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Interview with: Nina Cullinan
Interviewed by: Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton
Deidre Denman Glober
Date: December 9, 1980
Archive Number: OH JL 18_01&02
DH: This tape was produced on December 9, 1980, by volunteers of the Junior League of Houston at the Houston Public Library. It is one of a series on the history of volunteerism in Houston. This series is a segment of the oral history collection in the Houston Metropolitan Archives of the library. The interviewers are Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton and Deidre Denman Glober. The subject is Ms Nina Cullinan.
DH: Ms Cullinan, we want to ask you about your experiences in the volunteer world in the context of the histories of organizations that you’ve been most active in. These include, among others, The Museum of Fine Arts, The Junior League, The Contemporary Arts Museum, and The Houston Ballet Foundation. In all of these organizations, you’ve taken leadership roles at some point in your career. You’re first exposure to volunteer effort may have been through your parents. You’re father, in 1917 as he was developing the Shadyside neighborhood, gave the Museum of Fine Arts its first site where it still stands today.
NC: Yes, and the Hermann Estate.
NC: Because it—my father bought that property to develop Shadyside by merit of his own home and then the children, as they came along. Close friends would be offered these little sites, too, and certain business associates. So that’s why it was set up, not as a commercial development, but primarily for his own place. So I remember him telling me that at the time of purchasing that property, he and the Hermann Estate—now, Mr. Hermann may have been dead then, I don’t know, because I know our house was started in about 1917, so I imagine the preliminaries went on several years before that. At any rate, I just got the credits straight—I understand was Hermann Estate and father’s concession. The two of them—that triangle there was a pretty obvious choice for the museum and probably suggested by my father, who did have a lot of imagination and foresight and he was interested in museums, and so he—I guess he suggested it. I didn’t hear him tell how it came about, but it sounds to me—knowing him—that he might have—that wasn’t a very practical space for anything except a public building, you see—certainly not for private property. So, to that extent, it’s a—yes—also basso profundo and weak voice. I don’t know how I got this voice. I’m sure I don’t know. Now, that’s what you—your question was—this had something to do with the museum and the site. What was the leading question?
DH: Oh, what do you remember of his early involvement with the museum? You said that he had had a long-standing interest.
NC: Well, only—he was—he had to leave school when he was 12—to give you an idea—cause he was the oldest of eight children when the father died. So he had to go out—that was in Pennsylvania. He went out at the age of 12 and stopped school in order to help support the family, so he never had any—you know—I don’t know how he come on this—he was a man that represents a great responsibility to his community and had very—you know—civil rights and the concept of democracy. So all of those things he was, more or less, in love with as a young boy, but he—I don’t know how that question is started up. But—so he didn’t have any background—saying—well, parents saying, “Well, you’ll go into the museum world and you’re going to something else.” It wasn’t that. It was that he and his sister had had to go out and provide for the family at 12. It would appear their sources were so limited. And, of course, stayed in that field and eventually came to Texas, so that—I think it was instinctive with him, because he had no formal education. He was a voluminous reader—you know—and he shaped his life up and he read a great deal. And—but I remember his telling me that he had hoped to go to arts school and he had saved up funds over the years when things got better for him to go to arts school. Then a brother came along—a younger brother who wanted to study medicine, and he turned the funds over to the brother. And the brother became a doctor for about, I guess, 10 or 12 years. Then he retired and came to Texas and went into another business. So, I don’t know what would have happened if father would have been able to go to an arts school. But, anyway, that was his sort of gut interest in the visual arts, for sure. So did that cover your question?
DH: 05:35.3 Yes. Did he—did his interest in the arts then influence you strongly in your childhood?
NC: I don’t think so.
DH: Did you spend time at the museum that—as it was developed?
NC: Well, we travelled. We travelled a great deal, but—father was a great believer in travel and he wanted his family to see the United States—do their own country first. Which I must say, looking back, I admire him for—before they were allowed to go abroad, even to Alaska. And then after that, we were free to go. But—I done forget your leading question now.
DH: In your travels with him, did you see the museums of the world a great deal?
NC: Yes, wherever we went. I never travelled with him abroad except in Ireland. The certain—in the States—that’s one of the first places we would go to the museums because he was interested and I guess he wanted us to be. He didn’t talk about it a lot he just—I don’t think—really, people dedicated to the visual arts—you know—on the lecture platform all the time. They just love it and it’s a need, and they seek it wherever they go. Now, this is in reference according to museums when you’re travelling.
DH: Was the Museum of Fine Arts almost next door to you as you were growing up?
NC: Well, it was—yes, if you wanted to put me back. I’m not as old as I really am.
DH: Well, I’m not sure how that fits in.
NC: Well, the—I remember the development was started and our own house was started in 1917. And I remember that date very well. The war came along, so we weren’t able to move in until 1919, but since father started his own operation there, he started the first house, of course.
