Art In Conversation
RICHARD BRETTELL with David Carrier
“I don't think that what I do or what one ought to do has rules”
When we inaugurated this sequence of interviews some years ago, we wanted to talk with a variety of museum directors, in this country and abroad. In the United States, in particular we sought to learn not only about the grand Manhattan institutions, but also about some of the large museums elsewhere in the country. And we also wanted to gain a perspective on the relationship between academic art history scholarship and museum curators. In principle, these two disciplines are complimentary but in practice, we know, things can be more complicated.
Richard Brettell studied art history at Yale University, becoming an authority on Impressionism. After a distinguished teaching career, he was appointed Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. And then in 1988, he became the McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). More recently, he has been an international museum consultant with projects in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Professor of Art and Aesthetic Studies, Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetic Studies and Edith O’Donnell Distinguished University Chair at the University of Texas at Dallas, he founded the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Museums at UT Dallas in 1998. Brettell has collaborated several times with Joachim Pissarro, who has provided many of the questions posed by David Carrier. This interview was conducted in Williamstown, in August 2019.
David Carrier (Rail): Joachim told me about your career and how you came to Dallas prepared to really transform the institution. In reading your bibliography I said to myself, “well, he’s a wonderful impressionist scholar,” and I started to read some of those books, and thought “this completely changes my sense of, not just the subject, it changes my sense of art history completely.” So let’s do a sort of bildungsroman, how do you go from Yale, writing about (Camille) Pissarro, and then wanting to do the museum differently?
Richard Brettell: I taught first in Texas and I got interested while we were living in Europe working on our dissertations in museum history just by going around seeing all the museums with Pissarros in them. I’m thinking “how did these things get to all these places, and what is the story of all these places?” And then when I came to Texas in 1976 to teach, I taught a course in the history of the art museum in the 19th century, in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, and it just was a way of getting me to think about these repositories of works of art. I did this without ever thinking that I would work in a museum.
When Jim Wood called me on the recommendation of Kirk Varnedoe, of all people, to consider becoming curator of European paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, I interviewed with Jim—he was then director at Saint Louis. And he hired me at the age of 30, and I became the youngest curator of European paintings ever at the Art Institute and the first full curator at the Art Institute with a PhD. It was a kind of culture change in the Art Institute. There was this very young director and this very young curator, and Jim was remaking the Art Institute and I was the European paintings curator. But we were pals and we traveled together and we began to think of how you take this great big museum, with all of these traditions and all of these support groups and all of these various collections and rethink it.
The Institution had much more baggage than the Dallas Museum. It was much greater; it had more powerful trustees. It was something harder to transform. But Wood did manage to do a building and to transform another building. And that enabled us to combine some departments and to do things with the collections. And when I went to Dallas, there already was the money raised to build a new building onto a complex that was only four years old. So the reason I went, rather than staying in Chicago and that great institution and continuing to do shows was because one could rethink this museum which had a shorter history, a smaller collection, and fewer assumptions about what it should be.
The Dallas Museum of Art, like many urban museums west of the Mississippi, was a regional art museum that was also an art school, and it was directed for many years by an important regional artist, and was all about the Texas art scene, Texas art shows, and all about that, which is very good. And then after World War II the city got rich. And all these people from all over the place came in to run the big corporations, and Neiman Marcus became an international tastemaker, and Texas Instruments people came from MIT and they thought, “well, what are we doing with this little regional museum?”
In 1962, Margaret McDermott, the wife of one of the founders of TI, turned the whole museum building over to this exhibition called The Arts of Man, and it was the arts of man (“man,” in the sense of the 1960s) from the beginning of time. It started with the caves of Lascaux, which were recreated. But what’s interesting is that it included the whole world, including pre-Columbian. Everything was borrowed, because the museum didn’t have much global or older art, there were loans from private collectors and museums all over the country. It was in the age when three men did an exhibition with five hundred objects and put it up in an entire museum in nine months, which could never happen today. It created this situation in which Dallas became interested in the past, and in the global past.
Rail: And you could do this more easily in Texas than in Chicago or let alone New York?
