Interview: Douglas Britt: On Art Criticism & Social Climbing

by Claire Ruud

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      Douglas Britt
      Photo: Kim Clark Renteria

      This week, the Houston Chronicle announced that Douglas Britt, who has elicited national attention for his coverage of Houston’s art scene, would become one half of the paper’s new society team along with socialite Lindsey Love. (His editor, Britt reports, introduced the idea by telling Britt he would look good in a tux.) What does this mean for the Chronicle’s arts coverage? Here’s what Britt had to say.

      …might be good [mbg]: First things first, what’s your tuxedo style of choice?

      Douglas Britt [DB]: Basic black. Idiot-proof.

      mbg: Clear something up for us: this week, tweets mourning your move to the Chronicle’s society pages lit up my twitter feed. But I have it on good authority that you’ll remain the paper’s arts writer, too. What, exactly, is the situation?

      DB: Your authority is right on. I'm the society/visual arts writer, wearing two hats like many people at newspapers (and elsewhere) these days. In fact, the day the story came out introducing Lindsey Love and me as the new society team, we also ran an interview I did with Mary McCleary, the collage artist, in Zest.

      mbg: Bottom line, does this mean less arts coverage in the Chronicle?

      DB: Not if I can help it. Remember, I'm not doing the society coverage alone. Lindsey knows the world we're covering well, and that's going to be a huge help. We're also fortunate to be going through the transition and its inevitable learning curves at a point when I've already done stories on just about all the major museum shows that are up through January or February, so that frees up a little more time for learning the society beat while still keeping tabs on the galleries. I think we'll be in good shape when the new wave of exhibitions kicks off in earnest.

      mbg: Michael Barnes, the Austin-American Statesman’s man about town, started out as an arts writer, too. Why do papers tap arts writers for society columns?

      DB: Because we're there? Truthfully, I don't know how widespread that hiring pattern is, but there's a fair amount of overlap between the art scene and the society world, so it's a more natural area to branch out into than, say, covering football. I'm glad you brought up Michael Barnes, though—he's absolutely terrific, and seeing how dizzyingly prolific he is gives me greater confidence that, with Lindsey's help on the social side, I can keep the standard of coverage high on both beats.

      mbg: Thoughts on the biggest similarities between arts journalism and chronicling the lives of the well-heeled?

      DB: Regardless of what you're covering, you want and need to be accurate, ethical, inclusive, timely, etc. Certainly with these two beats, you end up looking at the role philanthropy plays in building a city, and a fair number of Houston's legendary family names are known to me through reporting on art. I expect to have some fun with the overlap. I recently attended my first party at Lynn Wyatt's house and ended up doing a blog entry flashing back to 1980, when she hosted the Urban Cowboy world premiere and Andy Warhol wrote all about it in his diary—or rather, dictated it to Pat Hackett.

      mbg: Putting on your critic’s hat, what were the highlights of 2009 in Houston’s art world?

      DB: The MFAH continued its push to expand its Asian art presence, opening its new Indian art gallery, hosting that stunning Afghanistan show and co-organizing the equally remarkable ancient Vietnamese art show, which is still on view—as are Your Bright Future and Chaotic Harmony, two contemporary Korean shows it also co-organized. And let's not forget the museum's acquisition of hundreds of Ishimoto Yasuhiro photographs, some of which we saw this year, with more to come next year. I also loved the MFAH's big collection shows, Color Into Light and North Looks South.

      It was another great year for Latin American art, between North Looks South, Rice Gallery's Henrique Oliveira installation, the Station Museum's Carlos Runcie-Tanaka show, a terrific slate of Sicardi Gallery shows and, of course, the collaboration between the Menil and the MFAH on the Joaquín Torres-García wood show. And we were lucky to have the Blanton's Francisco Matto survey—as real revelation—nearby in Austin.

      The Menil's reinstallation of its modern and contemporary permanent-collection galleries has to count as a huge highlight, and a wonderful parting gift from Franklin Sirmans, whom we're losing to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We'll miss Sirmans, but CAMH and Blaffer Gallery both made good leadership moves by tapping Bill Arning and Claudia Schmuckli—Schmuckli’s Leonardo Drew survey was tip-top—as their respective new directors.

      Dan Havel and Dean Ruck's architectural intervention Give and Take, half of which was seen at CAMH and half of which was the cored-out, and now demolished, bungalow, was terrific. I can't call No Zoning a great exhibition, but I loved the activity it seemed to spark or coincide with at some of the city's scrappy art spaces, which had what often felt like unofficial No Zoning programming.

      In the galleries, the biggest highlight hands down was Inman Gallery mounting a special exhibition of Dario Robleto's most ambitious work to date, drawn from two West Coast museum shows that didn't travel to Texas. It's on view through December 31. There are more, but I've got to save something for a year-end list. But just ticking these off has me chomping at the bit to see what 2010 brings.

      Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.

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