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From the Met to MFAH

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Renowned photography curator Malcolm Daniel finds a home in Houston.

By Andrew Edmonson 

Malcolm Daniel’s adventures as a curator have taken him from his native Baltimore to the grand galleries of Paris and Rome, the streets of Manhattan as an AIDS activist with ACT UP, and most recently to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH).

At MFAH, Daniel serves as the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, nurturing and developing the institution’s renowned photography collection.

Along the way, Daniel spent 23 years in the august halls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, America’s largest museum, where he rose to Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs for nine years. During that time, he curated or co-curated some 25 exhibitions and emerged as one of the preeminent scholars of 19th-century photography.

Daniel recently prepared an exhibition featuring the work of photographer Fazal Sheikh.
The exhibition continues through October 1.

But Daniel’s artistic passions aren’t limited to the distant past. He has championed the work of such exciting living artists as Vera Lutter and Fazal Sheikh. MFAH is a beneficiary of his relationship with Sheikh, whose stunning exhibition Homelands and Histories: The Photography of Fazal Sheikh is on view through October 1. It celebrates the museum’s acquisition of 75 images by the American-born photographer who possesses a piercing ability to capture the dignity and beauty of refugees trapped in extremis.

Daniel made the decision to come to Houston in 2013 to succeed Anne Wilkes Tucker, the revered founding curator of MFAH’s photography department. Tucker spent four decades building the nascent collection from 141 pieces upon her arrival in 1976 to over 29,000 items by the time she retired in 2015.

“Anne Tucker and I were speaking about her future plans, and she indicated that she wanted to retire, but couldn’t unless a worthy successor were found,” recalls MFAH director Gary Tinterow, who worked with Daniel for two decades at The Met. “‘There is only one person in the world, and he isn’t available,’ she said. I responded, ‘Well, let me give it a try.’”

Tinterow says Daniel makes an exceptional curator because, in addition to expertise in his particular field, he has a genuine curiosity about all art. “He is an esteemed scholar, a fine writer, and an excellent mentor to junior colleagues,” Tinterow says. “He believes in his profession and he believes in the public. Confident in his abilities, comfortable in his skin, he is at the same time modest and very, very funny.”

Art, Activism, and Love

As a double major at Trinity College in Connecticut, where he studied studio art and art history, Daniel got to spend a semester in Rome. “That experience of studying art history by standing in front of great works of art, rather than looking at 35mm slides or black-and-white reproductions in books, was really transformative,” he says. “Over the years, the more great art that I saw, the more humble I became about the work that I created. So that pushed me more and more toward art history.”

Daniel went on to complete his doctorate at Princeton University, where he became interested in 19th-century France while studying under professor Tom Crow. He later sought to combine this interest with the excitement he felt in photography history seminars taught by Peter Bunnell. “As it turned out, that was a fortuitous path to follow,” he says. “In 19th-century painting, you can spend years reading what other scholars have already written about the great artists. Then, if you’re smarter than everyone else in the past 100 years, maybe you’ll have a little something to add. In the history of photography, there were 19th-century artists of the first rank about whom virtually nothing had been written. Much research still remains to be done, and so there’s an exciting sense of discovery.”

In 1988 and ’89, Daniel spent a year in Paris, researching for his dissertation on Édouard Baldus, the French photographer of landscape and architecture.

In September 1989, Daniel returned to the U.S., settling in New York to dive into the work of the activist group ACT UP, where he met his future husband, Darryl Morrison. Daniel recalls that Morrison was selling T-shirts at the entrance of the Gay and Lesbian Center on 13th Street. “I asked him, ‘Are new people supposed to go someplace special?’” Daniel says. “He responded with something funny like, ‘At a certain point in the meeting, they’ll take you off the floor for the initiation ritual.’ And I said to myself, ‘He’s cute.’”