Brettell: There was less to take down, and what to take down was regional art. 1963 was the beginning. Then the museum acquired two very large and important collections of African art, and two very large and important collections of Pre-Columbian or Pre-Hispanic art. There was no Greco-Roman part to the human past in the museum, because they all thought it was too late to buy such things. And then later the museum began to buy Greco-Roman antiquities because of the importance of Greek patrons. And so I had this situation in which I had to think about how to present world art in a museum which is a collection of discrete buildings, designed by one architect in an ensemble, and opened to much fanfare in 1984. So you have to think about the place, and you have to think about the objects. And then you have to think about forming narratives. And the problem that I saw with it was that there were no narratives. There was the American and European floor, and the “others” floor, and the Contemporary floor. And so I decided to build a new building to create a museum of the Americas, because here we are in what used to be the ancient world of our place. To have the first objects that you see be ancient objects from the Americas, and then to go forward with the various colonizations and with America.
Rail: The Americas would be Aztec, Mayan, but also Hispanic.
Brettell: It’s all of the Pre-Columbian cultures, the South American and the Central American. We have all these, we have great collections. We have very large holdings of all those things. So, they could be put in a narrative where you could learn about the individual cultures, and then get to go through a door where you enter the world of Spanish domination, and then go through another door where you enter the world of English domination, and then the United States. The US galleries were modelled on the first planned city in America, which is New Haven. And so there are nine squares with the green in the middle, and it’s a courtyard.
Rail: With appeal to ethnic audiences, if you are a Hispanic audience, if you are Chinese audience—
Brettell: No, it has little to do with that. Though it obviously helps when you have a large Hispanic population to be able to have the arts of their ancestors be the first things that you see. You probably read the great novel by Willa Cather that’s based on the painting in the Art Institute, The Song of the Lark (1884). The opera singer comes back from her career in Europe, and then she goes to Arizona to take the cure, and she goes to the canyons and she finds these old Pueblo pots. And she thinks, “am I more closely related in my being an American to the people who made these things than I am to the Europeans that shun me because I am an American in the European opera houses?” So whose past is it?
Rail: I am closer to these places that I am to Rome and Paris.
Brettell: Yeah. And maybe I should think about them, because I don’t know anything about them, and my museums do not teach me anything about them.
Rail: Cleveland, which I know fairly well because I taught there had the great Asian collection because of Sherman Lee.
Brettell: It’s one of the many American art museums that have great Asian collections, because Asian civilization is viewed by European civilization as being of equal refinement, and that’s not true of Pre-Columbian civilization, and it’s not true of African nor South Asian nor Middle Eastern. It was harder for us because we didn’t have that. The number of buildings that we had available were for the Americas, the others, which is Asia and Africa, and then Europe, and then the time without place, Contemporary Art, where it matters less where something was made than when something was made. Of course we had major arguments. The American-Indian advisory committee was all over me, because I didn’t want to put Native American contemporary art in the Contemporary building. And I was probably wrong to have done that because I was at that time not interested in identity art.
Rail: If anything the newer museums can innovate better than the older ones, because if I look at the Met, the Met can do lots of things. Ok, it’s got money and energy, but there’s no way the Met could—
Rail: Europe has got to be at the top of the stairs.
Brettell: It’s interesting to me that politics of the Left and the Right, because in the privileging of movement in the Met, you go to the oldest first, which is Egypt, and then you go to the second oldest, which is Greece and Rome, on one level. And, you know, the Americas are way back there, and then the primitives of various sorts are another saddle bag on the side. What do they do? They would have to close for three years and empty everything out, and nobody would like it. But when you are in a new city you can do more than tweak things.
Rail: I have a question which very much seems to be about your career, the curators versus the art historians. The curators are more important?
Brettell: They were. They aren’t. Because they became too important in their context of the museum, and the relationship among them and between them and the leadership became strange, because they had real connections to the trustees, which means that they could create situations in which the director was put in an awkward position. And so what happened is that this whole other bureaucracy was created. I mean, when I was a curator at the Art Institute, we were the most powerful people in the museum without any doubt. When I left only eight years later there were enormous education departments, and fundraising, we were one group amongst many other groups who determined what an exhibition would be and how it would be shown.
Rail: And does this tie into this larger development that the idea of a curator or director writing has completely disappeared?
Brettell: I always wrote, but I am one of the few.
Rail: In the Pierre Rosenberg interview, he said, “I don’t take vacations,” he said, “I don’t like vacations. That’s how I wrote.”