DH: And did you spend much time at the museum, then?
NC: I guess so, relatively. I think I did. I wasn’t old enough—knowledgeable enough to be asked to be on the board—so there’s two reasons. But there were a lot of early heroes, and I remember there was something—in earlier years, we all went to public school in Houston and on to private boarding school and college—except I didn’t go to college. I remember going to a public school down on McKinley and St. Emanuel called Stephen F. Austin School—and with excellent teachers. But as soon as—it was slummy sort of then, but father was a great believer in public school. We were off to school except when—inclement weather and then he sent the carriage, or later the automobile for us—someone did. So, that I remember on the walls at Stephen F. Austin School on St. Emanuel—I reiterate because that’s down the slummy area—there were black and white prints of famous paintings, of course, of the European tradition. And I later realized—and maybe I picked it up looking at them—that there’s something called the Women’s Art League here—had been responsible for getting those prints up. That’s as far as their pull would go, I’m sure, on account of allowances, or whatever. So, I think that’s interesting to know that that was a viable influence then. I don’t know whether I knew it at the time—that there was this women’s group. I’m not quite sure what they called themselves, but I think Adelaide Lovett’s mother was in on that sometime.
DH: 09:31.7 And that inspired your interest to some extent?
NC: No, no. I think this interest is a natural thing, don’t you? I mean—some people see well and other people hear well and other people reason well—I think that different people have different attributes. It was only natural for me to see things in such a way that made me interested in the creative arts—I mean—the visual creative arts. And that was his particular interest—was the visual. And I remember he was rather talented himself. He would make sketches when we travelled. Turn the menu over in the dining room and make sketches of—frequently—quite frequently, of people. And not deriding them, but he really had a flair that way, which I, of course, have never had. But we still have children in the family—in our family—that can sketch to this day, and one of them is Andy Todd’s children. Of course, he’s a bit of an artist himself. I don’t know whether that answers the question.
DH: Yes. We were wondering what, in particular—you seem to be particularly interested in new art forms and innovative architecture. The new and—
NC: You know—I just don’t like the closed mind, and I think we should be open to music or the visual arts or new ideas or new evaluations. God, you can’t just sit on the old thing all your life. And there was, I think, generally a lot of conservatism around it—you know—our part of the country probably. And I understand the reason why you can’t open it up. And I remember even arguing with my father about—you know—the impressionist school versus the traditional school. Well, there’s a place for all of it—you know—but he wasn’t quite with the modern statement and I was. But it was—nothing—no big deal. I often think about that. But he, of course, he wasn’t a great collector at all, but he bought from time to time. And frequently would help an artist out by buying their things, which might have been less than good, but I think sometimes they were. So he was a real influence that way. Only—not that he was pushing us into that, but he was a natural observer himself. And, as I say, these little cartoons or sketches he would make when he travelled. Then he always taught to—when we went to museums—art museums—visual arts, rather.
DH: Do you have any memories of meeting artists from whom he bought paintings?
NC: No. They weren’t great paintings. Yeah, they were good. They were American. He liked the Hudson River School—you know—traditionalist school. And then he got—one time there was a real quality group from out in Taos. Really very—couple of daughters who had been trained—American artists who had been trained in France at the—you know—the famous school—Fontainebleau—something like that.
DH: 13:02.0 Barbizon?
NC: Barbizon—something like—many American artists came back to the States, and having had this good classic training, established a colony, I imagine around 1915-20, in Taos. And some of those men are really sought after very much now. They were literal painting—or they were of the Indian culture. He liked them and bought some of the things there. Then Hudson River school things. There is one of—it’s over at the museum. I’ve given two Bernstein’s to the museum. That was his era—you know—the American, Bernstein. So he wasn’t the—he didn’t go for the French Impressionists, which I did, so that was—lively.
DH: What—if you were talking about your travels—what places inspired you the most during your travels during your youth? I know that you travelled continuously all your life, but—
NC: Not one more than another. We all loved the West very much—I mean—the far West—the Mountain West. You know—Colorado, Wyoming, Washington State, and the whole thing, because my father was very enthusiastic about the National Parks Foundation, which was—not the foundation—the National Parks System, which Roosevelt started—Theodore Roosevelt. He was such a believer of that since he was a great one for outdoors, and so he wanted us to see the national parks and he took us to nearly all of them. And when he and my brothers—just the three men would go out sometimes with maybe some other—two of my brother’s friends. We went on camping trips. He was a great lover of—a great believer in the national parks, which I am too. So, there’s no—I think maybe getting where you’re asking a question—sounds so exaggerated, as if we’d done great things.
DH: Well, did you become acquainted with the artists and the more avant garde art world at some point in your life?
NC: No, I had no opportunity to. Those men were still in France and I wasn’t in France. You know—and they weren’t—no never did.
