THE CITY THAT PUT MEN on the moon has a problem launching the idea that it has an exciting cultural life. Just witness the New York Times‘s snickering at former Houston first lady Elyse Lanier’s claim that she lives in “a diverse, cosmopolitan, international city” or the Dallas establishment’s metaphysical bewilderment when Houston ended up in the company of “international cities” New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco as a finalist for the American bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Houston can consistently cite its vast expanses of air-conditioned indoor turf and oil-streaked inland waterways, but collectively the city—from River Oaks plutocrats to convention-and-visitors-bureau flacks—has utterly failed to make the case for its sizzling cultural climate.

What’s not getting through is that this city, which decades ago world-premiered such cutting-edge classics as John Adams’ Nixon in China and Philip Johnson’s postmodern skyline, today boasts a panoply of performing-arts companies and contemporary-art venues that have made it a magnet for hotshot young talent from Paris, Texas, to Lahore, Pakistan. Houston has one of the world’s most prestigious photography biennials, one of the nation’s most adventurous ballet companies, and the whole extraordinary Menil legacy, from the Rothko Chapel to an entire building devoted to Cy Twombly, an artist whose work is so reconditely hip that 60 Minutes once trashed it for being so reconditely hip. Few in Houston seem to realize it and evidently fewer dare say it, but this is the first Texas city ever to get high culture off artificial life support and actually produce art that doesn’t just struggle to get in step with New York or Düsseldorf but sometimes even gets there first.

“The lack of a strong self-image is Houston’s biggest weakness,” offers the man who may be the most astute analyst of the city’s cultural neuroses—perhaps because he also embodies some of its puzzling cultural contradictions. Peter Marzio, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for the past twenty years, has ridden the cycles of boom and bust to what is in effect one of the city’s great business successes (one all the more lustrous amid the current carnage). In 1982 Marzio inherited a museum that was the nation’s thirtieth largest, with an operating endowment of $25 million and a collection so spotty that he promptly shoveled much of it into a one-gallery survey spanning a couple millennia of Western art. Today, after quintupling its attendance and increasing its membership sevenfold, Marzio commands the nation’s sixth-biggest museum, with an endowment of around $425 million and a collection that has grown by a quarter billion dollars’ worth of art in the last three years, lured by the addition of the museum’s elegantly understated, Rafael Moneo-designed Audrey Jones Beck Building. Success and the present business climate haven’t dulled Marzio’s edge, either; he confirms rumors that he’s already talking to his board about another new building, with a price tag similar to the Beck’s $130 million, to house a burgeoning collection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art.

Marzio, who recently told a group of his colleagues that they would be well advised to “learn their lessons from the for-profit sector,” has learned his so well that he has even earned notoriety for his own executive compensation. Eyebrows shot up last fall when word got out that the museum’s board had awarded Marzio a bonus of almost $1.7 million, on top of his annual compensation of $525,000, as a reward for raising about $237 million for the museum’s expansion and endowment (a job often performed by professional fundraisers for a commission of at least 5 percent). Marzio’s regular salary is in line with the pay for the top directors’ jobs nationally (a number of which Marzio has himself been offered). But carelessly conflating his one-time windfall into an annual paycheck in excess of $2 million—unprecedented for the museum business—the national media seized another opportunity to kick around the old Houston wheeler-dealer stereotype as well as the city’s new post-Enron reputation for nurturing blood-sucking CEOs.

Like a lot of Houston success stories, Marzio’s has humble origins. He was born into a blue-collar Sicilian immigrant family on Governor’s Island, off Manhattan; his father died when he was seven, and he was raised by an extended family that included a trio of ex-prize-fighter uncles: a house painter, a carpenter, and a butcher. He was his family’s first high school graduate and won a football scholarship to tiny Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, where he switched his major from geology to history and fine arts after a revelatory visit to New York’s Frick Collection. As a scholar who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (he had to explain to the Sicilian uncles that his “Dr.” didn’t mean he would be practicing medicine) and worked as a research assistant on Daniel J. Boorstin’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Marzio focused his research on high art and the common man. His published dissertation, The Art Crusade: The Popularization of Fine Arts in America, 1830-1860, was followed by the definitive tome on chromolithography, the breakthrough nineteenth-century color-printing process that gave so many ordinary Americans their first opportunity to see and even own reproductions of great works of art.

Marzio’s years in the academic trenches gave him a unique perspective when he first visited Houston, in 1982. Mulling over a job offer from the MFAH, Marzio, then the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., suddenly realized that Houston was a latter-day version of a growth model familiar to students of the American frontier: the instant city. “The businessmen responsible for so much of the growth of America were community builders, not men who ran corporations,” Marzio explains. “In modern terms you might call them developers. They believed that in order for their investment to pay off, they had to create what they called ‘instant cities.’ They’d map out a tract of land in the wilderness and give it street names, and they’d have a building they called the theater, and on and on. There were often cities ahead of the pioneers. And that kind of incongruity, the image of urbanism in the frontier, was for me the distinguishing characteristic of Houston in the eighties.

