Brettell helmed the DMA from 1988 to 1992, during which time he oversaw an expansion of the museum that added educational and exhibition spaces, a library, and an installation for arts of the Americas. During Brettell’s tenure at the institution, the DMA acquired over 3,000 objects and presented exhibitions like “Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986” (1988), “Impressionists and Modern Masters in Dallas: Monet to Mondrian” (1989), and “Images of Mexico: The Contribution of Mexico to 20th Century Art” (1988). Together with Joachim Pissarro, the great-grandson of Camille Pissarro, he co-curated the 1992 show “The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series” at the museum.
Prior to his tenure at the DMA, Brettell served as curator of European painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as an assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin. A world renowned expert on Impressionism and French painting 1830 to 1930, one of Brettell’s most popular courses at UT Austin was titled “Modern Art and the City of Paris.” In recent years, he had been at work on a catalogue raisonné for Paul Gauguin.
In a statement, Agustín Arteaga, the current director of the DMA, called Brettell “an incredible and visionary leader for the Dallas Museum of Art and a beloved and deeply influential figure in the arts community in Texas and beyond,” adding, “His contributions have permeated so many aspects of the arts landscape in Dallas over the past three decades in ways that will continue to have a permanent and profound impact.”
In 1998, Brettell joined the University of Texas at Dallas, where he served the chair of art and aesthetic studies and the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, established in 2014. Brettell is credited with creating a partnership between the institute and the DMA as well as collaborations with Nanjing University in China and the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. UT Dallas created the biennial Richard Brettell Award in the Arts in 2017, a prize that recognizes artists’ achievements and comes with a $150,000 purse and residency on campus.
From 1999 to 2009, Brettell worked as founding director of the French/Regional/American Museum Exchange (FRAME), a consortium of 32 museums, including the DMA, dedicated to cultural exchange between France and North America. His legacy continues at the DMA in the form of the Richard R. Brettell Lecture Series, which was created in 1994 and invites scholars of 19th- and 20th-century European art to present research at the institution.
“Rick was a remarkable scholar and educator and one of the leading voices in the world of art,” UT Dallas president Richard C. Benson said in a statement. “His charismatic lectures have introduced thousands to great art as has his work to build the arts culture in Dallas. No one better epitomized a life well-lived than our brilliant, adventurous friend.”