Brettell: It’s the same with me. I mean, why do we come here to Williamstown? Because there is a great art library, there’s a lot to do and it’s very invigorating and we are not at home, so…
Rail: So you can work. For you that tradition is not obsolete. But for curators and directors, you don’t expect directors to be writing books, to be writing, no?
Brettell: Most directors—it’s like the president, he doesn’t write his own speeches, they are written for him by somebody else. All these prefaces, which is what museum directors write, they are not written by the museum director. My people in the Dallas museum were stunned that I wrote all my own prefaces and introductions.
Jim Wood was the sensibility of the Art Institute. The buck stopped, you bought or didn’t buy things because he liked them or didn’t like them. And we all knew that—it was his museum, he was the sensibility of the museum, and we could get him to change his mind about things, but—and it’s not like that anymore.
I work for a state university, you cannot do what you want to do. There are all these bureaucratic roadblocks set up, so it’s futile to think I would—we would really like to hire so-and-so, because it’s—you know, the task of doing that takes so much time and energy and it’s not worth it. I just wrote an appreciation obituary for one of the men who created the Arts of Man exhibition in 1962, at the DMA. And the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, as it was then called, had 13 employees, and all employees—the guards and everybody—did everything. And they did tons of stuff that we couldn’t get 13 people to do today if their life depended on it. In short deadlines, and, you know, there was a simpler world, it is not the world in which we live now.
American museum history is very different from European museum history because it has to do with wealth and donors, and European museum history has to do with wealth and governments and appropriation of cultural propriety and all of that which we have never, as yet, done. And I think that the American Urban Art Museum, the question that I had to ask myself when I went to Dallas is: does the comprehensive, encyclopedic, all-of-the-human-past art museum that America has created—because there are none of them in Europe. No city art museum has everything in it, and lots of American art museums do, whether it’s two things or eight things or 23,000 things—does it have a future? And can it be a kind of beacon for rethinking the encyclopedia?
I decided that it could be a place where you use architecture and display technologies and collections, because I’m really an object person and I believe that the principal power in the art museum is the work of art, and that you have to—you cannot let—make works of art into illustrations of their place and time, though they are.
Rail: They’re not subjects of knowledge—
Brettell: No, but they have their qualities, and you have to let them sing. And you have to recognize their qualities and teach people to do that.
My failure at the DMA was to unhinge the contemporary from the rest of the museum. If you’re in Puebla, Mexico in 1720, you’re also in China and you’re also in Spain, and you’re also in Peru. And globalism is the way transcending barriers, which is what human wealth is about, basically. And even in relatively small environments, you know, Mexico and Central America, or Peru and Bolivia, there are these distinct cultural groupings that are really distinct because they’re at war with each other, and they define themselves against each other rather than as part of some amalgam. That’s one of the hard things for the ordinary viewer, the uneducated viewer, to grasp, I mean, “why do I care that this is Nazca and this is Quechua?” And the names always change, you know I remember—the scholars are always changing the names, so it’s like “Oh God, we just got Nazca down and now it’s something else.” [Laughter]
Rail: But then the museum needs, what, maps?
Brettell: Well, we have them in the museum, but our collection of ancient American Art is enormous, and very important. And so when we designed, sometimes, we designed these enormous vitrines for one culture, and then another enormous vitrine for another completely contemporaneous culture in it, and people could—without reading all this stuff and without looking at maps, even though they could do that, cause they were there— could see the difference. I mean, the other thing is that museum art is generally portable art, and of course portable art is not a civilization. It’s this stuff that’s buried, and, you know it’s what you’ve got. And it’s what the art dealers, and the gem thieves and whatever do.
How do you create a situation in which the differences—which are, at first, slight, amongst these objects, from the perspective of a contemporary person—how do you make them come alive? And we didn’t do very much of that because, in the end, exhibition technology, at that point—when the Museum of the Americas opened—was still in the book and maps on the wall and labels-thing and enlarged photographs, you did enlarged photographs. But it was kind of primitive. And you couldn’t use ways of extending vision and enlarging things and doing things that work for, particularly people who are technologically literate, which I am not, but, you know, which young people are.
