Lights On

Natilee Harren on the reopening of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Glasstire editor in chief Christina Rees and publisher Brandon Zech.

FOR ALL ITS STRIVING, Houston has long struggled to make claims for art-world preeminence. That changed last Saturday, when the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, became the first major American museum to reopen its doors to the general public after closing in mid-March to help stem the spread of Covid-19. The MFAH was positioned to make this leap due to a combination—magical or nefarious, depending on one’s view—of the state’s gung ho Republican governor, the city’s hygiene-friendly sprawl and competent Democratic leadership, and museum director Gary Tinterow’s unflagging ambition to keep up institutional appearances in advance of a $450 million campus expansion slated to open this fall. Desperate for a break from my kids, curious to witness history, and risking the scorn of my assiduously cautious social circle, I grabbed the N-95 from my bug-out bag and headed to the museum district.

Arriving shortly before the museum’s opening, I masked up and took my place on a friendly blue dot, which spaced me appropriately among about two dozen other art lovers, while a greater number of staff members, reporters, and photographers hovered anxiously. My peers were mostly well-heeled, able-bodied couples and adult families, including a sockless, loafer-clad group that I overheard chatting about the run on real estate in rural Connecticut. On the hour, Tinterow emerged to bless our visit, nattily dressed in what looked like a bespoke fabric mask in gray pinstripe and sporting lilac-colored sterile gloves. He gave a short, muffled benediction and ceremonially waved us in, as if we were honored guests.

The author in front of Paul Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1888–90.

Following a touchless entry with a pre-purchased ticket, I paused to have my forehead scanned from afar by a smartphone-based Feevr device, no doubt the latest attempt to disrupt the contactless temp-taking industry. I passed. Free to roam at a benign distance from both the art and my fellow museumgoers, I nevertheless found myself lingering at the entrance, the new formalities prompting an Andrea Fraser–level of scrutiny toward museum infrastructure and human resources. All visible staff were masked and gloved; the ticket counter was barricaded by plastic shields; brochure racks were empty; and water fountains were shrouded in garbage bags. A maximum of nine hundred visitors would be allowed in the museum’s three hundred thousand feet of gallery space that day (less than 25 percent normal capacity), and there were clearly hundreds fewer than that. Yet, at six feet away, I somehow felt closer to my museumgoing brethren than ever before.

No café, no drinking fountains, no BYO provisions, no coat check, no reentry, and apprehension around touching bathroom fixtures made for an endurance test that could appeal only to hard-core art worshippers. No surprise, then, that the first familiar half-face I spied was that of aesthete gallerist Hiram Butler, near the Modigliani that has become the museum’s digitally bemasked mascot. I asked what this visit meant for him, and the long pause that followed made me wonder whether he had heard the question through my face gear. But then I saw his eyes were glistening with tears. “It’s so emotional,” he confided, noting how long arts institutions of all sizes have been closed. In the Italian Renaissance rooms, I queried a family of three wearing face masks and shields, including a child who couldn’t have been older than four. “I missed it,” the mother told me. “If they reopened and nobody came, that would be sad.”

MFAH front desk.

I searched the collection galleries for mirrors of our present trauma. Surely the museum could offer me comfort or perspective through artists’ depictions of past ages’ disasters and plagues? Not so, I discovered to my surprise. There were depictions of sorrow and extremity on view in the permanent collection displays—Simon Vouet’s Caravaggesque Saint Sebastian, ca. 1625, and Louis Finson’s writhing allegory The Four Elements, 1611, momentarily compelled my gaze—but their impact was overshadowed by the vastness of our pandemic and the global scale of its effects. As a historical subject, I felt shockingly alone in time and space. The solo portraits by and of modern men and women (namely, František Kupka, Paul Cézanne, Suzanne Valadon) seemed most familiar; already they knew God is dead and no one is coming to save us. I found meager pleasure in the tactility of beautiful, handmade things, while an exhibition of postmodern Italian design, staged within a fun-house-like pavilion, felt particularly dystopian and aesthetically hostile.

In front of Manet’s Toilers of the Sea, 1873, I encountered Christina Rees and Brandon Zech, of the online arts magazine Glasstire, who also made the MFAH their first art outing since lockdown. With the entire art world having migrated online, they’ve been busier than ever. Despite their personal feelings that it was still too early to be opening up, professional duties had lured them in. “We have to do this,” Zech admitted. “It’s part of who we are.” Outside the gift shop, I asked Chris Goins, the museum’s savvy head of retail, whether they’d start stocking masks. Of course, and in high style: some from local designer Isabel Wilson, some in African wax fabric in homage to a current sub-Saharan photography show, and others as part of an exclusive line featuring art-historical jawlines drawn from the museum’s collection.

MFAH Director Gary Tinterow.

In the lobby of the Mies-designed Jones building, I ran into Tinterow himself. He was warm and genuine-sounding while delivering his boosterish boilerplate, which adopted pandemic language to heroize the museum’s “frontline” workers as performing essential services while emphasizing that staff morale “has never been higher.” From the royal welcome I had received upon entry, it did seem that way, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation I’d had earlier with a gift shop worker. I asked whether they were okay with being back. Their reply: “If you wanted a job, you came back.”

I departed the museum via James Turrell’s color-shifting 1999 installation The Light Inside, where I finally found the art experience I had been looking for. As I passed through the underground tunnel, the entire space glowed with a hue that instantly struck me as Covid red. The illusion was sublime as usual, but now in the classic, Burkean sense. Awesome and overwhelming, it gave the impression of a pervasive and ambient threat, abstract and all-encompassing.

MFAH guest services assistant manager William Short.

Social distancing markers outside a restroom.

MFAH head of retail Chris Goins and guest services assistant manager William Short.

Gallerist Hiram Butler in front of Amedeo Modigliani’s Léopold Zborowski, ca. 1916.

Exterior of MFAH.

James Turrell, The Light Inside, 1999.

A social distancing marker at MFAH.

Exterior view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. All photos by the author.

MFAH signage.

František Kupka, The Yellow Scale (detail), ca. 1907. Oil on canvas, 31 x 29 1/4''. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.