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New deputy director excited to join in Kimbell's 'pursuit of excellence'

Posted 2:22pm on Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2012

The groundswells haven't been felt quite yet, but soon -- very soon -- there will be a noticeable difference in Texas art museums.

Three heavyweights from the art museum pantheon have relocated to Texas and all began their new jobs in January. Fort Worth scored George T. M. Shackelford from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston by way of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where Gary Tinterow from the Metropolitan Museum in New York was just named director. Dallas is now home to Maxwell Anderson, who comes from the Indianapolis Museum of Art by way of the Whitney Museum of American Art. These new appointments bode well for the art landscape.

All of the new hires have overlapping careers and interests, including their specialty: 19th-century European art.

"Max and Gary and I have been plowing the same 19th-century field forever," says Shackelford. "And Gary grew up in Houston, while I grew up in Louisiana, which is just six hours away on I-20. So we both have a real experience base in having lived in Texas."

Shackelford, who was chair of the art of Europe and curator of modern art in Boston, will be the Kimbell Art Museum's deputy director. His responsibilities will stretch across the scope of the institution, from the growth of the permanent collection and the exhibition program, to filling and programming exhibitions for the new building, still a massive construction site. He's up to the task, having worked at the huge encyclopedic museums in Boston and Houston, as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

"He's a superstar in the field," says Eric M. Lee, the Kimbell's director. "It's like recruiting Michael Jordan. We are so extraordinarily lucky."

Jet-setting before settling in

On a recent spring day, Shackelford was rattling about his new office. His desk was bare, his bookshelves only partially filled. He's sure there are more books, somewhere. Perhaps in moving boxes still at his home in Park Hill.

He settled in the TCU-adjacent neighborhood in an old house where he can "hear the bells of the Lutheran church and the animals from the Fort Worth Zoo -- a great combination," he says.

Everything he owns is now in Texas, and he is trying to unpack as quickly as possible, as the Kimbell needs his full attention. "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings From the Clark" is being uncrated and readied to open Sunday.

But before he can wrangle his hosting duties for this exhibition, he has to jet off to France, where his last show for Boston, "Degas and the Nude," is opening at the Musée d'Orsay. He'll be back a day before the impressionist opening.

He seems quite calm about the full calendar, though.

"There is a lot going on," he admits. "I'm actively engaged in finding a program for the new building, but the most immediate necessity is the Clark exhibition, which is familiar territory."

The impressionists, especially Degas, are old friends of Shackelford's, who is a leading scholar of French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His very first international exhibition, "Degas: The Dancers," in 1984, was for the National Gallery.

The Kimbell has a lovely Degas dancer, a pastel, of which Shackelford is well aware.

"I'm holding it back for the future. I haven't done my last Degas show yet," he says.

By the time the new Renzo Piano building opens in late 2013, Shackelford should be well acquainted with the Kimbell's permanent collection, as he has to mount the Kimbell's 40th-anniversary show this fall. He has been thinking about that one and discovering the joys and considerations of staging the Kimbell's galleries.

"It's such a noble space," he says. "You have to respect Louis Kahn in doing installations. The building is very present."

Working with a smaller collection -- the Kimbell's 350 pieces versus Boston's hundreds of thousands -- is different only in volume, Shackelford says.

"The museum's reputation, as being a place that works of art can come to safely, be exhibited correctly, taken care of and be published in an important catalog or publication supporting the exhibition, are the same in both places," he says.

Anyone who is offered a job at the Kimbell, he says, "would be a fool to say no. The collection perfectly suits the institution, the pursuit of excellence that it operates in -- the place is so admirable. That's the attraction. It's just an amazing institution. It's an honor and pleasure to be here."

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @GaileRobinson

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