Peter Marzio, 67, longtime director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), died Dec. 9 after a recurrence of cancer. Born into a working-class Italian immigrant family in New York, Marzio worked as a gas station attendant in his youth and was the first high school graduate in his family. He attended Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., on a sports scholarship, and there took an art history class that profoundly affected him. Seeing a reproduction of Goya’s painting The Forge led him to visit the original at the Frick Collection. His own experience would shape his approach to museum leadership and education, which emphasized accessibility and diversity. Marzio went on to obtain a PhD in art history and American history from the University of Chicago.
Early in his career Marzio was curator of prints and chairman of the department of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1978, assuming the top post at the MFAH in 1982. Philippe de Montebello, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who preceded Marzio at the MFAH, told the Houston Chronicle, “He utterly transformed the Houston museum—turned it into a major and very professional institution with wonderful spaces and a hugely improved collection over the years.”
During Marzio’s 28-year tenure, museum attendance rose from 380,000 a year to 2.5 million, the permanent collection more than quadrupled in size (from 14,000 artworks to 62,000), and the endowment grew from $25 million to $1.2 billion before the recession reduced it to about $800 million in 2008. He secured major donations from prominent benefactors in Houston, including Alfred C. Glassell Jr.’s collection of African, pre-Columbian and Indonesian gold; Caroline Wiess Law’s bequest of $500 million in cash and major artworks by artists such as Rothko, de Kooning, Picasso, Fontana, Gottlieb, Still, Lichtenstein and Warhol; and 47 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works and a $130 million bequest from Audrey Jones Beck, whose namesake building at the MFAH, designed by Rafael Moneo, opened in 2000.
Determined to achieve diversity in programming, Marzio created new departments of Asian, Islamic and Latin American art and, in 2001, established the International Center for the Arts of the Americas. He was also planning a new building that would present a global view of modern and contemporary art in the Americas, Europe and Asia. For the MFAH’s new Chinese arts gallery, which opened last October, Cai Guo-Qiang was commissioned to make a gunpowder drawing, his largest in a U.S. museum. An earlier major commission is a James Turrell installation in the passageway between the Beck and Law buildings.
Among the many organizations Marzio was involved in are the Association of Art Museum Directors, for which he served as president in 1988–89, and the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities in Washington, D.C., which he chaired from 1997 to 2000. He was instrumental in bringing the 2011 installment of the American Association of Museums annual conference to Houston. The meeting, taking place in May, will be dedicated to his memory.