Rail: You haven’t written out your account of the museum, do you have a plan to do that? Is there a book that you would—
Brettell: No, no. I think museum theorizing is not interesting. And usually it’s fruitless, so I’d like to do things with museums rather than write about them. Where I teach, the University of Texas at Dallas, was based on MIT because all of the founders of Texas Instruments went to MIT. And they couldn’t hire anybody in Texas because there’s no university in Texas in the ’40s and ’50s that trained people properly. So they started their own research institute and then it became a university. And so it’s very much like MIT and the Edith O’Donnell Institute is not so much about museum prep, it’s about how you teach art history within a science and technical university. And the idea is usually the way that it works both at MIT and Caltech is that there’s a big emphasis on contemporary art practice and art practice that is informed by science and technology. I’m interested in the ways in which works of art and their histories can benefit from these methods of studying them, so we have a large data art historian, and we have conservation science and we have branches of the Institute at Nanjing University in China and at Capodimonte in Italy.
When I came to UTD, there was a great interest in the excellence of the student body and the fact that university art museums are places where there’s always students so there’s always users. So works of art—collections of works of art—have come to us. We’re going to begin this thing called an athenaeum for the whole campus which will have discreet museums. My thing is that, in spite of all the encyclopedic museums in the world, everybody’s favorite museum is small. And so I thought it would be much better for the uninitiated to have museums that are really focused and really good at what they’re doing and not trying to combine them into some big thing. And also to build the last great art library, since we’re in an age in which everybody’s having problems with books. We WILL have the Wildenstein-Plattner, Wildenstein Institute Library from Paris, which is the largest privatized art library ever formed. And a whole series of scholarly libraries which have been given to us, so we will be the last great art library.
Rail: Everyone will have to go there then.
Brettell: I’m more interested in the students and the people in North Texas than I am in the way it’ll affect the whole country. And I’m interested in doing something that’s not like the university art museum, which is a little, mini history of art, with three Egyptian, and two Assyrian, and eight Greek, etc. I’m not interested in that, and I don’t think that our students are interested in that, so it will be more of an immersive experience and several things. And that’s very different from the Museum of the Americas and the Museum of Africa and Asia and the Museum of Europe and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was the task at the DMA.
I’m really interested in Athenae and their history. But I gave a whole course on the athenaeum because, though they’re private clubs, pretty uniformly—I mean there are only two in universities: one in CalTech, interestingly enough, and one in Goucher. They’re about what happens in them rather than their collections, though they have collections, it’s the conversations and the idea that they—you engage your users not in like frivolity and fun but in some serious conversation and discussion. So our athenaeum will be run by a faculty of council of all the most distinguished, and there’s very distinguished mathematicians and whatever who will be part of the council. But lots of athenaeum are not about art, even though they have collections. They’re about art science, they’re about knowledge and I’m interested in that more than the university art museum model.
Rail: But then this model, so in sense you could project the future, you say, “let’s have a lot of local museums; we’re not gonna have this world museum, we're not gonna duplicate a Met somewhere, but we can have a full, a different—”
Brettell: Well we already have that in Dallas with the DMA, I mean it only has 26–27,000 objects compared to millions of objects at the Met. And the Kimbell is a global art museum as well, even though it has no American art and no contemporary art. But it’s all about quality. And I’m not a great fan of quality. I much prefer having groups of things from which you can find the key works, and those key works might change through time. You’re not stuck with the same key work.
Rail: Would a model of this be that catalogue about Impression painting swiftly, where you want to compare the different Impressionist paintings in how does the swiftness work?; who paints more swiftly, who doesn’t? Is that a kind of model of that sort of comparison that you’re thinking of?
Brettell: Catalogues, unfortunately, are prepared before exhibitions because the way you finance them is you sell them in connection with the exhibition. (Discussion of Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860–1890 (2000)). And of course you want to write after the exhibition because it’s when you actually see these things: the layers and how exactly the strokes are applied and whether that is bare canvas or unprimed canvas and all these things. You don’t know that from even high res photographs. And in those days there weren’t all that many high res photographs of works of art. But it was an idea that we had, the scholarship around Impressionism—which is not your field, it doesn’t probably interest you—had begun to move away from this idea that impressions were impressions. That they’re slap dash and they’re done quickly and they became so concerned with the layering and the time spent on them and everything that it was almost as if the scholars were ashamed of the notion of painting quickly.