DH: I see.
NC: But I really loved them. You know—I think the doors we opened every new idea and every new vision and every new statement of—was painting or whatever—I don’t believe in—you know—closing that door.
DH: 15:39.9 Well, you’re obviously very knowledgeable about them, and I thought perhaps you knew—
NC: I’m not. I’m not.
NC: I don’t know where you get this. I—this is purely enjoyment on my part. Intellectual? No. I couldn’t go into deep discussion of any of these people.
DH: Ms Cullinan, you are the only person who has been president of the Junior League for two terms. You were the fifth president of the Junior League from 1928 until 1930. During your presidency, the original Junior League building was opened at 500 Stewart Street on land which had been donated by your parents.
NC: That’s right.
DH: During you term of office, the Junior League Clinic, which had opened in March of 1927, was moved to the Stewart Building. Was that different from the Junior League building—the Stewart building?
NC: Yes, it was down in town. I think, as I remember, it was on the east side of Main Street—on Main Street on the east side.
DH: Style shows and musicales were begun for the entertainment of the tearoom patrons during your presidency.
NC: Is that right? I didn’t know it began then.
DH: That’s what the Junior League book says.
NC: They say?
DH: The stated purpose of the Junior League is to promote volunteerism, to develop the potential of its members for voluntary participation in community affairs, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of trained volunteers. Can you tell us, in what ways your experience as an early president of the Junior League prepared you for the active roles which you later played in founding of organizations such as the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Houston Ballet Foundation?
NC: 17:17.8 Now, I did not have anything to do with the founding of the Contemporary Arts—let’s get that straight. I was called in very early to, I guess, a meeting of people they thought might be interested. And I remember I was the first membership secretary, but this was started, really, by artists themselves—designers, painters, men in the arts profession in some way. So that nucleus started it. There certainly must be someone left here that can brief you on that. And it wasn’t—it was no time at all, once the society took effect—that they called in some of the lay people and asked them to take over some of the—
DH: Well, you were listed on the board of directors for 1949, and I believe they were founded in 1948. That’s why I thought that you were—
NC: Mm-hmm. Well, but to be honest, I had nothing to do with that organization to begin with.
DH: But what influence did your volunteer work with the Junior League have in your later volunteer work?
NC: Well, I don’t think any of—I loved being there. I loved being a member, but I don’t know that it had any—I think had it been that way—I mean—I thought if—I think if people are privileged, they owe something back to their community. I do believe that. And, of course, it was an attractive group. I was very much proud when they asked me to come in because I liked those people so much. But I know my own sisters were founding members, along with Lottie Farish and Frankie Randolph and several known others. And I think the 18:59.8 (Garvin) sisters. And I only came in the year after they were organized.
DH: Well, you must have been a very good volunteer to have been elected twice—to be elected president.
NC: Well, they were desperate.
DH: (laughs) No.
NC: There was no one else to run and they told me I had too. It wasn’t so organized then anyway. It was fun. You know—the tearoom project—it was all very loose. It wasn’t so structured as it is now. And readers were spontaneous and—you know—lots of giggles and it just—but it was a very happy atmosphere to be in. And people had ideas and they had backing and could do things. It was all very loose. It’s gotten quite structured now—almost antiseptic.
DH: Your two sisters were two of the founders of the Junior League. Do you remember what the reasons were that they felt the need for a Junior League in Houston at that time?
NC: 20:10.2 I have no idea, but there was a Mrs Bradley here, and her daughter eventually married—what’s that brother from that baking family up in Minneapolis—very attractive family. Mrs Bradley was not a Houston woman. She and her husband came to Houston. He may have been in some sort of utilities. But, at any rate, I think she probably had more of an eastern background. Knew about the Junior League—thought it was a good idea to get one started in Houston. And so I think she got a nucleus of about 10-12 young people—young then. And I know my two sisters were in. I came in later. But there was a Mrs Bradley and—I’m just—in case you wanted to know about her. I think her husband was here maybe representing some of the utilities—eastern utilities.
DH: Do you think she had been involved in the Junior League before she moved to Houston?
NC: I don’t know. She knew about it and how to operate it and how it came about. She had her own daughters, I say, who married one of the Pillsbury—that isn’t the name, but one of the famous flour families—the grain families up in the northwest. But they were not Southerners when they—when she came to Texas. She knew about the organization and chose her own people that she thought might best represent this nucleus.
DG: Do you remember when the Junior League first became involved with the Museum of Fine Arts—what that—how that relationship was established?
NC: Frankly, I don’t.
DG: It was—
NC: What year was it?
DG: It was in about 1938—perhaps a little earlier. That was the first reference that I found.
DG: And I was wondering how it came about that the interest was expressed—whether the museum was seeking assistance or whether the League was seeking placements or what had happened there?
