Gary Tinterow is having his Proustian moment. After leaving Houston 40 years ago to attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts and then graduate school at Harvard, he spent almost three decades at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, since 2008 as chairman of the department of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art. Earlier this year, Tinterow returned to his hometown to take over the directorship of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He felt well prepared for the job but not for the rush of dormant memories triggered by certain smells or voices.
“When I left for college, I couldn’t get far enough away from Texas,” said Tinterow during a brief trip back to New York in February for the Met’s opening of “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” organized under his stewardship. “I wanted to go to an environment with brick sidewalks and gas lamps, someplace historic. Houston I felt was all about new. Coming back, the big change for me is how great it feels to be in Houston.” Indeed, the tall, willowy 58-year-old, who often seemed in perpetual motion in the galleries at the Met, projects a new sense of calm.
Tinterow is returning to a museum—he interned under the former MFAH director William Agee in 1975 and 1976—that was formative to his early love of art. He has indelible memories of sketching the Mies van der Rohe– designed pavilion as a teenager and of seeing a show of Color Field paintings by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski. Tinterow feels lucky to have inherited such a financially healthy institution from his predecessor, Peter Marzio, who died in late 2010. During his 28-year tenure, Marzio built the encyclopedic collections to 63,000 objects and oversaw the Rafael Moneo–designed expansion that opened in 2000, making the museum one of the ten largest in the country. Its endowment is valued at approximately $1 billion, behind only the Getty’s and the Metropolitan’s. Underway for some time have been plans for a third museum building, to house modern and contemporary collections. The institution acquired a two-acre site, currently a parking lot, across the street from the two museum buildings and adjacent to both its Isamu Noguchi–designed sculpture garden and Glassell School of Art. In February, with Tinterow’s input, the museum named Steven Holl as the project architect.
“Among the most compelling of Holl’s ideas on a practical basis was the proposal to excavate two floors of underground parking underneath the entire new museum site and Glassell School, allowing for a low-rise building that would be respectful of Moneo and Mies,” says Tinterow of the structure, which will likely connect by tunnel under the street to the existing galleries. He also feels that Holl’s proposal to use a translucent skin of milky glass that would glisten by day and be illuminated by night would provide a harmonious contrast with the black steel of the Mies building and the limestone of the Moneo. He estimates that the overall project will cost from $250 to $300 million, and at the top of his to-do list is to begin raising the money.
If spearheading a new building from the ground up is a monumental project, Tinterow anticipates it being easier than the challenge he just left: negotiating an outpost for the Metropolitan’s modern and contemporary art in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Madison Avenue building once the Whitney’s staff and collections move to its new home downtown, in 2015. Tinterow first had the epiphany for an off-site facility while looking at the back of the head of Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate in London, who was sitting a few rows in front of him on a plane in 2008. “I thought, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Britain—Met Modern, Met,” he recalls saying to himself as he realized there was going to be an empty building on Madison. While he received immediate interest in the idea from then-chairman of the Whitney board Leonard Lauder and former Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello, bringing the Met’s trustees on board took much longer than he expected. Last May, both institutions agreed in principle to a multiyear collaboration.
“The Met’s trustees asked very tough questions, as they should given their role as governors of the institution,” says Tinterow, noting the museum’s complicated and sometimes contentious relationship with contemporary art, dating back a century to when trustee J. Pierpont Morgan questioned what the Met was doing buying the work of the contemporary French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Yet Tinterow feels the perception of the Metropolitan’s resistance to contemporary art was a gift to him because anything he was able to accomplish in that area looked significant. He is particularly proud of how he enlivened the rooftop garden with works by living artists, including Cai Guo-Qiang, Roxy Paine, Jeff Koons, and Mike and Doug Starn—who, with a team of rock climbers, continually constructed a monumental bamboo structure with internal pathways, which visitors could traverse, throughout the course of the 2010 exhibition.
“There were many naysayers, but in fact ‘Big Bambú’ was a spectacular success, a great work of art, and the public loved it,” says Tinterow. “It really gave the Met a different sensibility.” During his tenure, Tinterow organized more than 40 exhibitions, built up the museum’s great collection of 19th-century paintings, and addressed some of the holes in the 20th-century collection with, for instance, the acquisition of the Metropolitan’s first major Rauschenberg.
While Tinterow unequivocally refers to the Metropolitan as “the greatest museum in the world,” he clearly has settled into his new life. “Texans like to think big,” says Tinterow, who relishes the space and light of the new house he bought with his partner and has found a dog sitter as well as a tuner for his harpsichord, which he hopes he will find more time to practice. He wants to build on Marzio’s active engagement with the city’s diverse communities and provide opportunities for young people to have the kind of experiences that he had as a kid there, zooming around the museum district on his bike.
Tinterow hopes to work with other museums in the district and with the city to create a more pedestrian-friendly zone—with better crosswalks, more cafés, and retail stores, the kind of amenities that will encourage people to stay longer in the area. “That’s where my role will be different than it ever could have been at the Met,” he says. “In these early days, the opportunities seem infinite. In New York, I knew all too well what would not be possible. I don’t yet know that about Houston and I hope I never find out.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.