For the next few months, Daniel says, he and Morrison would exchange glances across the room, catching each other looking “like we were in fourth grade.” Finally, they ended up next to each other at a planning meeting for a “Stop the Church” action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We introduced ourselves shyly, gave each other a tiny little kiss, and decided to be marshal buddies for the ‘Stop the Church’ action,” Daniel says. “By the end of the month, we were together. That was 1989, and we’ve been together since.”

As a member of ACT UP, Daniel says he found “an amazing sense of empowerment and community.

“Although I was out as a gay man, it was the first time that I really felt that,” he says. “I got arrested only once with a couple of other activists, one of whom was the daughter of William Kunstler, the famous lawyer for the Chicago Seven and the Catonsville Nine. So the moment he showed up, we were all released. There were many people who did a lot more daring and important things than I did. I was a foot soldier, at most.”

When they relocated to Houston in 2013, Daniel and Morrison found a home in west Montrose and adopted a three-month-old terrier mix from the SPCA named “HOW-ston”—pronounced in the way that New Yorkers refer to Houston Street in the SoHo neighborhood (SoHo being the local shorthand for “South of Houston”).

For the first 12 years Daniel and Morrison were together, they lived in a 330-square-foot fifth-floor walk-up apartment in SoHo. After 9/11, they moved to a larger apartment on the Upper West Side. Although it was nice by New York standards, their Houston home is two to three times larger. “Our roof deck here is bigger than our old SoHo apartment,” he says. “We have found Houston to be a warm and welcoming place. Here in Houston as well as in New York, I always introduce Darryl as my husband; we’re married now. No one has ever responded any way except warmly and positively.

“Statewide politics appall us, of course,” he adds. “To go from having Chuck Schumer as your senator to Ted Cruz is definitely going from one extreme to another. But Houston’s another story.”

‘Building on the Bookends’ 

For the first part of 2017, Daniel focused intently on preparing an exhibition surveying 25 years of the work of photographer Fazal Sheikh, whom he met at Princeton in the 1980s. “Fazal Sheikh is an incredibly sensitive portraitist and master photographic printer,” Daniel says. “He’s one of the best human beings that I know. I think that comes through in his work.”

Daniel says Sheikh has focused for the last quarter-century on giving voices to marginalized and displaced peoples. He spends time getting to know the communities he photographs, asking for their permission and collaboration. “The pictures that he makes take some of those very large issues—refugees, Muslims and the West, women’s rights—and brings them down to a very personal, compelling level,” Daniel says. “Instead of thinking about ‘Afghan refugees,’ you’re looking at a specific person who has a name and a particular story, and it’s impossible not to relate to them on a human level. That’s what makes the pictures so special.”

Currently, Daniel is putting the finishing touches on a retrospective of the distinguished American photographer David Levinthal, which opens at MFAH on October 14 and runs through February 18, 2018. Levinthal first came to Daniel’s attention through a book he did with Garry Trudeau called Hitler Moves East. “They look like photos taken by Robert Capa, taken in the heat of battle, but they’re all G.I. Joe pictures taken on the tabletop,” Daniel says. “In a certain way, the photos are about space toys, cowboys and Indians, G.I. Joes, and Barbies. But equally, they are pictures about pictures. Our experience of World War II isn’t shaped by an actual experience, but by photojournalism, documentary film, and Hollywood movies. Our perception of it has been shaped by popular culture and media.”

Daniel is also devoting considerable energy to expanding the museum’s photography collection for the 2019 opening of the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, the crown jewel of MFAH’s $450 million campus transformation project. The facility, designed by Steven Holl Architects, will showcase the museum’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century art.

Daniel says Tucker, his predecessor, created a world-class 20th-century collection with broad international representation, from European modernism to Japanese postwar photography. Now, he’s “building on the bookends” by strengthening MFAH’s 19th-century materials while also focusing on its 21st-century collection.

“With the opening of the Kinder Building, I want to make sure that we have the kind of contemporary photographs that can play a significant role [alongside] painting and sculpture and other media that will be represented in the new building,” he says. •

This article appears in the September 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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