Interview: Jessie Otto Hite

by Rebecca S. Cohen

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      European paintings gallery
      The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art
      Image credit: © 2006 Dave Emery Photography, Inc.

      Jessie Otto Hite readily cops to being as “unrealistically optimistic” as Larry Faulkner, former president of the University of Texas at Austin, once labeled her. And why not? With the exception of a short hiatus after the birth of her daughter, she morphed from UT art history graduate student through a succession of staff positions to eventually become director of The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art—a job she’s held for the past 15 years. “There was always another opportunity,” she says to explain her good fortune as well as her ability to endure the university’s bureaucracy for 30 years. Hite recently retired from UT, but gracious and positive as ever, agreed to talk with …might be good.

      …might be good: Give us a one-word description of how you feel about your departure from the Blanton…

      Jessie Otto Hite: “Liberating” maybe. I just feel like my job there is done. I don’t have any second thoughts.

      …mbg: What are the greatest challenges ahead for the Blanton?

      JOH: Not having a serious amount of ongoing funding in place for acquisitions is a real problem. We’ve been so lucky in that there have been so many donors who have stepped up, but there is no free money for curators. I think that’s a huge one. And I really think the Blanton needs to be out of the College of Fine Arts.

      …mbg: How does that hamper its ability to do business?

      JOH: There’s a lot of push-back on the academic side for anything that we do.

      …mbg: Do they have a say?

      JOH: They don’t control us. It’s about resources, and even more it’s about having direct access to the administration. The president and provost need to know what the Blanton’s missions and goals are on a direct basis, not with someone interceding. In fact, our professional organization for university museums mandates that we move out of the college. That’s what they said: you must report directly to the provost. The museum council feels very strongly about it too.

      …mbg: Is it up to the president to make that happen?

      JOH: Yes. It’s the president. The chancellor and the board of regents don’t get into it.

      ...mbg: Is there a sense of urgency  for the president to sever the museum from the College? As it now stands, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts will make the selection on the next director, right?

      JOH: I have faith in Doug Dempster [Dean of the College of Fine Arts] to find a good replacement. There’s a committee with good staff, good donors, and reasonable faculty. Ken Hale is running the search. William Powers [the President of The University of Texas at Austin] funded the hiring of Phillips Oppenheim (an executive search firm specializing in nonprofits). [But] I think any candidate worth his salt coming in is going to say, I can’t take [the position] if I’m not reporting directly to the president, to the provost.

      …mbg: What is the current timetable for selecting the new director?

      JOH: We are hoping in the next 6 months. They posted the ads two months ago.

      …mbg: So the museum will go six months without leadership.

      JOH: Associate director Ann Wilson has been appointed as interim director. Actually the reason I gave them nine months notice was I had hoped it would be filled, but with the acting dean (Dempster moved from interim to dean in December 7)...

      …mbg: But that wouldn’t have been an issue if the museum were outside of the College of Fine Arts.

      JOH: Exactly.

      …mbg: And the new director will have at least two major staff openings to fill.

      JOH: Yes. There’s the head of education and the curator of Latin American Art.
      Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, curator of Latin American Art left mid-April. I hate to see him go, but he’s young, he’s ambitious, he’s very sought after at this moment in time. He did wonderful things for us, and he was recently hired by Patty Cisneros [to be director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros]. I hope this will cement our relationship with her foundation. I think there won’t be a problem hiring someone else because of our outstanding collections. The university is an important place. I’ve already had discussions with Gabriel and the dean and said here are the people who are out there.

      …mbg: As long as we’re talking about Latin American art, let’s talk about your comments to the New York Times Magazine ("After Frida,” March 23, 2008) in a recent article that featured Mari Carmen Ramirez. I was surprised by the intensity of your response. You’re usually so mild mannered…

      JOH: It was 2:00 pm on my last day of work… Usually, I don’t say anything, but she had so maligned the institution and Gabriel and so misrepresented what we were doing. She told blatant lies. I thought: all I’m doing is telling the truth.

      …mbg: Did you anticipate she might leave when Jonathan got a raise and after the museum acquired the Suida Manning Collection?

      JOH: No, I didn’t know she would leave. She did a wonderful job with exhibitions, but building the collections was not one of her things. She had never brought any opportunities for acquiring a collection to me. What happened with Suida Manning was a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you can imagine walking through the Blanton today and having only the American and Latin collections up, it would be a very different kind of museum. We had a donor and a president who wanted to make this happen—it didn’t take arm-twisting on my part. It just came together. Any director in any museum would have made the same decision. We probably paid an eighth of what that collection is worth today. I don’t have any regrets about that. And Mari had been increasingly disengaged. She’d been there a long time. I just think it would have been nicer if she’d gone in a nicer way.

      …mbg: It must have been awful receiving letters from outside the museum when she left.

      JOH: Oh, it was terrible.

