens’ The Triumph of David, painted when the master’s powers were declining.

Lurking in the masterpiece theory is the mistaken notion that the untutored eye is somehow capable of perceiving greatness without prejudice, judgment or knowledge of painting. This is probably comforting to those who may already find the idea of looking at million dollar paintings in a museum intimidating. It was, perhaps, the most workable idea for Fort Worth a dozen years ago, when Brown began building the museum and its collection. But it is the equivalent of watching a baseball game and knowing little more than the score: Rembrandt, 1, Unknowns, 0. The game is more enjoyable when you know the players and what they are capable of doing, and when you can think like the manager and cuss him out when you don’t like his moves. Brown was playing major league ball, but he didn’t have any real fans, only enthusiasts.

The Butcher Shop by Annibale Carracci (pictured at the beginning of this article) is an eye-shattering piece of Italian Baroque realism from the early 1580s. With its realistic subject matter and its shop-window pose, it seems almost a 20th-century work. It is painted in a carefully controlled palette of greens, grays and reds.

“It makes me want to vomit,” says one Kimbell docent.

It is, admittedly, an ugly subject, especially for an age accustomed to buying meat in cellophane wrappers. It is not a prettified painting, and it is difficult to see, because somewhere along the line, “beauty” has been separated from truth. Beauty is identified with sentimental subjects, appropriate attitudes, serene contemplation, pleasant sensuality. Roughness, power, moral penetration are shoved aside. Not in the Carracci, which knowledgeable critics and scholars are celebrating among themselves as a coup for the Kimbell. It’s so important a picture that Pope-Hennessy is going to borrow it for the Met.

Another less than obvious masterpiece bought by Pillsbury is an 18th-century portrait of a horse by the English painter, George Stubbs. Perhaps the controlled palette and subtle technique, the unpre-tentiousness of the picture, have misled people. The horse is posed standing with a groom in front of a tree. The horizon can be seen beneath the horse’s belly, giving the animal a soaring quality. The tree is somewhat dimly and abstractly painted, and the groom is subdued, further focusing the attention on the horse, the first Arabian in England. His veins bulge beneath his shining chestnut coat. It is hard to believe that a horse-loving town that got its start in cattle could fail to appreciate either the Carracci or the Stubbs, but people have to learn to see just as they must learn to read.

For such acquisitions to be appreciated, Pillsbury needed an ambitious program to bring people into the museum. He proudly plops down the Kimbell’s first complete quarterly calendar, which includes a host of noontime and evening lectures, films and concerts. Some of these events cost the museum little money, because they draw on volunteers and the curatorial staff. “It’s just a question of using the building,” he says.

Some of the Thursday-evening lectures on “The Patron, the Artist and the Audience” have drawn 130 people, when art lectures used to draw as few as 15 people an evening. A high-school program this summer drew a disappointing 10 students, but Pillsbury has been pushing ahead with a Saturday-morning program for children and parents. One Saturday morning in October, 50 children and 27 parents were present for the program, organized by instructor Ann Mezzatesta. Pillsbury insists he is more proud of the children’s program than of the Velazquez.

Few details have escaped him. He is improving the restaurant food, and has secured a wine and beer license to attract a luncheon crowd, something the DMFA has been doing successfully for several years. He is bringing in New York designer Bill Baldwin to consult about new furniture and carpets. One of his first acts at the museum was to systemize the printing of the installation labels, to the point of tracking down the right IBM typewriter in a second-hand shop in New York.

The Kimbell has long had a well-deserved reputation for its beautiful display of traveling exhibitions, but until Pills-bury’s arrival, it had never originated a major exhibition itself.

Pillsbury waves a legal-sized form with the words loan agreement at the top.

“See this? This didn’t even exist until a few months ago,” he says.

One of his first requests of the curatorial staff was to ask for suggestions for exhibitions. Chief Curator David Robb is working on the first major exhibition of the works of the French portraitist Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun. Curator Michael Mez-zatesta is preparing an exhibition of Bernini sculpture to accompany a visiting show of the sculptor’s drawings. In conjunction with the exhibition, Mezzatesta has persuaded the Hip Pocket Theater to stage a Bernini play.

The greatest coup, however, is probably Emily Sano’s organization of a major traveling show of wooden Japanese sculpture from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Many of the works are coming from Buddhist temples where they are still in active use. The exhibition, which will coincide with the Kimbell’s 10th anniversary in 1982, will be on a level comparable to “The Great Bronze Age of China,” which drew record crowds to the museum.

“I don’t try to do all this stuff myself,” Pillsbury says, “but I prod people.”

Pillsbury is quick to emphasize that his acquisitions are not the product of his personal taste and instinct alone. He demands full consultation from all of his personal staff, and experts from across the country and Europe as well. The secret to buying, he says, is to comb the dealers and get a reputation for thoroughness. Soon they will come to you with their best pieces, he says.

