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Anne Wilkes Tucker
Curator

Anne Wilkes Tucker was born in 1945 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and studied at Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1967 she received a B.A. in Art History and then went on to receive an AAS in Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1972, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Photographic History from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York that was part of the State University of New York, Buffalo. While at the VSW, she worked part time at the Eastman house and studied under Beaumont Newhall, the writer of the history of photography and photographer/curator Nathan Lyons. She then interned with John Szarkowski, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1975 she moved to Houston and shortly after she helped to start the photography collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She was granted the title of Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photographs in 1984. In 2014, she announced her retirement from the Museum and finally stepped away in June of 2015.

Anne likes the hands-on aspect of working in the arts, as do I. I think about the possibility of working at a larger museum but then those immediate interactions with art and artists would seem to lessen. However, Anne proved me wrong. Anne prides herself in her work ethic. She tells people how necessary it is to work hard to succeed and that she works hard because she loves what she does. That loves drives people to want to work with her.

Anne is best known for being a talented curator. In 2001, Time magazine named Anne America’s Best Curator and since she has received numerous accolades. Anne champions artists and dedicated her time at the Museum to archiving artist’s careers. Anne is also an amazing writer and that is a quality that I admire. I wanted to interview Anne because essentially I want to be her. I want to have the confidence, the knowledge, and the respect she has. Anne’s stories carry importance; they are filled with good humor, and with sincerity. I am lucky that I get to be a part of telling her story.

What was your first interaction with the arts?

Not much. I think I went to the New Orleans Museum once. I grew up with a strong sense of historical museums because my grandmother kept founding them. That’s not quite true but she was a force and my brother and I used to joke that we went to school with books and a petition under our arms. First, she led the fight to save the old state capitol in Baton Rouge and then she led the fight to save the fence around the old state capital. Which is quite distinctive, wrought iron, you know. Then, there was the building which was a civil war arsenal and she led the fight to save that and then she made it into a little historical museum.

The fact that you would collect things and put them on display was in my brain on some level. But as far as art was concerned, true visual arts, it wasn’t a part of my family. My mother posted this list of the 100 greatest books on the kitchen door that we were supposed to read them all and we read many of them. She took us to music and stuff, but the visual arts, there wasn’t an arts museum in Baton Rouge where I grew up.

Then, I went to college and my freshman year we did a road trip to Washington and I walked up to the national gallery and I was completely dazzled. It is such a spectacular space and the art in it is great. I was blessed that this small college that I went to had a great, truly great art history teacher. She was tough, she was precise, she was disciplined and she expected us to be. She had imagination.  I was thinking about her this morning actually and when Obama announced that they had finally come to their senses and were cutting back on all of this testing and trying to teach people to think. 

I got an undergraduate degree, an AAS degree at Rochester Institute of Technology as a Photographer and I realized I wasn’t any good. There was a graduate school starting across town in Rochester at the Eastman House I was one of the first two students with Beaumont Newhall and Nathan Lyons as my teachers. I studied with Beaumont Newhall, Nathan Lyons, and John Szarkowski. I was just lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Right place, right time. From Beaumont I learned pure research. We studied the history of photography, conservatively.

The first year of the Eastman program was actually in the Eastman house and they let me, a first year graduate student, come and go, 24 hrs., in the Eastman house up into the print room, at night, by myself and pull down boxes.

Wow. That’s amazing.

And, I did. A-Z I just pulled them down, Look at them, go what the hell is this? And then I applied for an internship, I got it at the Modern and worked there. The field then was so fluid and peripheral to the art world. Exhibitions weren’t reviewed in the major art journals. The first auctions devoted to photography were in the ‘70’s. The number of museums that started to collect photography blossomed in the ‘70’s. Then in the ‘70’s Houston, then Amon Carter, Minneapolis, SPE was founded. There’s a moment when photography asserted itself in all of the different levels of art. When I got into the field I could buy every photography book published on my poor student budget. And the only serious periodical was Aperture. I happened to come into the field when it radically changed.

What do you think the catalyst was that made the ‘70’s explode in terms of photography? What was the climate of the world?

Partly it was leadership, partly it was John and Nathan; the exposure to original prints, post war expansion, the baby boom generation, and the huge expansion of college classes. It wasn’t just photography. It was media, television, and the media is the message. There were opportunities in the universities, galleries starting.

What was the first arts organization you worked for?

The first arts organization would be the Eastman house. Nathan offered me a job at the Eastman house because I was working at a waitress at night and I was falling asleep in class.

So, he brought you in so you could just live there?

I worked there in the study center. Every photograph in the collection was photographed, then you made a contact sheet, then you made a 3x5 card, and we had to cut those contact sheets up and affix those little contact sheets to the 3x5 card; and that is the catalog of the collection. First the card was typed with all of the information, and the last thing you did was fix the image. I did it at the Eastman house and then I got to the Modern and I got to do it at the Modern; which seems so crazy now with digital work.