NC: 22:25.7 One big (??)—knowing whether the League was—stood for—wanted to achieve in the community. Possibly someone in the museum knew that. For instance, to give you a two-way thing on that—Adelaide Baker—I think she was—wasn’t Ms Brown-Baker one of the founders? Her mother was very much interested in the art museum, and probably through Adelaide, who may have been president before me—was she? She was president some time.
DH: I think at some point. I don’t remember when.
NC: I suspect that might have come from her mother, who, as I said, was involved with the museum, as well as with the League through Adelaide. Adelaide would be—Adelaide might be very helpful to you on some of this. She was president once.
DG: You were on the board of the UCM in 1938-39 and perhaps earlier than that.
NC: I don’t recall.
DG: That was the first reference that I found.
NC: I just go lightly about what I do and I don’t have total recall. I’m sorry.
DG: Right. Let me remind you a little bit about the board that was there at that time. There was Hugh Roy Cullen on the board and Mike—(speaking at the same time)
NC: Of what?
DG: Of the Museum of Fine Arts.
NC: Was Hugh Roy Cullen on then?
NC: Well, he was a very, very generous, lovable man as I saw him, and I didn’t know he was on the board that early. And when he came into funds, he certainly has given extravagantly—that family—beautiful. They’re just the tops to me because they feel their responsibilities. Good fortune coming their way and wanted to share it with the community.
DG: Do you think that that was his motivation for working on that board and for making gifts to the museum? Was it a general feeling that it was good for the community for that to happen?
NC: 24:25.2 I don’t know whether he was in funds at that time, because I remember hearing that he had a lot of misses before things came his way. And I can’t think of a better man to receive it. I consider him sort of a hero of mine. Even though he had his own—you know—devil may care way—his heart was right there and he cared about his community. He didn’t take any credit to himself as I saw him. I didn’t know him well. But your question was—do you know whether he—?
DG: Why he was willing to work on that board and to be involved—
NC: He was a very outgoing—you know—“If this is a good idea for Houston, well, sure I’ll come on the board.” I think that would be his reasoning. He was not a self-centered man. He was a very free man—I think—wasn’t patterned to that strict mode of a disciplined business man.
DG: Do you—
NC: As I see him.
DG: —remember his having any particular personal interest in fine arts? Did he collect himself, or was he interested in that side of it?
NC: I don’t think he did particularly. Now, his daughter—what was her first name?
DH: Agnes Cullen Arnold.
NC: 25:38.7 Agnes Cullen Arnold—very attractive. Not on the surface, no, but very modest, very private sort of person. She had the gut interest in this—in the visual arts and started to collect in her lifetime—very quietly, but she had a good eye and she cared.
DH: What about Mrs. Cullen? Was she interested in—?
NC: I never knew her. Oh, I’ve seen about her. I remember seeing her, but I wasn’t thrown with them very much so I don’t know, but I’ve always had a beautiful image of Agnes.
DG: Other people who were on the board or very strongly involved in the museum in the late ‘30s were Mike Hogg and Palmer Hutcheson, Mrs Maurice McAshan and Mrs George Strake, and, of course, Mrs. Ima Hogg. From the perspective of someone who didn’t know them, it sounds still like a very high-powered, very strong-minded group of people.
NC: I could pick out and give you those names—I could pick out the ones who really—I believe—really in the essential way cared and had some knowledge and Will Hogg was one of them. He’s one of my heroes, and he’s pretty well unsung in Houston still, I think. And he did so much for the museum, going back a little bit.
DH: And this was Will Hogg?
NC: Will Hogg—Will C. Hogg. He was the star, along with Ima, in that family—according to my opinion. I think anyone would agree with that. He was a free soul, but he cared a great deal about his community. And he was an individualist—did things his own way. When you’re calling those names off, I would say that only about half of them, I think, were really vital to—
DH: Who do you think was?
NC: Name me those names again.
DH: Mike Hogg also served on the board. I don’t know if that was out of personal interest or—
NC: Well, probably it was a family law as much as anything. He was a kind, good person, but he didn’t have that—at least in my opinion—he was just a little boy all his life, and Will was—I think for me was—impressed me much more because—he’s highly sensitive I think. But I think he had that oversight. I think he had a great deal of 28:12.1 (??). I mean—they have that quality of seeing things for themselves and keeping their minds open. And certainly Ima Hogg’s mind was open, because she bought so much—you know—in the way of early experimental art, contemporary art for those times, and respected the old, of course, but she was always open to new ideas. That’s so important, I think. But Will Hogg is one of my heroes. He’s unsung as far as the museum’s concerned. They have that plaque up there for him, but the public generally doesn’t know how much he did for that museum. When it came time for them to build that permanent building—William Ward Watkin building—he was right out in the boondocks knocking on doors and telling his friends, “I’ll put you down for so and so and so and so.” But I think that he was shy, too. He was in our house a great deal—that’s why I seem to have picked up those qualities—those essential qualities.