One of the first things Pillsbury did when he came to Fort Worth was drive the 35 miles to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and meet with Harry Parker and Steve Nash. Parker is more in the image of a team coordinator than Pillsbury, who seems fully in charge. Pillsbury is a leader, not a coordinator. But he heads a very different institution than Harry Parker. Pillsbury had a well-established and well-known building, a large acquisitions endowment and a small board of trustees to lead. He could immediately begin buying paintings, hiring new staff and starting new programs before Fort Worth could catch its breath.

Pillsbury has spent from $12 million to $15 million in the last year on art. The DMFA will spend about $3 million, and much of it has to be raised. While Pillsbury works with a small board of Kay Kimbell’s heirs and business colleagues, Parker works with a large and complex board of 50. The Kimbell owns about 500 objects of art, many of them very fine. The DMFA owns 10,000. While the Kimbell Foundation owns all of the works of art in its museum, most of the DMFA’s art is owned by the city, although a special foundation within the DMFA owns much of the contemporary work.

The Kimbell seems destined to become a small, intimate museum like the Frick, with very great works of art but no great scholarly depth. The DMFA has a much weaker collection in European painting but some areas of tremendous scholarly depth, such as pre-Columbian and African sculpture, and South and Central American textiles. Pillsbury came into the Kimbell with a gush of energy. Harry Parker has had to play a diplomat’s game, but he has worked at it no less hard than Pillsbury.

“He hit the ground running,” says Betty Marcus, who was chairman of the board of trustees that selected Parker. “Within three or four months he knew more people than some of us who had lived here for years.”

Knowing people was essential if Parker was to get as far as he has: a $50-million building, increased curatorial depth, the promise of great works of art and a hope that many people will want to participate in the building of a great civic museum.

“The strong hope is that not being privately endowed, it [the DMFA] is always open to new players,” says Parker. “Ten years from now we expect a number of new players. Who will be the new players at the Kimbell?”

Not that Parker wouldn’t like to have an acquisitions endowment the size of the Kimbell’s, estimated to be in the $100 million range. Several people in Dallas are capable of leaving the DMFA a Kimbell-sized bequest, but no one knows whether that will happen. The late oilman and art lover Algur Meadows, for example, gave large amounts of money for art to both SMU and the DMFA. He left his estate to a foundation, and that foundation gives money to many medical and charitable causes, as well as to the arts.

One way of attracting patrons to a broadly based museum is to persuade them to donate not only collections but also the money with which to build wings named after them. The new museum under construction in downtown Dallas offers no such incentives at present. Bronze plaques bearing the names of donors of $500,000 or more will be installed in the new museum. Parker hopes for several such donors, with the aim of not having the museum dominated by a single patron.

Like Pillsbury, Parker is trying to build a public that is knowledgeable about art and involved in the museum in more than just a superficial way. Board membership rotates periodically and includes representation from the artistic and minority communities. The museum board is organized into a number of working committees on membership, planning, building, acquisitions and so on. They are not committees for figureheads.

Most of the people involved in building the new museum, both the professional staff and the membership, feel the DMFA is on the brink of national prominence. Almost everything in the new museum is going to be doubled: the volunteer staff, the professional staff, the parking, the membership, the temporary exhibition space, the museum shop and the total square footage. The educational space in the new museum will jump from 500 square feet to more than 5,000, a good measure of Parker’s philosophy: An informed audience will be a supportive audience. Museums can no longer sit back on the wealth of a few individuals and not bother to count heads. Museum directors have got to be concerned with more than the collection; they must make people believe that art is important to them, that it’s pleasurable, that it gives them something they can get nowhere else.

One sign of this emphasis is the dramatic rise in associate memberships from zero 10 years ago to 459 today. Associate memberships were recently raised from $1,000 a year to $1,200 a year. To sustain and enlarge this membership, Parker recruited one of his top volunteers, Carolyn Foxworth, as assistant director for public affairs. She is optimistic about corporate giving and about memberships. She doesn’t believe a Mellon or a Dupont will come along and rescue the museum. She believes in evolution, she says.

Money is the crucial element in determining whether the new museum will rise to national importance. The doubling of nearly every aspect of the museum will require a tremendous increase in operating expenses at a time when every institution is strapped by inflation and many worthy causes are competing for attention.

City government cannot be counted on to increase its support of the museum in significant ways. Its proportionate share of the museum’s budget has dwindled from 55 percent a decade ago to 22 percent. For the new museum it will probably drop even lower. The first step in meeting the costs will be the attempt to raise $5 million to create an operating endowment. Money from it would go to meet the daily costs of the expanded operation. For example, the four curators at the museum share one secretary. That makes it tough to handle the sheer paper work in organizing a major exhibition, which, as Pillsbury puts it, first involves writing three or four hundred letters. Keeping track of 10,000 objects and the new ones that come in requires full computerization in the new building.