I went to the Modern and I did research to help catalog and then I worked with John on the Walker Evans exhibition and my two first publications were the bibliography in John’s Walker Evans catalog, which I researched the hell out of that thing and came up with some things that not even John knew. I’m a hell of a researcher. Then John let me do a show, each intern got to do a show, I did a show on photographs of women that was published as an issue of Camera magazine. Then out of that I was invited to write the Women’s Eye. So, that led to my first book.

I was learning, building skills as I went along; working with these charming but difficult men in prestigious institutions.

When I came to the Museum, I moved here in ‘75 started in ‘76 and I was 31 years old when I got my first, still part time, job.

Really?

Yeah, I always say it was 2 days a week, and then 3 days a week, and then it became 7. I didn’t get a secretary until the ‘80s. I was always solo, everything was solo. And then I didn’t get a curatorial assistant until we actually had a print room. Maggie Olvie was hired and Maggie was a student of Ed and Suzanne’s at UH. It wasn’t until we moved into the new building that there was even space to add to the staff.

The whole staff could fit around a table that the department heads can’t even fit around now. So when we moved to the Beck Building we had all of this space. Then I went out and raised money for the conservator, literally raised $1 million dollars for an endowed conservator because I had been asking for one for years and we never had one. Then we didn’t have a second curator until we hired Yasu. Now Photography is the largest department.

There’s Malcolm and Yasu and Allison. Nobody else in curatorial is that large. Latin American is 4. By other Museums standards, with the number of shows we are a small museum staff-wise.

When you got to Houston, was there a photo scene?

Geoff Winningham at Rice, George Bunker had hired George Krauss at UH and then in ‘77 or ‘78 he hired Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom. The Cronin’s had come and opened the Cronin Gallery. Fredericka Hunter was showing photography at Texas Gallery – she showed Mapplethorpe and Friedlander and Laurie Simmons and James Welling, so it was beginning here. One person departments and small operations, but it was beginning. There was a community. And they were by and large supportive of one another.

Was the Museum supportive of your collection, what you wanted to collect, and your vision for the collection?

 I have always said the Museum let me spend what I raised. The Museum didn’t have any money. When Marzio came in 83 the endowment for the whole museum was $20 million dollars. If you’re only spending 5%, that’s running the museum, concessions, that’s everything. On the other hand, Photographs were cheap. I couldn’t go out and spend $5,000, I got a couple of grants that let me spend that but that was a lot of money in those days! That would be buying an Edward Weston Platinum print or Stieglitz’s of O’Keefe. But I made very few of those purchases. I got a lot of donations. I did it a picture at a time.

What was your objective for collecting? Did you have one?

Well I was an Americanist. The early collections were all American. In ‘83 or 4 I went to Europe for the first time as a curator and I met my colleagues there. I discovered Czech art and we started buying European. I can’t remember when I went to Japan, but we started collecting Japanese photography. And then we started collecting Latin American. It was the same way everything happened in those days, you discovered something, you found some book, and you found some threads. It was about finding a thread, following it, and responding to it. There’s a big show in New York right now on Russian Photography and we lent many pieces to it we started collecting Russian Photography before others. Just because I always had to buy around the Market. I had to be ahead of the market I just didn’t have the money to collect the people who are already established in the field.

How have you avoided burnout?

I love what I do. I retired from the institution at the right time. If there was burnout it was from working in a big institution. The bigger and bigger it got, the less interesting it was to me. I’m much more suited to being an independent. I love looking at pictures and I’m paid to look at pictures and that is fine with me.

As a woman, have you ever found any difference with your male counterparts?

Oh lord, yes.

How have you dealt with that?

Everything from passes or presumptions to a kind of boys club that exists. It’s among the photographers as well as the Museum.

You just have to roll with it. It was particularly bad in Japan. There were four curators for that exhibition and there were some Japanese curators who preferred to talk to the male curators. You’ve got to let it roll. It is not what you are there for you can get yourself all choked up over it and where does it get you. It’s not going to change a culture. You’re not going to change the person. As Robert Frank always said, “it is the work that counts.”

You’ve built a lasting relationship with most of the photo community, how have you been able to keep those relationships?

I just love collaboration, keeping your ego out of it so that you can work with people. I like working with a team. The Japanese show was a team, the Czech show was a team, and the war show was a team. You have sounding boards. All of us can get on vectors that are skewed and some body needs to go where are you going? Hopefully everyone on the team brings something to the table. It is like a rich stew and it just works better.

Do you have specific qualities that you look for when you’re picking your team?