The Pissarro brothers were horrified by the Pissarros in it, because Pissarro didn’t paint quickly very often and when he did he wasn’t very good at it [Laughs]. And there was one from a Dallas collection that was really quickly painted and I just love it and think that it’s wonderful—he’s trying so hard to sort of get it down in 20 minutes or something. Lionel (Pissarro) was horrified by this picture.
Pissarro wasn’t as great an artist as Picasso, but he was like Picasso. He was open, he did like “oh my god! There’s this theory of such and such and the young guys are doing it and I want to learn from them” and there was this openness of methodological changes and politics and all these things. And so, Cézanne had as much effect on him as he did on Cézanne. And if you think of the big three: Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat, they—all of them—worked incredibly productively with Pissarro. We wouldn’t have the dot in painting if it wasn’t for Pissarro who did his crit of the Grande Jatte in October of 1886—1884, sorry. And Seurat realized that he had to add things and change the picture as a result of Pissarro’s. And the picture was already finished. So how do you inject new chromatic things into a picture when it’s already done? With these sort of comma-like strokes and patches, rather than dots.
Rail: My naive understanding: you need a catalogue because you need this big document and when the donors come in they want to take something home from the show. But, yes, it means that you can’t see everything and if you can’t see everything you might—
Brettell: Do it differently.
Rail: There’s different comparisons you might make.
Brettell: The idea usually—it’s the scholarly symposium, which occurs. People come and look at the exhibition and then talk but that too is sham, because everybody’s already written their talks. So that was supplanted by scholars’ days in which you were in the galleries and you riff in front of works of art with each other. Which is sort of fun, actually, but it’s also very competitive. It’s very much about someone outdoing someone else in terms of what they know.
Exhibitions are never easy and of course they’re working less and less. They’re making less money. The catalogue sales have plummeted. And the age of the museum as being a kind of center for art historical scholarship is pretty much over.
When I was at the Art Institute and we did these big exhibitions one after another and the scholarship part of it was the reason that somebody like me was hired, you know. It was a person who was already in the game and was respected as a major scholar and could produce stuff with a lot of footnotes and could read languages. And what happened as a result of that is that unless the topic was one that appealed to the general public, the exhibitions were more or less flops, because they were appealing to small audiences who cared about the chronology of somebody in the 1650s or whatever, which the public doesn’t really care about. And I think that you know, in the old days—I’m studying exhibitions done by people who had at most MAs and who were kind of wealthy young men and women who did things for visual reasons and out of curiosity, and because they wanted their public to learn something, whose motivations for doing exhibitions were not scholarly. We don’t read very many of those catalogues anymore. I’m a serious Gauguin scholar and the people who did the Gauguin exhibitions in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s did these exhibitions with very little real knowledge of Gauguin. And so none of the scholars even read the catalogues or care about the exhibitions, though they’re listed in all the catalogues and bibliographies to poof up the picture.
Rail: Well it would be interesting to have a list of exhibitionists that really mattered.
Brettell: Well the question is: to whom? When I ran FRAME, the French/Regional American Museum Exchange, which I started with Françoise Cachin and Elizabeth Rohatyn, and when we would get the American museum directors together with the French museum directors, the difference between the two populations was startling. And I remember—actually, I’ll never forget—once being in the home of a friend of mine in San Francisco who collects old master pictures and has really good things and is very serious. And the French, it was like catnip to them. They all were trying to figure out whether that was Jouvenet or so-and-so, and there was a kind of—they knew what they were looking at. And what they didn’t know was a puzzle that intrigued them. And the Americans knew nothing, I mean like nothing, and they felt embarrassed. And they were fundraisers and museum administrators and people who thought about the future of the museum in terms of engagement and numbers and all of that stuff and they were fundamentally not art historians.
Rail: And is this partly because connoisseurship became such a dirty word?
Brettell: Partly. I took a course from Egbert Begemann. His idea was that if you’re going to be a PhD art historian, you have to put anything into time. If you’re handed a candle stick, or a vase, or a painting or whatever, you need to say that this is such and such, this is from, it’s before the time I’m interested in, in some millennia before Christ, or it’s 1750s or it’s whatever. So I was raised with this idea of putting art into time and having art reflect time. And of course George Kubler was my teacher, the author of the Shape of Time—” Kubler was a very important teacher. Kubler is why I’m an art historian.
