Anne Tucker Changes
By: Wendy Watriss
On museums, taboo subjects, and the evolution of photography in Houston.
Over the past 10 years, Houston has begun to put in place the kind of infrastructure in which a serious photographic community can grow and sustain itself: nationally recognized teaching programs; important public institutions showing photography; major public collections; a diversity of exhibition spaces; a broad base of working photographers; and a committed, educated audience for photography. The major American centers for photography, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, have had such structures in place for years. Now Houston has the possibility of becoming such a national center.
Much of this development is due to forces outside photography — the growth of Houston, a changing population, and increased interest and financial involvement in all the arts. But much is also due to individuals who have been able to create and nourish institutional support for photography. IMAGE begins here a series of interviews with some of the people who have been important to this development.
We begin the series with Anne Tucker because she is part of one of the most important public institutions involved with photography and has participated in this involvement as curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFA).She is also a scholar and a historian who brings to photography an intellectual awareness of its role in culture and the history of art.
Wendy Watriss: How would you describe the presence' of photography in Houston when you came in 1975?
Anne Tucker: When I first came, Geoff Winningham was here and the Rice Media Center program was strong. Coincidentally, Tony and Robin Cronin came about that time to start a gallery, and George Krause came to start the photography program at the University of Houston. Although I had met Bill Agee [then director of the MFA] before and did some consulting work for MFA when they bought a few photographs in 1975, I wasn't hired until 1976. Earlier, Geoff had tried to start a gallery, but it was premature. John Scarborough at the Chronicle reviewed exhibitions when he could find them to review, but there wasn't any regular, sustained energy. There was no place for people to go if they were interested in photography.
It was also a time when there was not that broad a base of public education in terms of who photographers were and the kinds of images they made. And there were very few major collectors. There just weren’t that many of us who could talk to each other. Cronin Gallery became the place where we could talk. It was a place where you could meet other people in photography. People would drop by there. The Cronins invited national photographers to Houston and MFA did a lecture series. Slowly it became clear to all of us that there was a potential audience here. There was an institutional commitment — from Rice, the University of Houston, and MFA - plus the private sector commitment from Robin and Tony and a fewprívate collectors. It happened all at the same time in a
WW: When did you begin to notice a substantial change?
AT: In the late 70s and early 80s. I began to see more good local work then. The UH teaching program had broadened, Peter Brown joined Geoff at Rice, other galleries opened, and those galleries that once only showed painting began to include photography. Also, the papers were reviewing it regularly. That's important, because that kind of coverage helps find your audience - it allows that energy to find other sources of energy.
Established centers of photography - Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and others - had major leaching programs, particularly graduate schools. People would gravitate there, study, and stay. If they didn't continue to do photography, they became an audience for it, a sophisticated audience. In Houston, until the expansion of the programs at UH and Rice, there weren't those possibilities. By the late 70s, I was not only beginning to see new faces at photography openings, but more importantly, more portfolios from local photographers, and good ones. In fact, one of the main reasons I felt the need for an artists' organization like the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) was that I had started to see all these portfolios and realized there were more good, young photographers than the MFA, Blaffer, Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM), Rice, and the galleries could respond to.
WW: In terms of exhibiting photography, what do you see as the main differences between a museum like the MFA and spaces like HCP?
AT: Let me start with HCP by saying I thought Houston not only needed more exhibit space, but it needed different kinds of space. Doing a museum show is different from having photographers conceive and execute an exhibition of someone else's work. When you do it yourself, you learn more about your own work and about how the art world operates. That's why the artist-run organizations have been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
One of the main differences between MFA and HCP, even MFA and CAM, is long-term planning. I have exhibitions scheduled through 1986. Two years in advance of an exhibition I have to have a good sense of how much the exhibit will cost and how I am going to payfor it. A year before, the catalog and publicity have to be organized. MFA is a mammoth, slow-moving organization with lots of internal departments, and it is very expensive to do things in the museum. CAM is more capable of being spontaneous, but we are incapable of spontaneity, absolutely incapable.
WW: Why? Isn’t it possible to build in some spontaneity with long-range planning?
AT: The MFA is like that because of the system, the necessity of operating within our sister systems. When we do a show, we want it to travel. We have to consider the schedules of other museums. When you borrow works from other museums, the requests must be made from six months to a year ahead. The enormous system that has evolved for insuring, protecting and conserving art in general also affects photography. Moreover, the shows that the museum puts on are not supposed to be spontaneous. They are supposed to be deeply concentrated, elaboratelyresearched investigations. They are supposed to be something different - something where the ideas of the exhibition are, if not as eternal as the art itself, certainly contributions to the world of ideas in a way that justifies the enormous amount of time, energy, and space.
