One way to think about museum curators is to imagine those giant black slabs in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Picture offstage mentors who direct the rest of us in our evolution toward higher awareness. At the shows they organize you see what they choose for you to see, along paths they lay out. You just don't notice their holding your hand.
Actually, no, forget that. Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, is nothing like a giant black slab. She's gracious, enthusiastic and cultivated. No slab in our experience has anything like her laugh, which is the musical kind you might expect from a woman born in Baton Rouge, La., one whose taste is stately enough to embrace the 19th century Japanese camera portrait but frisky enough to approve paparazzi shots from the Rome of La Dolce Vita. All the same, she's forceful when she needs to be and cunning when the occasion calls for it. When your job requires you to borrow pictures from collectors who might hate to let them out of their sight, or to beat the competition in organizing a hot show, the occasion often calls for it.
"In my job," she says, "there is also an element of the preacher's. You are taking something you firmly believe and trying to impart it to others." The past 25 years have been a time of phenomenal growth for museums, especially in cities outside the old money circles of the Northeast and Chicago. No other curator has taken advantage of this opportunity with more panache than Tucker. In 1976, when she arrived at the Houston MFA, it was a museum with fewer photographs than you probably have on your refrigerator. Thanks to her canny shopping and her charms as a donor magnet--plus an endowment that rose from $25 million in 1982 to $448 million last year--it now has a collection of nearly 12,400 images, with deep samplings of masters like Edward Steichen, Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.
Tucker has also mounted groundbreaking shows that have put Houston on the map as a city where interesting things can get their start. A good deal of what we know about Josef Sudek, the lyrical Czech master, or Joel Sternfeld, the indispensable guide to the American scene in all its lustrous oddity, or Brassai, the celebrated chronicler of Paris at night, we know because of exhibitions that Tucker organized. "What I've always loved to do is to look at what hasn't already been hammered out," she says. "In art history all the major figures have been researched. But as a photography curator, I could do the first Robert Frank retrospective."
There are days when it's possible to wonder, If it weren't for pictures, who would really notice the world? You walk through the place, and it's the same old same old. Then you see a picture that reminds you of its beauty and strangeness. You think--being alive, not such a bad thing after all. What the people who bring you this experience are dispensing is pure pleasure. And if some of it is a strange and difficult pleasure of a kind that you didn't even know was out there, that's one more reason to thank them. Or her. Thanks, Anne.