Blaffer Art Museum was named in honor of the late Sarah Campbell Blaffer, a noted Houston art patron and collector. On the occasion of the building of a new $5.3 million Fine Arts Center at the University of Houston, Blaffer, the daughter of William Thomas Campbell, founder of Texaco, and wife of Robert E. Lee Blaffer, founder of Humble Oil (later Exxon), promised major works of art in her collection toward the building of a teaching collection housed at the University. Dedicated on March 13, 1973, the new museum immediately became a vital force in the presentation and promotion of the visual arts in Houston.Assistant professor of art Richard Stout served as Blaffer’s first acting director, and the museum opened its inaugural exhibition season with a solo show of the controversial work of Texas artist Michael Tracy in September 1973. One of Stout’s first initiatives was to reinstitute the Houston Area Exhibition in 1974, originally mounted at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which had discontinued the open juried competition thirteen years earlier. From the very beginning, exhibitions of works drawn from the Blaffer Collection were augmented by regular presentations of student and faculty work. In late 1974 William Robinson was appointed as the museum’s first full-time director. Robinson had previously worked at the McNay Museum in San Antonio and had been director of the Pollock Galleries at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Under Robinson’s curatorial leadership, Blaffer exhibited world-renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque (1976), Edvard Munch (1976), Willem De Kooning (1977), and Frida Kahlo (1978). One of the most glamorous—and heavily guarded—exhibitions ever to be hosted at Blaffer was French Royal Jewels from the Smithsonian in January 1975. During the brief one-week viewing, Houston audiences were stunned by a pair of dazzling 36-carat diamond earrings belonging to Marie Antoinette and a tiara and necklace given by Napoleon to his second wife, Marie Louise.
In 1976 the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation (established by Mrs. Blaffer in 1975) initiated a touring exhibition program. The inaugural exhibition, American Abstract Expressionism, included important works by artists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. The program was one of the first of its kind in the nation to underwrite all major exhibition costs, offering exhibitions to museums and universities throughout Texas free of charge. That same year, Houston Rockets guard Mike Newlin donated twenty-six Richard Diebenkorn etchings and numerous lithographs to the University of Houston. The gift became part of the Department of Art’s print study collection. In 1979 the success of the traveling program prompted the Blaffer Foundation to reacquire the Blaffer Collection from the University of Houston and to take full charge of its care and circulation. The Collection and Foundation are now housed at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Without the burden of caring for a collection of its own, Blaffer’s focus shifted to the staging of temporary exhibitions. With a diverse and wide-ranging exhibition program, encompassing all periods of art history, architecture, and photography, the museum firmly secured its status as Houston’s most prestigious public university museum. Under Robinson’s leadership, Blaffer grew from a staff of two full-time employees to five full-time and three student employees. Blaffer celebrated its tenth anniversary by honoring the patron to whom it owed its existence with the exhibition Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 1973-1983: An Anniversary Exhibition.
Esther de Vécsey, director of the Sewall Art Gallery at Rice University, joined Blaffer as associate director in July 1983. She replaced Toni Beauchamp, who, after a commitment of nearly ten years to the museum, resigned to pursue a graduate degree in art history. De Vécsey expanded Blaffer’s mission as a community educational resource by combining scheduled exhibitions with lectures, symposia, related artistic events, and programs for special community groups. She remarked in an interview, “Galleries shouldn’t be passive buildings sitting silent, full of artwork, waiting for those who ‘understand’ art to come in. They should be active places of learning where people can bring their own experiences, knowledge, and tastes, and contribute to the artwork that’s there.” She was appointed museum director in October 1984.
During de Vécsey’s tenure, Blaffer presented many exhibitions and programs through collaborations with other departments on campus and with Houston area arts organizations. Reconsidered Modernism was a special lecture series co-organized with the College of Architecture in conjunction with the exhibition The Architecture of Richard Neutra, with guest speaker architect Charles Gwathmey. A juried festival of independent film and video artists, expo 85, was coordinated through SWAMP (Southwest Alternative Media Project) in conjunction with the exhibition Video: Media and/or Message. And in the summer of 1984, as the Children’s Museum of Houston completed negotiations for its own museum building, Blaffer hosted their inaugural project, Kidtechnics, a participatory exhibition and learning environment that explored modern technology.
September 1986 brought about another change as Marti Mayo, former curator at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, became Blaffer’s third director. With her strong curatorial background, Mayo focused on gaining recognition for the museum by organizing exhibitions and publishing catalogues that addressed “art on a multidisciplinary basis.” Exhibitions organized between 1986 and 1990 included Images on Stone: Two Centuries of Artists’ Lithographs (1987), Six Artists/Six Idioms (1988, featuring the work of Julie Bozzie, Joan Brown, Donna Dennis, Rachel Hecker, Andrea Rosenberg, and Maura Sheehan), Julian Schnabel: Crows Flying the Black Flags of Themselves (1988, featuring recent paintings and drawings by the UH alum in conjunction with a survey of his work presented at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), Gael Stack: A Survey 1975-1988 (1989, her first museum retrospective), and Reinventing Reality (1990, including work by Amy Blakemore, Margaret Moore, Nic Nicosia, Casey Williams, and Rob Ziebell).