DH: He was a good friend of your father?
NC: Yes, they were both—my father had known Governor Hogg, too. And, of course, Will Hogg’s a great deal younger, but he just admired my father extravagantly. Eventually they had a—I don’t know what it was—a misunderstanding, so—I mean—that—just a few years before his death and my father’s death they had pretty well closed the book. But they were two strong people, and I think there was still great, good feeling among them. There was a little—kind of a break-up there.
DH: I’m going to turn this tape.
(End of OH JL 10_01 29:57.8)
DH: I would imagine that there were a number of people involved with the museum at that time who did have very strong thoughts—not only in their personal relationships—but sometimes about the museum and the way that it should go. Do you remember any major discussions that evolved about the course that the museum should take in the community?
NC: I don’t think there was. I don’t really think there was. I think that people—enough people who had some—knowledgeable to—I mean—to see that they had a quality—they were going for a quality institution. And going back to Will Hogg, I remember so well hearing about how he just took the—you know—bit to his teeth and went out and knocked on doors and opened doors and said, “I put you down for so and so. You’re going to help the museum. We need a new building. Help to see it through.” And then Mrs. Henry B. Fall —did you ever see her? Mrs. Henry B. Fall—she was some public figure here and she was very active, too.
DH: How do you spell that name?
NC: Mrs. Henry B. Fall.
DH: I don’t recall—
NC: Well, she should be remembered because she—she was—she had a family—she had a husband. I remember her rather vividly. She was working around with Will Hogg to get funds to build that William Ward Watkin building. She had a lot to do with it.
DG: Do you think that there was a lot of interest because of what it could contribute to the children of the community? You mentioned Mrs. Fall had a family and was—
NC: I don’t—Mrs. Fall what?
DG: You mentioned that she had a family, and I thought maybe her interest was related to that. I looked back, and in the bulletin in 1930 there was a free class for talented children already, which your father contributed to funding. And then in 1944, the Junior League began having tours for children at the museum.
NC: 02:23.9 Was it that far back? That’s pretty good.
DG: In ’47 and ’48 there was a cooperative program established with the Houston Independent School District to encourage children to come to the museum, and it’s been a pretty steady theme, I think. Is that correct?
NC: I would think so, yes. Yes. And I think those people who helped to get that permanent building going, like Will Hogg—he was very much concerned for this society—small as—you know—for the community and for the—you know—providing all the enrichments you can—of life—enrichments of life to the whole community. It was not—Will Hogg was too big to be a snob about—you know—just the elite. And I think the general concept was this should be a community affair and shared by the whole community. And I know that there was a very generous outlook. There was no—absolutely no snobbism about—you know—as I said, an elite operation.
DG: There also appears to have been the idea that the museum should be a place of education in art. The museum school was founded in 1927, and I think has continued and developed ever since then. Some of the children’s programs were oriented to teach the children to develop their own artistic instincts, as well as to observe art.
NC: Yes, oh yes. I think that probably—I tell you who could give you probably the more detailed background would be Adelaide Baker, because her mother was so active at that time. Her father was a businessman, but—and cared a great deal, but Ms Baker was in the midst of it. So just keep that in mind, and Adelaide might be able to help you there.
DG: Another element that has turned up repeatedly is the involvement of various volunteer groups in maintaining and encouraging the museum. One, of course, is the Junior League. In ’38 and ’39, the College Women’s Club was also mentioned and the Garden Club of Houston, which I think has continued to maintain the grounds.
NC: That’s about as much participation, but—I mean—they didn’t get into the program in any way, and I don’t know whether that was the taste of most of the members. They certainly believed in the museum and wanted to do that for them, but—and I applaud them for that—but what I meant—they—I don’t think the Garden Club people were particularly involved. Not as Garden club people. They might be, like Adelaide, fill both roles—I mean—I think she was an early member of the Garden Club. Her mother may have been the head of it. Her mother, Mrs Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice—well, at any rate, I guess I’ll finish that sentence because I’m forgetting just exactly how it was you phrased that question.
DG: 05:52.5 In the early development of the museum, there seem to have been a great many volunteer programs involved in either supplementing the programs of the museum, or essentially helping reduce its costs.
NC: Yes, yes. They certainly did help reduce its cost because they had a low, low budget, for sure. It was not very well funded, and I don’t know whether that was just why it was, but I remember Mr. Chillman, who was just half-time—half-time director for years. He never became a full-time, I don’t believe, because he was still working at Rice and he could only afford that half day. He was a very competent director.
DG: He was there for 30 years.
NC: You don’t say?
DG: From 1924-54, and was made Director Emeritus when he retired in ’54.
NC: Well, he deserved every bit of that, for sure.
