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Meet the Man Who is Helping Make Texas an Art Destination

How Gary Tinterow, the new director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is convincing the art world that Texas is a must-stop destination for major exhibitions.

By December 2012Comments

Last November, murmurs were growing louder in the art world that Gary Tinterow, a 28-year veteran of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would be appointed as the new director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But Mr. Tinterow ignored the talk as he visited with two colleagues at New York’s Carlyle Hotel. They were discussing how Tinterow could coordinate one of the most anticipated exhibitions about to appear on the art horizon.

And now, roughly one year after being named the MFAH’s new director, Tinterow is bringing that show to Texas: “Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado,” an exhibition from the world-famous Prado Museum of Madrid opens today in Houston.

Tinterow’s first major show as the director of the 112-year-old MFAH is ground breaking. Tinterow used his impressive art-world Rolodex to secure an unheard number of priceless works—roughly 100 in all—from the Prado, a museum famously cautious about loaning a large number of its pieces of world-class art.

“It’s very exciting as I can’t think of another occasion in the U.S., nor anywhere else for that matter, when the Prado lent this many grand paintings to a single show,” said Tinterow, who was raised in Houston.

This show is a prelude to Tinterow’s ambitious plans for the MFAH. “The Prado exhibit is the best of the best and it clearly tells you that Gary wants to elevate the museum’s exhibition profile to focus only on the highest quality possible,” said Josef Helfenstein, director of the nearby Menil Collection.

The Prado’s works are a documentation of Spanish society, and the show includes pieces by some of Europe’s most revered painters including Titian and Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, and Tiepolo. Eager to avoid a theme-less display of grand paintings from a major institution, Tinterow is presenting the Prado’s works as coherently illustrative of three centuries of Spanish painting, capturing the power of the Spanish monarchy, and the flowering of its civil and religious societies.

Tinterow said he intends for the MFAH’s audience to come away enriched by the Prado’s art.

“I hope visitors will first exclaim ‘Wow’ at the magnificence of these works,” Tinterow said. “And then, I want them to say ‘Oh’ as they recognize how one artist’s work influences another. Visitors will see that a certain painting, say by Goya, remind them of a Velázquez they saw two galleries before, and that a Velázquez portrait makes them think of a Titian they saw even earlier.”

How Tinterow, 59, managed to convince the Prado to send the entire show to Houston, after its run at Australia’s Queensland Art Gallery, speaks volumes about his decades long passion for Spanish art, and his deep connections to the highest levels of the Spanish art world.

After Tinterow joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983, as assistant curator of European paintings, he began working on several projects with Carmen Giménez, then the newly named director of fine arts in Spain’s Ministry of Culture.

“All these years later, Carmen has become a leading light of modern art exhibitions in Spain and elsewhere,” Tinterow said. “So working with her is like déjà vu all over again.”

While at the Met, Tinterow was involved with several elaborate exhibitions that worked closely with the Prado and Spain’s Ministry of Culture.

“When Gary and I worked together on several exhibitions, I saw him master the art of diplomatic negotiation, an absolutely essential quality if you are going to bring in a great museum show—like the current Prado one,” said Mahrukh Tarapor, an international museum consultant who spent 25 years at the Met, mostly as its associate director for exhibitions.

The burgeoning relationship between Tinterow, the Met, and the Prado reached an apotheosis when he curated the 2002 Met show “Manet/Velázquez, The French Taste for Spanish Painting.”

That show helped deepen Tinterow’s ties with Miguel Zugaza, at the time the Prado’s newly appointed director, with whom Tinterow would remain in constant touch over the next decade. This past April, Tarapor, Tinterow’s former Met colleague and current MFAH senior advisor, urged the Prado’s director to have “Portrait of Spain” make a stop in Houston before returning home to Madrid.

Tinterow then immediately discussed the Prado show with Zugaza and was able to convince him of the benefit in having the Prado’s works exposed to art lovers in America.

“Miguel and I really wanted to create a greater awareness of the Prado’s holdings, for Spanish paintings to be better known beyond the East Coast,” Tinterow said.

For Tinterow, the Prado show is the first of a trifecta of impressive shows he is bringing to Houston. As the Prado exhibition winds down, the MFAH will open “Picasso Black and White,” as well as a display of works from the al-Sabah Collection from Kuwait.

“I’m particularly pleased that Picasso and the Prado should overlap in Houston, as much of Picasso’s work is a dialogue with Spanish painting,” Tinterow said. “They act as a neat, double reflection of so much of my career as a museum professional.” 

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