Remembering Peter Marzio, 1943-2010

"His life was transformed forever by one encounter with a painting"

Peter C. Marzio in front of the MFA Houston

Peter Marzio was the kind of leader that, in any field of endeavor, comes along once in a generation. I was privileged to have known him, and to have been able to work with him, for only a few years. But he has profoundly influenced my own thinking about the museum field, as he has that of many others.

Peter’s accomplishments as a museum director are legion, and in the days following his tragic death from cancer at age 67, they have been documented and celebrated. His 28 years at the helm of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston left an indelible stamp on the role of a museum director.

Under Peter’s stewardship, the MFAH collection grew five-fold, while attendance grew 700%. And, Peter helped to alter forever the perception of art museums among the general public. His initiative, A Place for All People, opened the Museum of Fine Arts to audiences heretofore untapped by many art museums, and the mosaic that is Houston’s population now regard the MFAH as an integral part of their city’s educational and cultural life.

Peter came to this vision by his own experience. He knew firsthand the capacity of art to move hearts and touch souls, and even to change lives. His own life was transformed forever by one encounter with a painting.

In one of my last conversations with him, as we prepared to bring the 2011 AAM Annual Meeting to his city, Peter told me of his upbringing in a working class family in New Jersey, a family where boxing was a tradition. The first in his family to graduate high school, he went on to earn a track scholarship to Juniata College. During his freshman year, his track skills far exceeded his scholarship until he saw Goya’s The Forge during an art history lecture. Then, the student who stuttered, and who never spoke in class, raised his hand.

The professor of that class, understanding the significance of what had happened, urged Peter to go to the Frick Collection to experience the painting firsthand. Peter did so, and instantly saw the boundless energy and magic of great art. He had found his calling, and his mission: to ensure that as many people as possible had the chance to enjoy the same transformative experience.

Peter Marzio’s life became immersed in this quest, and he succeeded admirably in a life that is testament to the power of art, the power of museums, and the power of one man to make museums matter.

Peter was a quiet, humble man of abiding passion and great vision. The people of Houston will miss Peter Marzio, as will the entire museum field. As will I.

The writer is president of the American Association of Museums

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24 Jun 11
2:18 CET


It may or may not come as a surprise that Peter Marzio stood alone among American museum leaders who spoke out openly against the plan to dismantle the Barnes Foundation. He understood that the Barnes in its purposeful, historic setting has integrity and unique meaning that a replica will never achieve. He also understood that there are creative, reasonable ways to improve accessibility to the Barnes Foundation so that future generations may benefit from the magnificent, true bequest of Albert Barnes.

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