Published: December 14, 2010
Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, dedicated his career to making the art of world cultures accessible to all and often recounted how art had changed his life.
As a freshman on an athletic scholarship at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Marzio took a course in art history. A class assignment sent him to the Frick Collection in New York, where he was inspired by a Goya painting. This first museum visit was the beginning of his belief that art had the power to enrich life.
Marzio went on to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago in art history and American history. He began his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as a curator of prints and drawings. There, his prolific exhibitions and publications were innovative and celebrated for their democratic spirit and broad appeal. In 1978, he became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he worked to expand the audience base, strengthen its art school, and promote the Corcoran’s famous permanent collection of American and European art.
In 1982, he was recruited by the trustees of the MFAH. Houston and Peter Marzio were a perfect match. He loved the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, “can do” attitude and diversity. Houston welcomed him, and he embraced the city and museum. As director, he was the maestro; Marzio directed major expansion and construction projects, led capital campaigns, and served on many boards and advisory councils.
He was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and its president from 1988 to 1989. From 1997 to 2000, Marzio was chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities in Washington, D.C. He became a member of the Wallace Foundation Board in New York in 2001. He was also president of the Houston Museum District Association from 2001 to 2005. A prolific author, his most recent books included American Art & Philanthropy, 2010; Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Director’s Choice, 2009; and A Permanent Legacy: 150 Works from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1989.
During Marzio’s 28-year tenure, the museum’s collections grew from 13,000 artworks to 62,172. Attendance soared from 380,000 to more than two million a year. Exhibitions proliferated, and grew from 26 in 1983 to 41 in 2009.
His vision and leadership brought diverse, and original, exhibitions to Houston. They included “Treasures from the Shanghai Museum”; “Fresh Paint: The Houston School”; “Frederic Remington, The Masterworks”; “Rediscovering Pompeii”; “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”; “Splendor of Ancient Egypt”; and “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria.”
Marzio developed a multitude of programs to serve the diverse community he loved. In 1983, he initiated Free Thursdays. In 1993, the ten-year Lila Wallace educational program, A Place for All People, was launched. It was followed by the Wallace Gateway to Art/De Puertas al Arte 2004′008 program for the Latin American communities and collections. As an educator of the first order, Marzio was most proud of the museum’s outreach to schools, the Kinder Foundation Education Center, the Kilroy Education Center for Bayou Bend and the Glassell School of Art.
Major collections came to the museum during Marzio’s tenure: the Audrey Jones Beck Collection, the Harris and Carroll Masterson house museum Rienzi, the Caroline Wiess Law Collection and the Glassell Gold Collections.
Under his direction, an unprecedented partnership was forged with the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Cornelia Long, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said of him: “Peter was a visionary leader. He believed the museum was a place for all people and worked tirelessly to make the collection accessible and the educational and exhibition schedules exciting. He embraced diversity and the public. The trustees of the MFAH will continue to do so as well.”
A memorial, to be announced at a future date, will be held at the museum to celebrate his 28 years as director of the MFAH.
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