Also in 1986, the University administration and the museum’s Advisory Board refined exhibition policies, formalizing an emphasis on art of the past 100 years and committing to a more vigorous community presence and scholarly role within the city. In 1989 the Advisory Board and the University’s Board of Regents adopted the mission statement that defined Blaffer’s role as a bridge between the University and the general public. It was during this second decade that the museum strengthened its commitment to exhibiting a wide range of art in a variety of media by both emerging and renowned artists from around the world, and established relationships with other organizations within the community with shared interests in the spirit of collaboration. During the winter of 1989, Blaffer joined forces with the Contemporary Arts Museum to present German Art of the Late ’80s, which featured the work of twenty-six young and emerging artists from West Germany, including Katharina Fritsch, Thomas Ruff, and Rosemarie Trockel. Two years later, the work of eight contemporary Spanish artists was presented in Imagenes Liricas: New Spanish Visions. Other highlights of the decade included The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (1990), The Road to Heaven is Paved by Good Works: The Art of the Reverend Howard Finster (1990), an exhibition of the groundbreaking photography of Mike and Doug Starn (1991), and Ansel Adams: American Icons (1992).
In 1994, after nine years as director, Marti Mayo resigned to return to the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum as director. Don Bacigalupi, UH alumnus and former Brown Curator of Contemporary Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, took the helm as Blaffer’s director and chief curator in January 1996. His most notable project was Michael Ray Charles, 1989-1997: An American Artist’s Work, which opened at Blaffer in 1997, then traveled to the Austin Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. The catalogue won three first prizes for publication design from the American Association of Museums, Texas Association of Museums, and Houston Art Director’s Club. The museum celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary ’70s style in 1998, hosting A Night at Studio 25, a retro-style disco dance party. From May through September 1999, the museum closed its doors for some much-needed renovation, including a new climate control system, a passenger elevator, and additional second floor exhibition and office spaces. The makeover allowed for greater flexibility in the scope and scale of exhibitions that could be presented. That year the 1999 Masters of Fine Arts Thesis Exhibition was held at Lawndale Art Center, an alternative space with roots in the UH Department of Art. Also that year, Bacigalupi departed to head the San Diego Museum of Art.
Following another nationwide search (the third in five years), Terrie Sultan was appointed to the post of director in June 2000, coming to Houston from Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, where she had been curator of contemporary art for twelve years. Following a thorough review of the established long-range plan, staff and board retreats in fall 2000, and a series of discussions with community and University leaders, the museum further refined its mission and vision to strengthen the exhibitions, publications, and educational outreach program by focusing on contemporary art, with an emphasis on exploration of the creative process.
In November 2000, Blaffer hosted the first of what has become one of its most popular adult programs—the Contemporary Salon. Inspired by the earlier turn-of-the-century cultural salons, the program encourages informal but informative dialogue between experts and members of the general public. Sultan also initiated a much-needed redesign of the newsletter, and the first issue of Newsline was published in spring 2001. In addition to information about museum programs, Newsline, now called Blaffer magazine, provides a forum for scholars to share ideas about contemporary culture. UH’s Dr. Martin Melosi wrote the first feature article, “To Discard, or Not to Discard,” in response to the exhibition Donald Lipski: A Brief History of Twine.
On her one-year anniversary as director, Sultan faced her biggest challenge when Tropical Storm Allison arrived in full force during the opening reception for Radcliffe Bailey: The Magic City on June 8, 2001. The exhibition would be remembered as the shortest ever on view, having been open for only two hours during the preview. Flooding and loss of power from the storm forced the museum to close for the summer. The building and the art within remained safe—thanks to three forty-foot trailers with diesel-powered air conditioning and dehumidifying units parked just outside the door.
Summer 2002 brought the collaborative project Seeing and Believing: The Art of Nancy Burson to the museum. Co-organized by Blaffer and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, it was the first of several large-scale retrospective exhibition and publication projects that Blaffer would develop cooperatively with sister institutions. Under Sultan’s leadership, the museum expanded its program to present more than eight exhibitions each year, most of them originating at the museum before traveling the world. The exhibition program addresses the cultural diversity of its audience, encompassing artists from different backgrounds, genders, ages, and ethnicity, with a special focus on emerging or under-recognized artists and bodies of work by artists of international renown. Since 2000, Blaffer has originated more than two dozen exhibitions, all of them accompanied by publications, including Jessica Stockholder, Kissing the Wall: Works 1988-2003 (2004), Populence (2005), and Urs Fischer: Mary Poppins (2006). Bob Knox: Non Fiction Paintings (2003) garnered the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) award for “Best Exhibition by an Under-recognized Artist” that year, and Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration (2003) traveled to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where it was viewed by more than 200,000 people; it continued to tour to 15 more institutions through 2010.