“It first came to me,” Marzio says, “when I was walking along and would see a modern skyscraper—downtown was like a new-car lot, each building by another famous architect, each building more beautiful than the one before—and then the next block had no sidewalk. That incongruity, which most people make fun of, to me symbolized vitality. And that’s the part of it I still love.”

Houston’s unfinished, “instant city” character, exacerbated by its absence of zoning, may explain why outsiders so often find its glass half empty and why they are inclined to view the Menil Collection or Houston Grand Opera as preposterous anomalies—Louis XV commodes in a frontier saloon—rather than as evidence of a glass half filled with surprising cultural riches. But why can’t a city founded by a couple of hucksters and so recently plagued by their corporate descendants promote its legitimate cultural wealth? The solution to that enigma, Marzio suggests, is also rooted deep in the city’s economic history. “Houston is a wholesale city, not a retail city,” he says. “Look at the three major economic forces—upstream oil, agriculture, and the port. When you’re a wholesale industry, you never speak to a consumer. You only sell your goods and services to another company or another country. You don’t need television or newspapers or mass-broadcast communications to survive. As a result you do not have an important public relations or advertising company in the fourth-largest city in America. What that really means is that publicly the city is inarticulate. That doesn’t mean it’s stupid, just inarticulate.”

The message is further garbled, Marzio suggests, by a civic identity crisis. Culturally, Houston may be closer to New Orleans than to Fort Worth. It is, after all, a steamy Southern seaport with a gumbo-thick mélange of black, Cajun, redneck, white Protestant, blue-collar, Asian, and Hispanic culture—not to mention a substantial transient and resident international community that increasingly figures in the city’s cultural profile (just as it does in New York’s). Nevertheless, the city continues to ride the mechanical bull of Western wannabe-ism, oblivious to the oxymoronic irony behind the original urban cowboy. “Why Houston persists in using the cowboy imagery for a city that was never a cowtown is beyond me,” says Marzio, who researched the trail-drive era while working on Boorstin’s book. “Fort Worth I can understand. But it was never true in Houston. If you look at the earliest parades for the Fat Stock Show, before they called it the rodeo, you had Hollywood people leading the parade. Gene Autry!” That Houston confuses Hollywood myth with its own history isn’t surprising, Marzio adds: “There isn’t a single first-rate history of the city of Houston. For a city like Chicago, which was born at almost the same time [Houston was founded in 1836, Chicago a year later], there must be three hundred good histories.”

Marzio’s vision of Houston’s still-evolving cultural identity emphasizes modernity and diversity. He sees the future MFAH as being in the tradition of the great “encyclopedic” collections like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago but with a dramatically different orientation. While America’s most venerable collections are based on vast caches of antiquities unearthed by American archaeologists at the end of the nineteenth century, Marzio proposes a narrative focused on the far end of the timeline, from Picasso to the present day. (He expects that most of the bequests attracted by his next new building will be twentieth-century art, half a billion dollars’ worth from collectors outside Texas alone.) And, he says, he would tell “a much broader story of creativity in the twentieth century” than the standard modern-art-museum model, mixing the familiar American and European pantheon with a fresh look at African American, Latin American, Asian, and Texas and Southwestern artists. “What turns me on,” he says, “is an encyclopedic context where cultures rub up against one another.”

But Marzio’s own empire-building has taught him the virtue most important, paradoxically, for an instant city: patience. “The city has such a long way to go,” he says. “Just trying to make this museum better and better is a slow, painful, and expensive process. And it’s not just success after success. It’s about failure along the way. I don’t think the city is going to be finished in this century.” On the other hand, Marzio ticks off a litany of tools that will enable Houston eventually to get the job done: a strong work ethic, a gift for the practical application of scientific and technological innovation, and an independent, open, “soaring” spirit. Surprisingly, sheer wealth isn’t on the list. “Compared with New York or Chicago or Los Angeles,” he says, “we don’t have two dollars.”

Dr. Marzio’s final prescription for his neurotic metropolis? That it should get over “this self-consciousness about being ‘world class,'” he says. “It’s such a tired cliché. I don’t even know what that means anymore. What’s wrong with being very good?” In the lexicon of insecurity spoken by all Texas cities, “world class” and its companion catchphrase “international city” are artifacts of an era of cultural colonialism in which the “provinces” aspired to ape the style and standards of the world capitals, principally New York. But, as Marzio suggests, the terminology is now meaningless. Houston will never be the New York of the twenty-first century—and neither will New York, simply because the capital-provinces model has succumbed to today’s extraordinary mobility of people, art, ideas, and information. In our peripatetic global culture, sopranos and sculptors now circulate freely through a network of hot destinations ranging from venerable dowagers like London to brash upstarts like—dare we say it?—Houston. A new map of world culture is taking shape, and Houston, the inarticulate instant city still fretting to fill in its own plat, will someday discover that it is already on it.