Rail: I keep rereading that book but it’s mysterious. Artists of a certain age know it—
Brettell: Like Judd—
Rail: Yeah. But people after that, they don’t. It’s not on their radar. But what it comes to concretely is not—
Brettell: Is not altogether clear. The way art history worked at Yale when they hired Focillon to be the head of the department, there was almost nobody in the department. And Focillon had all these white male students, and he divided the world into parts by the number of students working under him. And Kubler got the New World and Spain and Portugal. And Soper got China, Japan, and Korea. And you had to read everything in the library and you had to have a critical perspective on it. When Focillon got older and Kubler became his favorite, Kubler translated La vie des formes which was Focillon’s book, which was the model for the Shape of Time. So Kubler translated that book; it was published by Yale Press, nobody reads it. And then he was going on with his work, and his work was very interesting and multidisciplinary. Not so focused on art history—I mean, its methods didn’t come from the field—and then he got tuberculosis. And he was told that it was a very severe case and that he was going to die at some point in the next few years. So he sat down and wrote The Shape of Time to be a book that was published posthumously. And then he lived. And so it was this odd thing where he gained notoriety and fame from this book that was supposed to succeed him, in the middle of his scholarly life. And he hated the fame of this book—the books that he would have liked people to read were his other books.
Rail: I do like your point about that. In a museum people will question you, they will challenge you. Even if you're the director they're going to push around and say what about, should you buy this or that or—then it has to be communal.
Brettell: For years I was the personal shopper for the National Gallery in London, because few of the curators at the National Gallery would ever go to the dealers. But they had the right to stop something from export. And so there are 10 paintings hung in the National Gallery today that were first reserved for the Art Institute, which were on the road to getting an export permit, and which are there because of me. [Laughing] And then things that you lose … there was this time when we, acquired again with my aegis, there was a museum—a private museum in Chicago—called the Harding Museum. Old Mr. Harding was interested in arms and armor and in academic painting. And so he had lots of Gérômes and Bouguereaus and Meissoniers and this unparalleled private collection of European armor. We didn't have any armor, and the Harding Museum was going bankrupt, and Mr. Harding was long dead, so we took over the museum. I used to take Jim Wood across the street, up a rickety elevator to this shell of a museum, and we took it over. And in the museum there was a Boucher, that was in my office and it's a smaller version of the picture in Stockholm, and I loved it. I thought it was so authoritative. Pierre Rosenberg told me it was a studio copy and the woman in the department, Susan Weiss, who specializes in French painting, said it was a studio copy, and so we sold it. It came up at Sotheby’s and it sold for a fortune, and it was later proven to be an autographed reduction of the Salon painting in Stockholm. And so, I learned to trust my own eyes and not always listen to these people who looked at tons of photographs. And it was very painful. [Laughing] It comes from not being a specialist. I learned that I’d looked at enough works of art and that maybe I could trust myself. But I was only 33, so I didn't trust myself.
Rail: The trust in the eye.
Brettell: Well it just comes from handling things and seeing things. I mean it took me until I was a museum curator to know that works of art are objects, not images. Or objects and images. They're objects first and foremost. They are physical things. And to understand—to handle them, to turn them around… and now of course curators can't do it anymore. I remember reinstalling the entire Art Institute. We raised the money to re-do the big noble building on Michigan Avenue, and restored it and emptied it all out, and then we had to rethink that whole way the European collections were hung. My principal contribution to that was to recreate the corridors on the inside and to bring our graphic arts collection, our prints and drawings collection, which was greater than our painting and sculpture collection, up into the gallery. So you go from thing to thing, because nobody does that. And it was so wonderful to install but I would take a Poussin and move it over here, and pick up the frame and take it to the other side of the room and—it’s not that it demystified them, it actually remystified them. Because you yourself could be involved in how they looked with other things and where they go and what they weigh on the wall and what takes away from them and what adds to them, you know this—hanging is just—one of the things I’ve learned is that works of art are comparatively weak. That they need help in order to be—and the help can simply be being next to the right thing, or being on the right wall color or having the right frame. You can make something that's really great look totally hum-drum, if you don't have a sense of what its power is and how it works with its neighbors.
Rail: In America a lot of students study art history in places where they can't see a lot of art. They can't see the art that it’s about.