DH: We were fascinated with the length and apparent strength of that relationship between him and the museum and the board of the museum. Why do you think that was such a good relationship?
NC: I think he had a lot of time, a lot of enthusiasm, and he was sort of casual. He wasn’t stiff starch. He had a great sense of fun and play, though he was—you might say—so accomplished he probably could be called an intellectual in his field. But he liked people. He was quite gregarious. His wife was, and I think this just opened doors to him—of people he liked—knowing him through the museum. One being Sadie Blaffer, whom he—they had a great, happy time together. I mean—only because of their mutual interest in art. But I know she used to ask him over there frequently if she had something to show him, or whatever—that was just up his alley—you know—because she was a natural collector. She had the eye. I’m getting off a little bit, but I always admired her.
DH: That’s all right. We would like—
NC: For what—a natural eye. And collecting was not an elite thing in her case. It could be elite to collect at that time, but that wasn’t why she did it. She just had a great sensitivity to this visual.
DG: 0 8:32.7 Did she collect works and give some of them to the museum?
NC: Well, she collected them, for sure, and only the top quality. If she found it wasn’t top quality, I think she would probably turn it to the wall. I don’t know what she did. She only gave later—you know—when she—I mean—reflective when you get older. And I don’t think she gave—I think she left certain things to the University of Houston, for sure. She got off—I don’t know when it was, but the Museum of Fine Arts—they were not on her list, and I don’t know exactly why that was. But the choicest things actually went to the children. You know—they had a good eye, too—every one of them. And so things at the University of Houston were not, in most cases, were not tops. All right—be good to have as a supplementary collection to fill out, but had they given them some of those beautiful French impressionists that the children took and was their right to take it—I’m not faulting that—we would have some treasures in this town.
DG: We’ve been interested in the evolution by which volunteers are brought into the museum and are interested enough to give up something that they have in their homes—that they doubtless love dearly and enjoy living with.
NC: You think a lot of that’s been done, or what?
DG: Yes. It appears from the—that there have been continuous gifts by people who have had works of art in their home and given them to the museum at a later time.
NC: But are there any very, very great examples of things passed on to the museum? I don’t think so. But—I mean—they’re adequate.
DH: What about the Straus collection?
NC: Well, yes. But that came, of course, that was New York Straus—Percy Straus—what do you call it? They changed their name later. A dear man—it was his family—when he came to Houston to live, because that was a New York family—very fine Jewish family. And so the Straus’ had been true collectors, and that is a very distinguished collection, which they gave the museum largely, I think, because that son was coming to live in Houston and it was a gesture of goodwill—beautiful.
DH: Now, was Robert D. Straus—was he related to Percy?
NC: No, no relation. Robert Straus—I think his family came from San Antonio, I believe. Fine man, but—another collector, but this is the Straus that I think had something to do way back with Macy’s maybe. There was a very important Jewish family—good people—philanthropists and so forth. And—look who’s coming, my niece. Howdy.
DG: Ms Cullinan, you were membership chairman at the Museum of Fine Arts for about 4 years during ’38, ’39 through to ’41. Do you remember what kinds of things you did to achieve the growth in membership that happened during that period?
NC: You know—I don’t. I’m just blank. I remember I was the first membership secretary for the Contemporary Arts Association, but if I held—I forgot if I was. I must not have contributed anything, or can’t remember.
NC: I remember the Contemporary Arts because I was so enthusiastic about that and—
DH: How did the Straus family become involved in the Contemporary Arts Museum?
NC: Well, there were two different generations. It was Percy Straus’s parents who collected these great—put these great things together and gave, I think, a gesture of goodwill because their son was coming to live in Houston. And they were that kind of generous, imaginative people, I think. And I never met them that I can recall, but that’s my image of the Straus family. They were highly respected, I think, in New York. And I don’t remember—I was in the Straus’—Percy—here numbers of times, but I can’t remember any great art they had, but I would assume that—certainly my impression is that they were collecting contemporary art—what they did collect. They weren’t typical collectors. Fine people—I’m a great admirer of both of them.
DH: Now, who were not great collectors?
NC: The young Percy Straus’—later known as—what is it?
DH: Percy Selden.
DH: In the beginning, did the Contemporary Arts Museum aspire to form a permanent collection of contemporary art?
NC: That was one of the policies here. We’ve not tried to. And they didn’t have great funds anyway. It was not set up there to set up a collection. It was set up to experiment—make experimental statements and give the place a focus on the contemporary design. So they made that very clear. They were not collecting.
DH: 14:21.0 How was it that the Contemporary Arts Association was allowed to hold their exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts?
NC: Well, they only had one, as I remember. Is the northern one still there?
DH: I’m not sure.
