Rick Brettell, distinguished professor, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art, critic, author, philanthropic “rainmaker,” and all-around Dallas art world impresario, passed away Friday after a long battle with prostate cancer.
Brettell began his academic life as a microbiologist, but transitioned into the arts while studying at Yale. He would become an accomplished scholar of French Impressionism (he authored more than two dozen volumes on the subject) as well as an influential museum curator and administrator. After curating European paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, he moved to Dallas and became the director of the Dallas Museum of Art from 1988 to 1992. Brettell had an out-sized impact on the expansion of the DMA’s collection in what was then its relatively new Arts District facility.
In a May interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Brettell recalls being attracted to Texas in the late-1980s because he saw an opportunity to shape the direction of an institution. The DMA, at the time, had a history as a regional museum that was flush with cash and backed by patrons who wanted to introduce a global scope to its collection. To lend that effort focus, Brettell led the construction of a new wing to house the DMA’s growing and impressive collection of Pre-Columbian art.
“But more than a museum director, author and professor, Brettell was perhaps most of all a museum builder,” Jerome Weeks writes on KERA’s Art & Seek. “He had a real gift for fusing art, scholarship, fundraising – and a vision of what a museum could be.”
After leaving the DMA, he founded FRAME (the French Regional and American Museum Exchange), which promoted collaborations between local museums in France and the United States. The obituary in the Dallas Morning News, where Brettell served as the paper’s art critic from 2013 to 2018, recounts how in recent years Brettell turned his institution-building expertise to raising the profile of the art department at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Brettell secured a massive $17 million donation to establish the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History; he helped the university acquire the Barrett Collection, a large and important collection of Swiss art; and he engineered the transfer of the entire Crow Collection of Asian Art to UTD. In addition to the storied collection of Asian art, Brettell brought to the university access to the museum’s Arts District facility and $23 million to fund the construction of a second Crow museum on UTD’s Richardson campus.
Brettell’s storied capacities for securing massive donations for large institutions played in counterpoint to his dedication to smaller initiatives and under-sung Texas artists. These included initiatives like the “Wilcox Space,” a small Fair Park gallery space which celebrated the life and legacy of John Wilcox, as well as his long championing of the artist James Magee. In 2010, along with Nasher Sculpture Center curator Jed Morse, Brettell co-authored a monograph on McGee’s work that was released to coincide with a Nasher retrospective exhibition on the overlooked West Texas sculptor.
Brettell, who was born in Rochester, NY and grew up in Denver, always had a soft spot for Texas artists. In recent years, Brettell’s mind had turned back to the DMA’s original, if now neglected, focus: Texas art. In its race to become a globally significant art institution, the DMA has lost its appetite and capacity for exhibiting and interpreting the rich history of Texas art. Brettell’s solution? Pioneer yet another new cultural institution in Dallas–a Museum of Texas Art. And he had found the perfect location for it: the former home of The Science Place in Fair Park, which was the original home of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts before it moved to the Arts District in the 1980s.
“[Science Place] was built to be an art museum, with beautifully proportioned galleries and spaces,” Brettell wrote about his idea in the Dallas Morning News. “The former DMFA building cries out to be filled with works of art again.”
There was little doubting that Brettell could find the patronage to fund his latest museum idea, but something else lay in his way: Fair Park First, the non-profit organization to whom the city of Dallas handed over management of Fair Park in 2018. In June, the Fair Park First board voted 12-0 against his proposed new use for the original 1936 home of the DMA. According to the DMN, Brettell was “devastated.”
Among all of Brettell’s artistic gambits of recent years, his championing of a new Museum of Texas Art was the one I believed was most important and could have the most lasting impact on the cultural life of this city. As the story of the DMA’s evolution illustrates, Dallas’ striving for global relevance has often come at the cost of an understanding and appreciation of its own history and cultural identity. A Museum of Texas Art could serve an important function in both reacquainting this city with its past, as well as elevating the greatest aspects of that unique history and homegrown culture.
Think of it: a Museum of Texas Art could leverage partnerships with the DMA and its boxed-away holdings of Texas Regionalism, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the African American Museum, Tulsa’s Philbrook and its remarkable Native American art, and other institutions around the state and the country to explore new narratives drawn across multiple artistic mediums and cultural traditions that give new meaning and prominence to the diversity of cultures and histories that forge Texan identity.
Even if Fair Park First is not interested in the idea today, Brettell’s idea of a Museum of Texas Art still needs championing, where ever it ends up living. The problem is that Brettell’s passing leaves a hole that is not easily filled. Who else in Dallas had the history, reputation, relationships, clout, and track record to make such a dream become a reality?
My hope is that Brettell has already accomplished much of the conceptual heavy lifting, and that the friends and patrons who long supported his initiatives will step in and carry this final inspired idea across the finish line.
Could there be a more fitting tribute to the man?