Brettell: I was lucky to be at Yale because when we were there we had Alan Shestack who had gone to Harvard and had taken the museum course, and so we did exhibitions. We were involved; we were in the galleries. We were cataloging things. I never thought I would be a museum professional ever. I never thought that. But I became one early in my career. And then the question, for me, not the question—the quest—was not to lose the connection to the university and to knowledge and to scholarship. Not to go into this realm where I'm only having teas with rich ladies and raising money, though I proved to be rather good at that and I actually liked it. [Laughing]
Rail: There's a curious bias about the art world that comes out of the sort of Marxist side of the profession of thinking that rich people can't have good judgment. But these people who hang around art all the time, hanging at auctions, some of them have an eye.
Brettell: I came very grudgingly to have huge respect for a few of my colleagues at the Art Institute who are not scholars, and who were just amazing curators, and who knew much more about their collections than anybody else. And James Speyer, who was amazing. He was an architect who came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, had lots of money, lived a kind of flamboyant gay life, and was curator of 20th-century art at the Art Institute for years and years and years and years and did one beautiful installation after another. And if we liked each other we would show each other the things that we were thinking about buying. Because it was not a museum-wide decision in Chicago, it was a department decision. And you took it to the director, and the director, well, not really—the committee of that department. There was no acquisitions committee for the museum. There were committees for each department, and they approved the purchase and the funds, and when it went to the trustees it was a rubber stamp. So, no one was thinking about what the museum was buying. There was no thought about that because of the structure of the museum and its age and all of that. Then of course, that's why it was fun to go to the Dallas Museum, because there were no departments. There were all these things and there were curators but there were no departments.
Rail: As the markets go this is going to affect all these practices, right? It means that all the collecting goes to contemporary art, I mean, most of it, right? That’s where the money is, the interest. That's not going to help the museum.
Brettell: Knowing about markets in the 19th century in my own field, I mean, the world records in the 1860s and ’70s were for Gérômes and Meissoniers and whatever they weren’t for—old master paintings. And it was very much like today, where the reigning contemporary artists, who we don't like much anymore, garnered more—were the Jeff Koonses of their day. And you know, million dollar pictures in the 1860s for a contemporary artist, or 1870s was—and it was a lot of the Americans who pushed it. Now old master pictures are comparatively a bargain. And a lot of people are waking up to it, and there are now, I think, five old master collections in Dallas. And they're serious, they're people who couldn't afford to be contemporary art collectors of the highest level, but they can be old master collectors on the highest level. That's what you do, you switch.
Rail: Is there something we haven’t asked, or you haven’t said that you wanted to get into this interview?
Brettell: I am emphatically not a theorist. It’s not what interests me and it’s not what I'm good at. And I love to do things that are unprecedented or new, and I love to reinvent, take old concepts and bring them to life. But I don't think that what I do or what one ought to do has rules. And I think that it’s more a combination of the person’s knowledge, the financial, and social situation.
Architecture is something that really interests me, museum architecture. Everyone decries the starchitect buildings and buildings that don’t have anything to do with art, and I agree with that actually. And one of the reasons that the Dallas Museum of Art is so boring, as a building, is that when I came it was four buildings by Edward Larrabee Barnes that were four years old. And I had written a really excoriating review of Edward Larrabee Barnes’s cross-campus library at Yale. I thought he was so boring. And I came to the Dallas Museum and the building was so new and the trustees, they’d raised, or were trying to raise—I had to do the last little push—20 million dollars from this wonderful lady to build another building because they already needed one. And I had two choices: I could say that I didn't want a new building, because everyone is exhausted from the last one, there was a real estate crisis. It would have been easy to do that. Or, their impetus to me, their challenge was to do a Frank Gehry addition, they all wanted to do a Frank Gehry addition. And so I said, if we do an addition, the architect of the original building, Edward Larrabee Barnes is still alive and is a major force in modernism, is not anybody’s favorite architect, has never won the Pritzker Prize, but unless he designs the new building, I will resign. To make the whole thing not about architecture, but about art, and about some kind of unity of visual expression, rather than about all these different buildings by all these different guys, who are all these different directors, and so it kind of put a damper on a lot of the civic—you know, “we want to be the first American museum that has a Frank Gehry building,” and I just imagined this explosion on the north edge of poor Ed Barnes’s discrete boxes that nobody understood. [Laughing]