NC: But I specified when I gave Cullinan Hall that there would be space there anytime that the Contemporary Arts wanted it to have a show. Of course, there’s no problem now because—you know—Bill Agee, of course, represents contemporary statement, so that thing’s gone. But there were Klein people on that—on those early boards, but they were not knowledgeable—with few exceptions. And, of course, the leaders were, including Jimmy Chillman, who had an open mind.
DH: What role did Mr and Mrs de Menil play in the early years of the Contemporary Arts museum?
NC: Well, they came in early on, as they say, and they gave a lot of thought and a lot of time. They were inclined, and I’m a great admirer of them—of theirs and certainly of hers. They were inclined somewhat to be candid when they came into an organization—were inclined somewhat to tell us how it should be run. You know—and—but the greatest goodwill. They didn’t want it for themselves. They didn’t want their names in the paper, but they had their—you know—they were intellectuals and they just had their own idea. So, sometimes there was a little tension there maybe because—generous to a fault. But they would underwrite for any of these organizations they believed in.
DG: What kind of things were they interested in? It seemed—we’re having a little trouble focusing in on exactly the aims of the group as a whole.
NC: Which group?
DG: The Contemporary Arts Association—relative to what the de Menils might have wanted. Were there differences in basic ideas of what it should do?
NC: Not in principle. Not in theory, because it all opened up and exposed the experimental things that were coming along, which certainly the de Menils believed in, and do to this day. And I’m certain that was what the Contemporary Arts was set up for. So, don’t go the traditional way. Let’s do creative things. Show the new statement. Bring the new statement to the community—I mean—the new statement in design, or whatever you like. And then you remember they had one delightful exhibition, which was children’s furniture—contemporary children’s furniture. It was just a knockout. And then I remember they had one—the emphasis was on gardening and little garden areas and doing innovative things with plants and water and so forth.
DH: 17:21.3 Were these held in the Contemporary Art Museum’s own building?
NC: Yes, of course. That’s the whole idea. Oh, yes they did. And these were young people full of beans and full of ideas and in some cases professional. One I remember was Robert Pruehsner, who was a graduate of Rice who eventually—has been for many years—has held a good professorship at MIT and of—there was numerous men who later showed their mettle—women, too.
DH: Can you describe how the volunteers of the Contemporary Arts Association managed to organize such outstanding exhibits as the 1951 Van Gogh show and later the Calder-Miro exhibition in the years before they had a professional director?
NC: Well, because those people were on their toes. They were young, they were open to new ideas, and, I guess, they both—in some cases—inquired of the right people. Now, I know the Van Gogh show, which was down—I’m positive I’m right there. Way back when that A-shaped building was put up in the city park—Houston City Park—and the Van Gogh show was there. And the de Menils were pretty responsible for that. They had resources. I mean—they had—you know—they were acquainted with the art world internationally, and they got that for us.
DH: How was the decision reached to build the present museum building at the corner of Bissonnet and Montrose? I’m talking about the Contemporary Arts Museum—the new building.
NC: Oh, the new one. Well, then the Contemporary Arts—first it was down in the city park—Houston—what do you call it?
DH: Hermann Park?
DH: Sam Houston Park.
NC: 19:25.4 Sam Houston Park—down in the—(speaking at same time)
DH: Where the—(speaking at same time)
NC: It was right off there in the corner. And I remember, of course, the material was donated by the—what was that—the man that has the antique bookshop here. What was his name? Karl Killian?
DH: Carl Diedrich?
NC: Diedrich. Yes, the Diedrich people were in the lumber business. They gave the lumber. I think Karl Kamrath designed the A-shaped building—the architect. It was built for peanuts because the people being generous there—the contributions. Eventually—
DH: That building was moved after the grounds for potential—
NC: Moved out. Yes, I remember vividly that was a cold December night, or something, and was moved on a big truck, I guess, in big sections, as I recall. And a lot of the people, not only paraded down there—you know—I mean—just trucks and cars with a big screeching of horns, and so forth. But the building itself was being moved in parts—you know—by, I guess, some trucking firm. It was a gala evening—cold. And then was put together out there. I guess the city park couldn’t have it any longer. Guys, put that on the dining room table, would you? All right. That’s going to be recorded, too.
DH: Well, anyway, then how did they come to the decision to build the building at the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet?
NC: Well, I was going to say that I think the Contemporary Art’s own organization sort of fell away—“duesitude”—is there a word called “duesitude”? That’s why it did so quietly—faded away, I guess, because—I don’t know whether it had trouble collecting funds or not, but it had made a statement for that time, I guess. And I don’t think there was any mismanagement. It just sort of fell away. And, I guess, was working on the minds of—first in my mind particularly—I loved the years that it was there and being so innovative. I don’t know really who—I think you’ll have to make some other inquiries to find out who started this rolling again. It’s become viable again. At any rate, I don’t know who gave the land. I just don’t know. And, of course, they would have a contemporary architect. I think they might have looked a little longer and gotten someone who was a little more practical.
