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The Curator and the Collector: David B. Warren Shares His Unique Perspective October 26, 2016


March 5, 2016, marked the 50th anniversary of Bayou Bend’s opening to the public. We’re celebrating throughout the year with blog posts offering behind-the-scenes perspectives on this cultural and historical Houston treasure.

David B. Warren’s connection to Bayou Bend began in 1965, when Ima Hogg (1882–1975) hired him as curator just months before the new house museum was to open to the public. They worked closely together over the next decade. Warren’s connection to Bayou Bend continues to this day: Since he retired in 2003, he has served as founding director emeritus of Bayou Bend, and now he is the author of the definitive Ima Hogg biography, just released this month (published October 2016 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

David, I realize your biography covers all aspects of Ima Hogg’s long life and cultural philanthropy, but we’d also love to know what she was like as a person.
Well, first off she was enormously curious about new things, be it a remote control for her new television (she adored TV), the latest fragrance from Guerlain, or the music of the Beatles. She was curious, too, about new, interesting people, such as up-and-coming real estate developer Gerald Hines, or the young Sissy Farenthold, whose 1972 run for Texas governor had Ima’s full support.

She was also a very pretty, petite person, who was always beautifully dressed. She loved shopping for clothes and loved finding things for young friends, such as feather boas, which she bought for herself as well. She was very thoughtful toward everyone; she had no sense of class distinction. She was very close to her staff. They were like family to her.

As a curator, I found her wonderful to work with. She was always open to hearing what I thought, and willing to change her mind. For instance, I was able to convince her that a Classical Empire period room should be added to Bayou Bend prior to one representing the later Rococo Revival era. Another time, she found a modest pair of bust-length portraits by early American artist Robert Feke, an artist high on her priority list. I suggested that a more important three-quarter-length example would be better for the collection, and she agreed. The small paintings were sent back, and eventually a larger one was found.

In your research for the book, what surprises about Ima, the person, did you find?
I had always assumed that following the death of her mother when Ima was 13—and Ima began to take on the role of companion to her father and mother to her two younger brothers — that she had no life of her own. But she had a very active social life.  She attended many dances, and several dance cards survive, totally filled in with the names of different boys. She was avidly courted by a number of beaux, whose letters she saved. I also found two proposals of marriage!

Why, then, do you think she never got married?
It certainly was not for lack of male admirers, and she enjoyed the company of men, especially good-looking ones! One school of thought is that, for Ima, none of her suitors measured up to her father, whom she clearly adored. However, there was another factor at play. After the death of her mother from tuberculosis, Ima’s aunt—her father’s older sister, a strict disciplinarian—came to care for Ima and Ima’s younger brothers, Mike and Tom. Aunt Fannie had lost her husband to TB, and her son also suffered from it, so she had a deep fear of the disease. Ima once told me Aunt Fannie had told the Hogg children that, as TB ran in the family, they had tainted blood. Such a dreadful burden to put on little children. Because Ima and her older brother Will never married, they did not face the worry of passing on the disease to children. And, although both Mike and Tom did marry, neither had children, very likely for the same reason. [It is now known that TB is not hereditary.]

Would you agree that music was an important factor throughout Ima Hogg’s life?
Yes, from early childhood, she was devoted to playing the piano. In the early 1900s she studied at the New York Conservatory of Music, perhaps the preeminent school in that field. From 1907 to 1908, she studied piano in Berlin but ever the pragmatist, she realized she was never going to be a top concert pianist. She returned to Houston and became an important, active protagonist in Houston’s musical institutions, culminating with the founding of the Houston Symphony in 1913. She nurtured and helped guide the symphony over the next half-century.

But, she still played the piano daily. At Bayou Bend she had two grand pianos, one in the first-floor drawing room and the other in her private, second-floor sitting room. When traveling, she even took a folding silent keyboard for daily practice.

That Ima Hogg collected Americana is well known. Yet I know she also collected in two other areas: Native American art and Modern European art. People might think it’s an odd mix of interests.
Not really. In both cases the collecting arose from an “aha” moment, the discovery of something new that aroused her interest. Also, collecting for a museum was always in the back of her mind.

In 1920 her first “aha” moment came when she realized one could collect Colonial American furniture. Then, in 1928 in Santa Fe, she saw for the first time wonderful native arts, and in her mind collecting them paralleled her idea that early American furniture could provide for Texans a bridge to America’s history. The collecting of European Modernism began with an “aha” moment in Moscow in 1929, when she saw important examples of French Modernism. At the outset of her Modernist collecting, she was asking dealers for—and was receiving—a museum discount, suggesting the collection was destined for a museum. And indeed she did give it to the MFAH in 1939.

There is so much more you could share with us about Ima Hogg—both her private life and her civic accomplishments. And so you do in your wonderful new book, Ima Hogg: The Extraordinary Cultural Patron behind the Unusual Name. Do you think she would be supportive of the book were she alive today?
I would like to think so! At some level she must have wanted her story to be told, must have known it was one well worth telling. After all, she saved countless written materials and photographs: One university repository alone holds 320 boxes of letters and more than 1,300 photographs!