Peter Cort Marzio 1943–2010
Peter Marzio, visionary Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, dedicated his career to making the art of world cultures accessible to all. He often recounted how art had changed his life. As a freshman on an athletic scholarship at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, he took a course in art history. A class assignment sent him to the Frick Collection in New York, where he was inspired by a Goya painting. This first museum visit was the beginning of his belief that art had the power to enrich life. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Art History and American History. He began his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as a curator of Prints and Drawings. There his prolific exhibitions and publications were innovative and celebrated for their democratic spirit and broad appeal.
In 1978 he became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he worked to expand the audience base, strengthen its art school, and promote its famous permanent collection of American and European art.
In 1982, he was recruited by the trustees of the MFAH. Houston and Peter Marzio were a perfect match. He loved the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, “can do” attitude, and diversity. Houston welcomed him, and he embraced the city and museum. As Director, Peter Marzio was the maestro; he directed major expansion and construction projects, led capital campaigns, and served on many boards and advisory councils. He was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and its President from 1988 to 1989. From 1997 to 2000, Peter Marzio was chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities in Washington, D.C. He became a member of the Wallace Foundation Board in New York in 2001. He was also president of the Houston Museum District Association from 2001 to 2005. A prolific author, his most recent books included American Art & Philanthropy (2010), Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Director’s Choice (2009) and A Permanent Legacy: 150 Works from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1989).
During Peter Marzio’s 28-year tenure, the museum’s collections grew from 13,000 artworks to 62,172.
Attendance soared from 380,000 to over 2 million a year. Exhibitions proliferated, and grew from 26 in 1983 to 41 in 2009. But these remarkable statistics cannot convey the institution’s exciting chemistry and interaction of ideas, programs and people that Peter Marzio inspired.
His vision and leadership brought extraordinary, diverse, and original exhibitions to Houston. They included Treasures from the Shanghai Museum; Fresh Paint: The Houston School; Frederick Remington,
The Masterworks; Rediscovering Pompeii; The Quilts of Gee’s Bend; Splendor of Ancient Egypt; Jewels of the Romanoffs; History of Japanese Photography; The Heroic Century: The Museum of Modern Art Masterpieces; Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America; The Peter Blum Edition Archive, 1980–1994; Masterpieces of French Painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul; Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns: French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow; and Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria.
Peter Marzio developed a multitude of programs to serve the diverse community he loved. In 1983, he initiated Free Thursdays. In 1993, the 10-year Lila Wallace educational program, A Place for All People, was launched. It was followed by the Wallace Gateway to Art/De Puertas al Arte 2004–2008 program for the Latin American communities and collections. As an educator of the first order, Peter Marzio was most proud of the museum’s outreach to schools, the Kinder Foundation Education Center; the Kilroy Education Center for Bayou Bend; and the Glassell School of Art.
Major collections came to the museum during Peter Marzio’s tenure: the Audrey Jones Beck Collection; the Harris and Carroll Masterson house museum, Rienzi; the Caroline Wiess Law Collection; and the Glassell Gold Collections. Under his direction, an unprecedented partnership was forged with the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Cornelia Long, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, described him: “Peter was a visionary leader. He believed the museum was a place for all people and worked tirelessly to make the collection accessible and the educational and exhibition schedules exciting. He embraced diversity and the public. The trustees of the MFAH will continue to do so as well.”
Peter Marzio died a proud Houstonian whose legacy will enhance the lives of generations to come. A memorial, to be announced at a future date, will be held at the museum to celebrate his 28 years as Director of the MFAH.