Building a broad base of support and interest is expected to attract money. The key to keeping it working is the key to any successful business these days: marketing and promotion.

In Parker, Dallas found a man ideally suited to the evolving role of the museum as an educational and social resource as well as a repository for art and scholarship. He served several turbulent years at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as vice president for education during the Sixties and early Seventies. He worked for Thomas Hoving, the controversial director whose rapid expansion of the museum’s building program has now put the Met under severe financial strain.

“Hoving was leading a revolution,” Parker says, “from elitism to populism, from staid to swinging.”

The Met’s centennial in 1970 outraged many people. But it had its first major pre-Columbian exhibition, and a huge show of 19th-century American painting brought painters like Frederick Church back into prominence. Both elements are strongly represented in the DMFA, with the Wise collection of pre-Columbian art and the Church painting, The Iceberg, rumored to have been bought by Lamar Hunt at auction for $2.5 million and given to the museum.

The Met mirrored the social revolutions of the time. “The rhetoric was pretty incredible when I look back at what I wrote. Those were my radical days,” Parker says with a laugh. He originated a mobile art display to be sent to the toughest part of the South Bronx. It featured an inflatable tent based on a flatbed truck. It was knifed every night.

How could we be dumb enough to send out something as fragile as that to the South Bronx?” he asks. “There was a kind of arrogance, a kind of unreality about it.”

After that, they learned to work closely with community organizations to determine what they needed and what would work. It’s a lesson Parker has kept in mind in Dallas.

Parker recalls the first art that started him on his career, a reproduction of a Botticelli print he had to write about in the sixth grade. Sometimes the quality of the art seen doesn’t matter, if it sets the imagination to working, he says; people want a total experience in a museum.

Not that Parker is unconcerned about the quality of the art within the museum; he cites the Philadelphia Art Museum as an example of how a great collection is poorly served. A series in The Philadelphia Inquirer last spring cited the problems of the museum, which include a poor restaurant, a decaying barn of a building, poor display, no bus service, an admission charge (something the DMFA hopes to avoid) and a board of trustees that appears to like things as they are.

something has to be put inside the new museum, and it’s probably impossible for Dallas to build an encyclopedic collection. Great medieval and Renaissance works, for example, are next to impossible to find. Even the Kimbell, with its resources, has little to show from these periods. But there are resources in Dallas’ private collections that would greatly enhance the DMFA’s collection if they were loaned or donated. The new museum could have a clutch of six to 10 Monets, for example, and add other Impressionists and con-structivists to the list.

To bring this about, Parker has hired Steven Nash, a scholar and connoisseur from the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. He has promoted Sue Graze to full curator of contemporary art. Nash’s impact has already been felt with the acquisition of a celluloid sculpture (pictured at beginning of the article) by the important modern artist Naum Gabo. Nash has completed a long-range acquisitions plan with a board of trustees committee that will develop the museum’s strengths, while trying to fill in some obvious gaps. Such buying will require major fund raising on an annual basis. An acquisition endowment would be better.

If that happens, so much the better, say the museum’s leaders. But, meanwhile, they will continue to build a broad base of support that will make the museum an interesting and lively place to be.

One gets the feeling that if Ted Pillsbury left Fort Worth tomorrow, a great deal of energy and leadership would disappear from the institution. If Parker left, one has the feeling that the network of trustees, curators, assistant directors and members would simply carry on his nine years’ work. A sign of Parker’s belief in his team is that he proposed several times that a group photograph of his staff be used for this article rather than his individual photograph.

If the DMFA is to become a great museum, unquestionably it must have more money with which to buy art. It is an accident of fate perhaps that Fort Worth was blessed with two philanthropists like Amon Carter and Kay Kimbell, and Dallas has had none, at least in art. The presence of a unified museum in Dallas did not come easily. In 1956, after superpatriots and the Dallas newspapers created a storm of controversy about whether contemporary art was socialistic, a contemporary arts museum was founded. The contemporary museum came back into the fold in 1962 with the understanding that its collection would belong to a foundation rather than the city. In the Sixties, under director Merrill Rueppel the museum progressed from an art center to a museum. Rueppel was not particularly concerned whether anyone saw the increasingly respectable collection he was building, however. That, for sure, has changed under Harry Parker.

And although Ric Brown certainly wanted people to come to the Kimbell, Pillsbury, like Parker, is of the new school of directors. The basic question is this, Pillsbury says: “Are you enjoying yourself? Are you learning something?”


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