In terms of building in spontaneity, I do think the current director, Peter Marzio, is more committed to this idea. We have talked about a variety of ways to do it - having special juried shows, guest curators, and so forth, but we haven't settled into anything yet. One decision we have made at MFA,not just the photography department but overall, is not to create a room of Texas artists. Instead, when we buy them, we exhibit them in the context of their national and international colleagues. It's no service to them to create a ghetto.
One thing to keep in mind also is that we are totally out of space at the museum. As a result, we don't have a print viewing room and no facilities for bringing classes in to show students' work in the collection. That's one reason why we take that little corridor in the stairwell so seriously and change the work there every three months. In that space, we alternate recent accessions and small theme shows from the collection. By changing these hallway displays, we are trying to do what you are saying, to be more spontaneous. With work we don't own, that spontaneity isn't possible. The Museum of Modern Art in New York did it with a space they called Perspectives. A curator could book that room and wouldn't have to say what would be put there years in advance. It was built-in spontaneity. But we don't have the gallery space to do that.
Remember that the MFA has the responsibility of showing the entire history of art. I only get the upper Brown space once every three years. Even so, there are many people whofeel photography has too much exhibition space at the museum. Indeed, the amount of exhibit space I have at my disposal will shrink in coming years. It's not a lessening of MFA's commitment to photography, but an increase in commitment to other periods of art.
WW: In exhibitions, are there constraints you feel in the less definable area of public taste?
AT: Houston is an open community in many ways, but there are limitations. There are certain pictures - some are in the collection — that I never could exhibit in Houston. I am glad, for example, that HCP brought Joel Peter Wit-kin's pictures here. I think they are abhorrent, but important, I would like to have one for the collection. When the photography curator at the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam said she was going to do a Witkin retrospective with a full catalog, I was jealous. I couldn't do that here.
There are certain kinds of images at which Europe doesn't bat an eyelash, but in America they are too shocking, and especially in Texas. There are certain taboo subjects. I find the Rosalind Solomon picture of the woman nursing the lamb exquisitely touching, but it has disturbed many people here. George Krause's picture of the turtle is also disturbing to a lot of people. There's a photographer in San Francisco who made pictures of the Oakland police and taking those pictures and hanging them on a museum wall would do nothing but offend and alienate. It would undo much of what I have done to bring photography along. Also, the trustees of the MFA do not see the museum as avant-garde and in the forefront. Many people say I shouldn't show contemporary work because CAM is supposed to do that, not the MFA. CAM has done a fair number of photography shows, and they've also done theme shows where photography is incorporated with other forms of art. That is what pleases me most, seeing photography included with other art.
WW: How did MFA's commitment to photography come about?
AT: Bill Agee. Bill grew up in Scarsdale, New York, and one of his neighbors was Barbara Morgan. He says the first time he can remember being told something was art was when he saw and asked about a photograph at the Morgans’ home. Before coming to Houston, Bill was at the Museum of Modern Art and then at Pasadena where good photography shows were done under Fred Parker. When Agee came to Houston, he wanted a photography department. When Target Stores offered to give MFA $20,000, they asked him what he could do with it. He said, "I could buy a painting, or some prints, or Start a photography collection." They said. "Do the photography collection." I was hired to be Bill's consultant.
WW: What criteria have you used in putting together the collection?
AT: We made three basic decisions. First, at least for now, it would be 20th century and predominantly American. We did that to give it focus. It was also practical because of the cost of 19th century objects and because the Gernsheim and Anion Carter collections are right up the road. Also, Bill and I are 20th century American scholars. Secondly, we wanted the first collection to have a wide range of answers to the question, "What is photography?" - portraits, landscapes, set-up pictures, photojournalistic pictures, handpainted images, and so on. Thirdly, of course, we made a list of who we wanted in the collection and calculated what they sold for and what we could afford. We set priorities and went looking for pictures by that person. As the collection grew, it guided itself. For example, one of the first pictures we purchased was Caponigro's "Stonehenge", then Ansel Adams" "Lone Pine", and then of all the Frederick Sommers I could buy, I knew I wanted a horizonless landscape. With those three pictures in context, you have diversity in terms of the problems of landscape photography. Later we added a Minor White infrared landscape and a Brett Weston closeup of kelp. For the next several years, the collection began to grow one picture at a time from that priority list which was constantly re-evaluated.
WW: In terms of individual photographers, how did you set priorities?