DG: A great many of your records and other things of value were lost in the flood there in 1976.
NC: 22:08.0 I know they were. Was that the year? I’ve often wondered.
DG: Was there any hesitation among the members of the board at that time about whether to go ahead and reopen, or whether to—?
NC: I wasn’t active then. I was back on the museum board. I personally never felt any conflict at all, as I’m making it very clear. Between the fact that there should be a Contemporary Arts Museum and there should be a Classic Art Museum. Same thing goes in New York, San Francisco—you name it, they have it. You know—the two.
DH: I believe, in the newspapers at the time that the flood happened, there was a great deal of discussion about whether the Contemporary Arts Museum could, in fact, continue, and there were some people who thought that the only way that it could continue was to be taken in by the Museum of Fine Arts.
NC: You can never do that. It’s just like two generations shouldn’t be living together. They’re both out there to do something quite legitimate and quite distinctly different.
DH: Well, what do you see as the future of the Contemporary Arts Museum, as things stand today?
NC: Well, I haven’t thought about that particularly. I think that there will always be a reason for a Contemporary Arts Museum. I mean—they’re a sort of proving ground, wouldn’t you say? I mean—they’re experimental largely, and should be, I think.
DH: But do you think that the museum itself, at the present time, is in a healthy enough situation where they have good prospect of—
NC: I haven’t been over there lately to sort of see what the crowd’s like, but I think there’s definitely, in a city the quality of Houston and all its potential—I think there’s a need for the two. And, now, rather you’re going to get angels enough to keep it going—Lucie’s daughter Emily graduated from Princeton last year, or year before last was it? She’s been secretary there, so she just resigned just because she was going to have a little vacation and rest. No hard feelings.
DG: They’re a very hard-working group of people, and I think—
NC: 24:22.1 They are dedicated. No question about that. The ones on the board, the people who really keep going and backing it—you know—laymen—little Susie Kepner and oh, I could name more.
NC: 24:37.8 Balene McCormick and those people. But there’s not any conflict anymore. I mean—the directors like each other, they respect each other, because each one has top flight background training. And the standard is being set now for the museum—The Contemporary Arts Museum. I believe that everything is dynamic and Houston needs that. And I don’t think that—of course, I think the Universities are doing a great deal in their art departments to encourage knowledge in all schools, but you still need the Contemporary Arts, I think.
DH: Ms Cullinan, the mid 1950s was a period of cultural renaissance in Houston.
NC: Was it?
DH: Well, it seems like perhaps, having been reading about all of this. In 1955, Dr Jermaine MacAgy came to Houston to be the first full-time director of the Contemporary Arts Museum. That same year, the Contemporary Arts Museum building was moved to the Prudential Insurance Company grounds, as we have just been discussing. And in 1954, you announced your gift of the new Cullinan Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts. And this was opened on October 9, 1958.
NC: I can’t believe it was that long ago.
DH: In 1957, Ms Ima Hogg donated Bayou Bend with its extensive collection of Americana to be the decorative arts division of the Museum of Fine Arts. You were very much in the middle of all these activities. How, therefore, did you find the time in 1955, not only to become a founding member of the Houston Ballet Foundation, but to chair the committee which drew up the statement of purpose and determine the name of that organization?
NC: Can’t remember why. I guess I didn’t do anything but give nodding approval of all this because I was just asked about all those organizations, and certainly loved dance since I was—my first fantasies as a child—age 4 or 5. I still can see myself in a tu—(break in tape)—that’s something else.
DH: The statement of purpose for the Houston Ballet Foundation, which your committee drew up, was very far-sighted and ambitious for Houston of 1955, and included establishing and maintaining a ballet academy, primary purpose of which will be to give the serious student the highest quality technical training and the creative insight necessary for a career as a dancer, teacher, or choreographer, and evolving from the school, the nucleus of a ballet company to provide opportunities for performance for dancers, to stimulate creative production among choreographers, to give an increasingly ballet-conscious public this chance to see well-produced ballet at frequent intervals. To what extent do you believe that the goals set by your committee have been achieved?
NC: 27:39.1 Well, despite probably the discrepancies of false and incompleteness, I think it’s done quite fantastically. And I think Houston was ripe for it. This is a very favorite city for us to be living in, so these things can be—you know—backed up—supported. And I just think the people on the ballet foundation were thinking big, but there were so many people involved in that. I remember—the first meeting I can remember was—went in Mike Wallace’s house. That was when they were living on Sapphire in Lubbock. That’s when the formalities started. And there was Dottie—you know—the Russian—you know—Emmy’s goddaughter? I’m talking about—
NC: No, no.
DH: Oh, Dasha --
NC: Yes. The mother, (Dasha) is the daughter. But what is—? I’m talking about Mrs—
DH: Was her name—
(End of dictation 29:00.1)