EL GRECO

Four friends conspire to bring Dallas a blockbuster

HARRY PARKER and Bill Jordan downed a lot of coffee during the early Sixties, lounging about the kitchen table of the old Upper Manhattan mansion that is the New York Institute of Fine Art. As students, they gathered with other starving-artist types in the butler’s pantry to cram for exams and grumble about their misunderstanding parents: “My only son,” my father says, “and he wants to spend his life looking at pictures.”

But Parker, who’s now director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and Jordan, deputy director of Fort Worth’s Kimbell and adjunct curator of the DMFA, stuck with their career choices. And they can count at least one accomplishment that even parents hoping for a senator or surgeon could brag on: Working with two of their art-school colleagues, they’ve brought together one of the most important old-masters’ exhibits in history.

The El Greco show, featuring paintings by that mysterious rogue from 16th-century Spain, will be at the DMFA December 12 through February 6. El Greco’s work has been assembled for the first time in this show, and when it closes in Dallas, the paintings will be packed up and shipped home. Some will be relayed by personal carriers to public and private collections here and abroad, to monasteries, churches and museums-some as far away as Bulgaria.

The exhibit will probably never come together again; that it exists at all is due to feats of diplomacy that would humble Henry Kissinger. That Dallas is one of this extraordinary show’s four stops in the world is an amazing stroke of luck.

In case you wondered, El Greco is not coming to Dallas because we are building a splendid new museum downtown or because our institution is on the beaten path of art scholarship. El Greco is coming to Dallas because Harry Parker and Bill Jordan made a friend over coffee at the Institute of Art. That friend, Roger Mandle, is now in Ohio as director of the Toledo Museum of Art. Over the years, Mandle has grown to respect Jordan above all other Spanish art scholars. When he had a dream he couldn’t convince himself was possible, he called Jordan to ask if it could ever come true.

“Why not?” came the answer. Mandle needed a special way to celebrate the 50th year of the sister-city relationship between Toledo, Spain, and Toledo, Ohio. A definitive El Greco show would be the ultimate anniversary celebration. Was Jordan interested in helping?

That invitation came in March 1978. Jordan, then director of the Meadows Museum at SMU, didn’t wait for his arm to be twisted. He saw the potential and promised to help. The phone rang next in Harry Parker’s office: “Wouldn’t it be great if Roger could pull off this show and if we could have it in Dallas?”

Four years later, after smashing reviews in Madrid, Toledo (Ohio) and Washington, D.C., it’s safe to say that Mandle pulled it off. But it wasn’t easy; that call to Jordan may have been his most critical move. Parker says there are other Spanish art authorities in academia in the United States, but none enjoys Jordan’s prestige with the Spanish government. This project would be an impossibility for an American whom the Spanish did not already trust; it was the first instance of the Prado in Madrid working with an American museum.

Spanish curators and collectors were more than a little leery about sending their priceless paintings on such a long foreign tour. But as it turned out, officials at the Prado were eager to test the waters of the growing international exhibit circuit. They had long ignored traveling shows in favor of a strictly academic approach to art. The El Greco exhibit seemed to them an ideal time to enter the international exhibit arena, and in exchange for the loan of Spanish-owned El Grecos, the Americans agreed to open the exhibit at the Prado. As a further sweetener, the United States proposed to send to the Prado some of El Greco’s most haunting and beautiful works, many of which left Spain before the turn of the century and hadn’t been seen there since.

Once the Prado indicated some tentative interest, Mandle and Jordan realized they needed a third American partner, a museum with a little more financial machismo and social clout. Their choices were New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery. Washington won. Mandle and Jordan liked the idea of reassuring the skeptics at the Prado that their art would travel straight from Spain’s national museum to our national museum. So they called Carter Brown, the National Gallery director.

Brown was, after all, another Art Institute alumnus and had graduated just a couple of years before Jordan. He sounded cautious-“the insurance costs will be so high, the art is so seldom loaned”-but said he was willing to try. And Brown’s museum had exactly the bait Mandle and Jordan needed: several important El Grecos, international visibility and – best of all -the means for giving the show a fittingly extravagant send-off.

With the American team finally together and the Prado people enthusiastically on board, it seemed to Jordan, Mandle and Parker that an El Greco exhibit was well on the road. Financing it was another obstacle, but grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities ($485,000 total), plus at least $500,000 from the American Express Foundation kept their spirits high. Insurance premiums would consume 60 percent of the show’s budget, but the Federal Arts Indemnity Program agreed to cover that front.

Still, the most intricate negotiations lay ahead. There are few things more delicate than the lending of art treasures. Correspondence between Spanish and American museum moguls and El Greco collectors was laced with cajoling and jousting couched in extremely formal language. The Spanish were understandably reluctant to agree to send their masterpieces across the Atlantic before they could be guaranteed that American funding would follow. Language and distance barriers were only made worse by an overworked Prado staff unaccustomed to such a massive undertaking.

There were a few down periods, when Mandle and Jordan wondered if they should forget the whole project, but after at least 15 flights to Madrid, most problems were resolved. The El Greco show opened in Spain, attracting an average of 15,000 people a day. It moved on to Toledo, Ohio, then to Washington, D.C., with spectacular success.

Now the works of El Greco are finally on their way to Dallas. The pressure is on Harry Parker and his people to mount a show that does justice to the mannerist master of the Counter-Reformation.

Parker realizes that the museum must manage El Greco extremely well. “We’ve never had a show that had as much academic and intellectual importance as this one; it’s a real challenge for us to attract an audience and still prove that we can host a scholarly symposium. We’ll be watched to see how we handle the logistics and security; people will notice how our attendance compares to that at other sites.”

The DMFA rose to the challenge of the Pompeii exhibit in 1979. More than 370,000 people came to view that show. But Pompeii, Parker says, “was a good start; an archaelogical, more documentary exhibit.” El Greco is an exhibit of particularly fragile masterpiece paintings and, he says, “it’s got to go as smooth as silk.”

With all the planning and organization that began with the first rumblings of the exhibit four years ago, it’s hard to imagine what has been left to chance. Galleries have been painted and carpeted to highlight specific paintings. A volunteer corp of 600 has been signed and trained. Five museum staff members have learned CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation); one will be on duty every hour the museum is open. It will stay open more hours – even on Mondays – than for any past exhibit.

Journalists call the exhibit a once-in-a-lifetime experience by which our age will be remembered. John Russell of The New York Times says El Greco’s paintings “touch the nerve of our time in quite a particular way.”

Harry Parker says he is convinced thatthe success of his art school colleagues wasinevitable. He has equal enthusiasm forthe inevitable success of El Greco in Dallas: “I think there are people in Dallas whohave never been exposed to such an important show; this is the exhibit that is changing what people everywhere think aboutold-master painting.”

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