      …mbg: In a recent interview with …might be good, Gabriel spoke about improving the cooperation between the Art and Art History Department and the museum, possibly having the new curator be a faulty member.

      JOH: I think having Andrea Giunta and Roberto Tejado [on the Art and Art History faculty] will be a very positive thing. In addition to marrying the Blanton’s program to the Art and Art History Department, we also have the opportunity to work with the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) that exists at UT, and the new study center we plan to establish there, which will provide funding on a regular basis to bring in scholars from outside to work both with Andrea and Roberto and with us. We built space in the new building to house those visiting professionals.

      …mbg: How will this new study center be different from the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA)?

      JOH: They’re about gathering documents. I think that’s all they’re doing.

      …mbg: The Times article says they will also hold symposia.

      JOH: Latin America is crazy for symposia. We’ve already had 3 Latin American symposia here since the building opened. The main thing that Houston has been doing is paying for the recording of documents, storing them in a single location, and making them available to people.

      …mbg: And ultimately publishing an abridged form of those documents.

      JOH: Yes.

      …mbg: Peter Marzio is quoted as envisioning that the Houston Museum of Fine Art “will one day become the most important collection of Latin American art in the U.S.” Did UT somehow miss its opportunity to trump Houston in the area of Latin American art? And how central is the ego, or perhaps the competitive spirit, of the museum director to the progress of a museum?

      JOH: I’m probably not the right person to answer that question. If you look at what’s happened in Austin, with museums, and ask, how come we were able to build a museum more quickly than AMOA? My answer would be that we have a larger pool of donors. We can reach outside of Austin. If you look at the Blanton and look at Houston, how much money did Peter just inherit from Caroline Law? Hundreds of millions of dollars. At the Blanton, we’ve been faced with the issue of building visibility, building an awareness of our program, trying for 30 years to get this building built. So how do you do that and build all the collections all at once?

      I think we’ve done an amazing job considering we’ve had very little money for art acquisitions. I think we’ve done a miraculous job of getting this building built. The Blanton is now a household word in Austin. It’s at least recognized in major cities throughout the country. Certainly in the Latin American world, we still hold a high place… I suppose in the best of all worlds, we missed an opportunity. We should have been building the Latin American collection. But how do you divide up the pie? Many times people build buildings and hope the collections will come. We did better than that. We had collections that needed housing. The building had to get done, because without the building, we couldn’t have attracted the kind of donors we’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years. The collections will come. We’ve got a 50 million dollar goal for the capital campaign and a good part of that is for exhibition support or acquisitions.

      …mbg: Jack Lane is leaving the Dallas Museum. Tim Potts has left the Kimbell. It seems there are a lot of museum director openings across the entire country right now.

      JOH: Yes. There are 26 or 28 openings. Normally there would be about 12 openings.

      …mbg: What is it about the job that is wearing people out?

      JOH: There are a lot of us baby boomers who aren’t going to do like our colleagues did and work until they’re 70. I think it’s getting to be a much more demanding job, and curators don’t want to take it on. They’re very married to the object. And I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job of mentoring people in the field to move up. I do think that museums are starting to move people up from development and not just curatorial departments. But it’s an interesting time. Who’s going to replace Philippe de Montebello?

      …mbg: How would you advise a young person to prepare to be a museum director?

      JOH: I think you still need a strong art background, and more and more, I think people need an understanding of marketing, financial management, [although] university museum positions are very protected. I don’t have to have an incredible understanding of finance. I have the university that manages the hiring, the code of ethics, all that.

      …mbg: What is your greatest regret?

      JOH: That we weren’t able to raise endowment money when we were doing the building. We’re not in bad shape—we have about a million and a half dollars of income from endowment annually now—but I would have liked to raise about 20 million dollars.

      …mbg: And your proudest accomplishment?

      JOH: I don’t know if I have a proudest accomplishment, but one of my happiest moments was at the student opening of the new museum. Two thousand students came, they spent hours at the museum, and they were looking at the art. I saw four fraternity boys standing in front of one of the big Renaissance paintings and talking about it for 20 minutes. I loved that. And I loved, after the opening, when the sushi chef at Uchi showed me his cell phone with an artwork from the Blanton as his screen saver. When we started out we did a marketing study and no one knew who we were. And now, anywhere I go in town they know the Blanton.

      …mbg: You didn’t mention the new building, when I asked you for your greatest regret or your proudest moment. Should we infer you have regrets?

      JOH: No. Truthfully, and looking at what Herzog & de Meuron have done, I’m not sure we would be better off. I regret we had to go through this [the resignation of Herzog & de Meuron and selection of a second architect], but it’s great that we have the building and it’s meeting our needs and the collection looks well.

      …mbg: I’ve noticed that when you talk about the Blanton you frequently use the pronoun “we.”

      JOH: And I probably always will. Thirty years is a long time.

      Rebecca S. Cohen is an Austin-based writer and author of Art Guide Texas, published by UT Press.

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