The museum continues its historical commitment to regional artists by presenting one exhibition each year that focuses on or includes strong representation from Texas artists, including Tierney Malone: My Favorite Things and Other Rent Party Songs (2001), Margo Sawyer: Contemplative Spaces (2004), and James Surls: The Splendora Years (2005). In addition, the museum has presented the Houston Area Exhibition every four years since 1974.
In 1996 and 2001, Blaffer received a General Operating Support grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), recognition by professional peers of Blaffer as a museum operating at the highest professional standard. In 2006, Blaffer was again awarded a grant from the IMLS, this time for its innovative educational outreach program Art Focus. The museum is the only one of three museums in Texas to be awarded this honor and the only art museum among them to receive support for its educational and public programs. This grant, matching the largest award to any museum in the United States, ranks as one of the museum’s largest grants to date and is major recognition of Blaffer’s achievements. In the past five years, Blaffer has also received highly competitive awards of support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., and Altria, Inc. The institution is now positioned for a new period of growth and development that builds on its many past successes.
In 2004, Blaffer became part of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston, a permanent alliance with the Schools of Art, Theatre, and Music, and the Creative Writing Program, formed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among these five artistic units on the University campus. Blaffer has taken a lead in developing programs with the Mitchell Center that fulfill its mission to explore, challenge, and celebrate the intersections between art forms through public programs, artist residencies, and curriculum in the performing, literary, and visual arts. The first Cynthia Woods Mitchell project focused on the work of visual and performing artist Terry Allen and actress Jo Harvey Allen, and featured a theatrical collaboration between Blaffer and the School of Theatre in the presentation of Terry Allen’s musical performance DUGOUT III (starring Jo Harvey Allen), which complemented the Blaffer exhibition Terry Allen: Stories from Dugout (2005). A two-week interdisciplinary student workshop and visiting artist program with Terry and Jo Harvey Allen was held for twenty students in fine art, theatre, creative writing, and music. A series of lectures and performances under the title Artists Up Close, organized in conjunction with A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad, was presented September 2006, and One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, which was on view at Blaffer in winter 2007.
In January 2009, Claudia Schmuckli was named director and chief curator. Schmuckli had been with Blaffer Gallery since 2004 when she joined the staff as director of public relations and membership. In 2006, she was appointed curator. Prior to her appointment, Schmuckli’s most recent projects for Blaffer were Chantal Akerman: Moving through Time and Space (2008) and the Houston Area Exhibition (2008). Past exhibitions include Amy Sillman: Suitors & Strangers (2007), Katrina Moorhead: A Thing Called Early Blur (2007) and Urs Fischer: Mary Poppins (2006). That same year, Blaffer’s Young Artist Apprenticeship Program won a Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Blaffer curator of education Katherine Veneman joined past YAAP participant Jessica Flores in Washington, D.C. to accept the award from First Lady Michelle Obama.
In June 2010, Blaffer changed its name from “Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston” to “Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.” In February 2011, Blaffer announced that WORK Architecture Company (WORKac) had been selected for a major renovation of the museum, with an anticipated budget of over $2 million. Blaffer Art Museum reopened to great acclaim in October 2012 with a 20-year survey of the work of Tony Feher, and the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognized Blaffer and WORK Architecture with a 2013 Design Award for restoration/renovation. Major exhibitions since the reopening have included Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art (2013), Candice Breitz: The Woods (2014), Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler: Sound Speed Marker (2015), Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance? (2015), Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes (2016), and Matthew Ronay (2016).
Early 2015 marked the launch of the biannual Blaffer Art Museum Innovation Series, the most ambitious lineup of public programs in the museum’s history. Designed to amplify contemporary art’s role as a catalyst for cross-disciplinary learning, the series’ lectures, presentations, gallery talks and interactive programs have highlighted collaborations across the University of Houston community and beyond.
In July 2016, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced the appointment of Claudia Schmuckli as Curator-in-Charge, Contemporary Art and Programming. The University of Houston College of the Arts is conducting a national search for her successor, who will shape the future of what has grown into a world-renowned institution with a professional staff and dozens of student interns, education assistants, installation crew members, work study assistants, and gallery attendants. While the focus of the museum’s mission—the presentation of art that is culturally relevant and artistically significant that engages the community with the important issues of our time—has remained the same, the scope and ambition of those programs continues to grow.