Who is America’s best museum curator? According to a recent issue of Time magazine recognizing the nation’s cultural innovators, the answer is Anne Wilkes Tucker of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A Louisiana native, the 56-year-old was hired in 1976 as the MFAH’s first curator of photography; since then she has spent her days acquiring photographs and mounting shows and traveling exhibits that draw on the museum’s collection of more than 12,000 photographs (including 72 from Texas Monthly‘s first 25 years). Her latest project, a Louis Faurer retrospective, debuts on January 13, part of an ongoing celebration of the museum’s—and Tucker’s—quarter-century of collecting.
When you began collecting photography for the museum, you essentially started with nothing. How would you describe the collection now? We have work made on six continents; it’s a completely diverse collection. Right now we’re looking at two areas. Photography after World War II in Italy is really strong. And we’re preparing an exhibition on the history of Japanese photography from 1853 to 2003.
What do you think is the most important element a photograph should possess? There are different levels of criteria that you apply as you’re deciding what to acquire. One is just on a gut level. You respond to the picture, not the pedigree. But the pedigree is something. If you’re smart, it’s an added level, another layer that you pay attention to.
In 1986 the museum produced the first Robert Frank retrospective, showcasing the work of the innovative Swiss-born American photographer. Do you consider that one of your biggest coups as a curator? I guess. But one of the pleasures of being a curator is working with artists. You get to develop these special relationships with extraordinary people. That show initiated a relationship with Robert that is continuing today.
How did you become interested in photography? In truth, it was a photograph by Robert Frank, in his book The Americans, of an elderly man kneeling by the Mississippi River with a cross in his hand. And I knew that man. When I was growing up in Louisiana, I’d see him at the ferry crossing beckoning people to come into the river and be baptized. When I saw that photograph, I realized that the daily elements of my life could be made, by someone like Robert Frank, into art. And that was riveting and quite amazing.