With this post, On the Town launches its “Arts Insider” series—interviews with the top players in the Houston arts world. Instead of boldface names (museum directors, board chairs, artistic directors) we’ll interview the people wielding power behind the scenes, the ones who have been in the game long enough to know where the bodies are buried. You may not have heard of all of them, but these are the people determining the future of the Houston arts world. Know anyone who fits that description? E-mail suggestions for future interview subjects to [email protected].
Our first arts insider is Clint Willour, curator at the Galveston Arts Center, art collector, and MFAH patron. Willour grew up in Shelton, Washington, attended Whitman College and the University of Washington, and moved to Houston in 1970. He soon met art dealer Marvin Watson, who hired Willour to manage the Watson/deNagy Gallery (later the Watson Gallery) until its collapse in 1989 in the wake of the oil bust. Since then, Willour has been involved, as either director or curator, with the Galveston Arts Center, which focuses on showing early- and mid-career artists. Many of those artists now have national reputations.
Because of his sharp eye, Willour has been able to buy and donate over $1 million worth of art to the MFAH over the years. Rebecca S. Cohen, author of Art Guide Texas, calls Willour one of the most important figures in the Texas art world. “I think Clint has done more for midcareer artists, and art institutions in the state, than anyone else in Texas,” Cohen said in 2005. “He’s the unsung hero of Texas art.”
Houstonia: How would you describe the Houston visual art scene right now?
Clint Willour: I feel like for the last few years it’s been in a holding pattern. Nothing terribly exciting, nothing really disastrous. A couple of galleries have closed; other galleries have moved up the food chain. In the non-profit world, the MFAH has announced an architect for its new building, but Gary [Tinterow] hasn’t launched a capital campaign, and no ground has been broken. The cost of the building keeps going up with each estimate. The Menil’s new building, the drawing center, also seems to be on hold, as well as the café. Otherwise, I think [the arts scene] seems stable.
H: What do you think of Houston’s recent museum exhibitions?
CW: The programming at the Contemporary Arts Museum is a little lackluster for me. It hasn’t been exciting for some time. It seems like they’ve been doing a lot of dead or older artists. When you’re supposed to be about the art of now, and you show Joan Jonas, which was the art of the ’70s…I don’t know. Not much exciting is coming out of the curatorial department. It’s mostly traveling exhibitions, exhibitions that seem a little shopworn to me. I’m hopeful that the Rice Gallery is going to be able to continue programming the way they have. I think it’s some of the best programming in Houston. Certainly the Blaffer Gallery and Rice are doing more interesting stuff than some other institutions.
H: How about what the MFAH is doing?
CW: Exhibitions are being charged for that weren’t before. Fees are going up. Lectures are being charged for. Thursdays [when admission is free] seem to be a really good deal. The Helmut Newton show, which was here and is now at the Annenberg Space for Photography [in LA], has had three times the attendance at the Annenberg than it did here because the Annenberg is free. The Prado show didn’t do that well at the box office. I didn’t think it was that great a show—it was kind of like treasures from the basement. It seems like there’s a big effort to go for the names—the Prado, the impressionists, Braque. So I’m anxious to see what’s down the pike. They’ve brought some great shows—I think the Faking It show from the Met is really good. The Portraits show is good.
H: What galleries and artists are you most excited about?
CW: The tried and true galleries are still doing what they do really well. The Moody Gallery’s got a Michael Bise show coming up—I’m really excited about that. I’m showing Lawrence Lee [at the Galveston Arts Center], who is a young, up-and-coming African American artist working in Dallas. A lot is happening in Texas in the next few months. You have the Texas Biennial, which is based in San Antonio but also has a component at the Lawndale Art Center. The Society for Photographic Education will be here in October. The two art fairs are coming. I’m not convinced that the Houston Fine Art Fair is where it ought to be right now, since I haven’t heard much about it.
H: So the Texas Contemporary Art Fair looks more promising?
CW: Well, I know who’s going to be in that, and it’s a promising group of galleries. We’ll see if we can still support two art fairs. The Dallas Art Fair this year had a lot more international galleries, and had a broader appeal. It wasn’t just Dallas people who came—it was Houston people, and other people from out of town. The Houston fairs have never been able in the past two years to really draw from outside of Houston. And that’s needed, because otherwise it’s like preaching to the choir. Why would I go if I’m only going to see the same things I see anyway? So we’ll see.