AT: Unless I am working on acquiring something for a particular exhibition, like the Target shows, I rarely say I am going looking for a particular picture now, even though I have a priority list in my mind. What we acquire any one year is very strongly guided by what's on the market and whether I can find a donor to acquire it for the museum. There are some images Ihave wanted to acquire for years, but they are not appealing to any of the donors who have supported my department. So, I have no way to acquire them. Sometimes I just dogthe fundraising aspect until Iget it,and sometimes I don’t succeed. With an album ofCharles Sheeler photographs,for example, wetried for three to four monthsto find a donor but couldn't and lost it.
This is also an area where you find the peculiar and particular taste of the curator coming into play. Certain things I have decided I have no obligation to buy -certain pictures of female nudes. There are plenty of male curators out there buying those pictures. They are available to any one who wants them and they don't appeal to me.
I also tend not to buy what I call the "chestnuts", the incredibly famous pictures. Practically speaking, in a medium where you have multiples, there are good odds that those pictures will be donated to the collection someday.
In my own research, I have always been interested in what we can call the "absence of history". I am convinced that what we don't know about photography is more than what we do know, and that the importance of certain artists at this point is based on what we do not know. I am always intrigued by an image I think is quite strong by someone I know nothing about. Some purchases I have made like this are very good, others are bad. Bad, in the sense that as more of the photographer's history emerges, either it turns out to be a single strong image that wasn't followed by others, or that there was someone ahead of the photographer who had made those images first and whose work would have been known to this photographer. Thus the work is not as important as I had thought it to be.
In the last two years, we have acquired many pictures by acquiring whole collections: 200 images commissioned and given by AT&T made in 1976-77 by many photographers, 75 photographs by Edward Steichen from the Conde Nast years, and so forth. We also acquired Robert Frank's "The Americans". This is an example where we can play catch-up with my colleagues at older institutions. Because now if anyone in the country wants to see an original of every photograph in “The Americans", the only place they can come is Houston. For a collection specializing in 20th century American photography, there is no body of work I can think of that is more pivotal.
We have also been trying to buy single prints by Texas artists. We've been doing it all along, but we've made a more concentrated effort in the past three years. Why? Because, in part, the work is stronger and, in part, because I think it's our responsibility to encourage the community here. They are our audience. We are a museum which, Ihope, has an international reputation, but we also exist in Houston, Texas.
WW: Will the direction of the collection change?
AT: I don't know. Iam going to take this year to think about it. I don't see moving into the19th century in any large way. We will remain primarily 20th century American and European. I am somewhat interested in Japanese photography in the1920sand 30s but Idon't know if I have the resources for it.
WW: How would you describe the interrelationship among art institutions in Houston now?
AT: There hasbeen someantagonism, but it's healthy right now. Remember that institutions are operating within various communities. There's the geographic community, the city or state. There's the professional community of other museums. That is a very important force. If you get along with your colleagues and they respect you, you get the support you want in having your shows travel, in being able to get loans. If you don't have the respect of your colleagues, you won't have their cooperation. If you don't create good shows, you can't borrow major works for your exhibitions, and they won't take the exhibitions you organize. You need that professional relationship to service the geographic community. Then there is the third community, not always overlapping, the community of artists. The geographic community will have a lot to do with the wealth of an institution. The intraprofessional community will have to do with how a museum can function, literally. And the relationships with artists will provide much of the mental and intellectual challenge - artists and universities. It's the balancing of those publics that plays an enormous role in determining the vitality of an institution.
WW: What kind of advice do you have for photographers who are beginning to get their work out?
AT: I think there are two reasons to show someone else your work. One, because you are in mid-process and need encouragement or insight. And secondly, because you are finished and it's time to find an audience, too often, beginning photographers confuse the two.
A young photographer is more likely to get a positive reception if two good bodies of work are shown — this indicates that once the initial flush of activity has produced a body of work, the photographer can sustain and continue it. A museum curator, an art director, a magazine editor, will be more interested in investing time and energy if a photographer has proved that the effort can be maintained at least twice. It shows commitment and continuity. A curator or editor will then want to see that person's work again. If a curator says to come back again next year, it should not be seen as offputting. That's a reasonable length of time in which someone can have a new set of ideas and a new body of work.
WW: Many people tend to want to show a series of single, strong images rather than a selection representing an idea or an approach. How do you feel about that?
AT: Someone coming to me with ten great pictures doesn't really interest me very much. What interests me is to observe that they have been able to make or sustain an idea, find a subject, and literally form their ideas over a period of time within the context of their craft. That is what is interesting. Twenty pictures is a minimum. You need a minimum of twenty to tell what someone is thinking,
Anne Tucker says she tries to spend about three afternoons a week looking at pictures or portfolios. Depending on her travel schedule, an appointment may be scheduled after the initial call. She is currently on a sabbatical.