Lack of ego. I’m not kidding. The thing I consider is the hassle factor. Is this going to be an impossible person to work for? Getting twisted about things that aren’t taking you where you need to go; it’s a waste of energy. It’s hard enough.  I like working with people.

What qualities do you think make a leader?

First and foremost is somebody who has a vision. A vision of why they are in the arts, what they think the arts offer, what is the best path for them and their organization and to convey some aspect of that and to know whether the community wants it. Peter Marzio used to talk all of the time about doing an Annie Leibowitz show so that he could do a Ray Metzker show. It’s not going to bring in the public, but some people are going to fall in love with it. The leaders are the people who have a vision; and the other thing is you have to have passion. People will follow passion if they think it rings true and engages them. Vision, and passion, and capacity for work.

What was the moment you decided to retire like? How did you make that decision?

> I made the decision when I was 68. I’m now 70. It was time. I had been doing it for 37 years. The arrangement we worked out is Malcolm was hired and he was going to be my boss. People said ‘is that going to be difficult for you?’ and I said, ‘Malcolm gets to go to the Executive Committee, Malcolm gets to do the performance reviews, Malcolm gets to do the budget’ -No. I’m fine, I’ve done that. I was perfectly happy turning that over to Malcolm.

So, you made a succession plan.

Yeah, we worked it out.

I’m sure there was a ton of advice you gave to Malcolm on running the department, is there anything that sticks out to you?

The only thing I did with Malcolm was to work with him on the collection. That was the main idea, to bring out coherent segments of the collection. We have a strong collection of Italian post war photography, as well as work from the Institute of Design, he wasn’t as familiar with either. So I would pull out coherent segments with him and treat it like a graduate seminar and followed an outline – who was the teacher, who was the student, what the threads were, where we were strong, where we were missing. That’s what I did, mainly deal with the collection. Give him sheets, give him research, and introduce him to the pictures. We have a very strong African American collection; we have a very strong Latin collection. Give him resources to the material. He’s not going to absorb it all in one afternoon that’s why I created sheets that he could go back and reference to.

Are you interested in still curating?

Yeah, I’m doing a show right now with the Library of Congress and the Annenberg Foundation. I’m talking to somebody else about doing a retrospective exhibition. There are plenty of projects to do.

You’ve mentored and worked with quite a few women who have gone on to be curators and curate amazing exhibitions, what is your advice to curators just starting out in the field?

You can always learn from your staff, get to know everybody.  It is not about you and it is not about your department. It is about making a five year plan. When Peter Marzio came he started study groups for five year plans. I was bored and I didn’t attend and I wasn’t in the first one. I learned my lesson. The next five year plan I was right there. What I heard was everybody else’s discussion and what their priorities were. I watched Peter weigh the priorities which is why he was doing it, why he was holding this meeting. In doing those meetings, with the staff, with the trustees, everybody was buying in. Everybody was informed, everybody had the priorities, had the goals, they all knew where we were going for the next five years. And I learned that lesson from Peter. When we were building the print room I learned from Peter, so we go the preparators, we got the people who had to work in that room—in one room to talk about what the room should be. The preparators wanted bigger doors, the registrar’s office wanted a table that they could work on. So we have a very workable print room. But it is by getting everybody to the table. Having staff meetings so that everybody knows what everybody else is doing.

What are your thoughts about the future of the Houston art community? How is it different today?

I heard on NPR a thing the other day that somebody did a study that the most any of us can handle is 150 friends. I thought that was an interesting statistic. One of the moderators said, ‘so if someone tells you are 151 do you get it?’ what they are saying though we just can’t be the community we used to be because there is more than 150 people. The Opera, the Ballet, the Menil, the African American museum, the Blaffer. It is just a much bigger beast now. It is just different. You just have to go with the changing time or else you are struggling with how you are going to use the media. In my case I’ve got to talk to younger people, who are more savvy with what is happening.

Do you have thoughts or hopes for HCP?

I think the reason we founded HCP was that we thought that it was critical for artists to see their work on the wall. It is different when you take it out of the studio and put it on the gallery wall. Bringing in work by others and both nurturing a broader community while exposing the Houston community to work that is being done outside of the community; In that way I think HCP has a role.

Conclusion

The ability to ask Anne any questions I desired was a great opportunity for me to build a relationship. She offered me guidance and support, and I gained an ally in my career. I especially enjoyed talking about the climate surrounding the starting of HCP and other arts organizations. I am a little jealous about how fun that must have been. All of these new and exciting places starting and a small community that was supportive of each other. I think moxie is the best word to describe what Anne has. It is infectious for sure. She often shied away from awards and recognitions so I had her pegged as a modest worker, but she knows that she is smart and capable; and that is a great thing. Her confidence is inspiring and she is a great example to women on how one can succeed in a leadership role.