Clint Willour, a giant of the Texas art scene, died of cancer on Thursday, February 4, 2021. He was 79.
Throughout his nearly 50-year career, the impact Mr. Willour had on the transformation of Houston into a destination for art cannot be overstated. He arrived in the city in 1970, when its contemporary art scene was fledgling, and his ethos and generosity continued to influence on the city’s museums, nonprofits, and galleries until his death.
Mr. Willour is perhaps best known across Texas for his 25-year stint as curator at the Galveston Arts Center (GAC) a nonprofit, non-collecting art space located in the port city. During his tenure as curator, from 1990 to 2016, he oversaw multiple exhibition spaces in the building and organized the Galveston Art Walk into a successful, regular event. At GAC, Mr. Willour gave many Texas artists their first institutional exhibition opportunities; he would include young artists alongside Texas stalwarts in group shows, and would also give the building’s gallery spaces over to artists for their first large-scale solo exhibitions.
Dennis Nance, who succeeded Mr. Willour as the Galveston Arts Center’s curator, echoed this sentiment in a statement to Glasstire:
“In the 25 years he served as curator at Galveston Arts Center, Clint paved a path for artists in Texas and beyond. His legacy is held dearly by the artists he championed and the friendships he made at the center of our community.
“Clint was a mentor to many and friend to more. When I filled his shoes after his retirement from GAC, he continued to share his sharp wit and unwavering support for my own career. I will forever miss our check-ins, his brutal honesty, personal insights, and the good humored gossip.
“Clint was always there at every opening and his presence has been deeply missed as our celebrations and gatherings have been halted over the past year. I really wish we could all be together now to celebrate such an incredible person.”
By Mr. Willour’s own calculation, he organized 469 exhibitions and showcased about 4,000 Texas-based artists at GAC. For many exhibitions he partnered with the Texas’ other regional museums and nonprofits, meaning that his shows traveled and had extended lives in El Paso, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, San Antonio, and other cities. Mr. Willour told Glasstire in a 2016 video that he believed he had been involved in 1,000 exhibitions over his career, either as a juror, a curator, or a co-curator.
It’s a staggering number, and likely accurate and reflective of the work Mr. Willour put into all of his endeavors. To this point, Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s former Curator of Photography, and a longtime friend and collegue of Mr. Willour, told Glasstire:
“Clint put the Galveston Arts Center on the map. Prior to Clint’s tenure, the GAC had shown a variety of national artists, but Clint decided to concentrate solely on contemporary artists from Texas. Time and again I would look at artists and photographers’ resumes, and their first show, and at times their first catalogue, would have been at the Galveston Art Center.”
Mr. Willour is also widely recognized for his gifts to Texas museums, particularly the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). His passion for art collecting started early. His collector origin story is this: when he was in college in the 1960s, he was interested in art, which brought him to Seligman Gallery in Seattle. There he came across a monoprint by the artist Mark Tobey. Though the artwork was $500 — expensive for a college student — Otto Seligman, the gallery’s namesake, allowed him to buy the piece by paying in $50 monthly installments.
This way of collecting became standard for Mr. Willour. In the 1960s, he would buy pieces from traveling dealers at print fairs for $50 or $100 a piece. He also purchased works from Nina Castelli Sundell’s New Gallery in Cleveland. His knack for buying continued once he moved to Texas. He regularly purchased works from new and established artists’ studios, from galleries, and from auctions, with a focus on prints, photographs, and works on paper.
In Molly Glentzer’s 2018 Houston Chronicle profile on Mr. Willour, he explained this early focus in his collecting: “The nice thing about photography, and even prints at that time, was, they were reasonable. Photography wasn’t even considered art by a lot of people.” The same profile notes that Mr. Willour not only bought diverse works by a range of artists, but that he also collected deeply — one example being his purchase of four portfolios, each of 20 prints, by the acclaimed photographer Richard Misrach. His eye for finding talent meant that he collected works by many acclaimed artists — Jim Dine, Karel Appel, Sam Gilliam, Robert Indiana, et al. — when they were still young and relatively unknown (and affordable).
Though he claimed to never have earned more than $45,000 a year, Mr. Willour helped the MFAH acquire, either by donating or helping fund the acquisition of, about 1,500 works. And although he purchased many of these works for modest prices (he said that he never paid more than $1,500 for a single piece of art), the value of his gifts to the MFAH alone is likely over $1 million. In 2018, the museum organized an exhibition highlighting Mr. Willour’s contributions to the institution.
Of his legacy, Alison de Lima Greene, the MFAH’s curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, told Glasstire:
“Clint Willour was a tireless champion of artists, a fixture of the Houston scene, and celebrated both nationally and internationally. Across five decades he could be seen at every museum, gallery, and alternative space opening, on the lookout for young talent, but also steadfast in his encouragement of more established artists. His first gift — a screenprint by Thomas Downing — came to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1976; two years later he underwrote the purchase of several photographs, launching what would be a life-long partnership with the institution’s photography department and an abiding friendship with curator Anne Wilkes Tucker.
“He signaled to then director William C. Agee his long-term intentions, stating ‘this is only the first of my contributions to the Museum.’ Ultimately he supported the acquisition of some 1,500 works of art spanning many departments, with his greatest generosity devoted to Photography; Prints and Drawings; Modern and Contemporary Art; and Decorative Arts, Craft and Design… In the truest sense, Clint was both a friend and mentor; every curator could count on his sound advice and ready wit, and he inspired us always to do our very best.”
In addition to Mr. Willour’s contributions of artworks to the MFAH, he gave more than 2,500 books to the museum’s Hirsch Library, making him its largest donor. Many of his contributions made to the museum — both of artworks and books — were in recognition and honor of his friends and colleagues.
Along with his commitment to the MFAH, Mr. Willour also donated works to other museums and collecting institutions. In Texas, these includes the Menil Collection, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, the Old Jail Art Center, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art; out-of-state institutions include the Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, and the Henry Art Gallery in Washington, and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
Clint Willour was born in 1941 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and was raised in Shelton, Washington. He initially attended Whitman College (he wanted to go to Reed College, but said that it was “too liberal for [his] parents,”) and then transferred to the University of Washington, Seattle, where he majored in English Literature with the intention of finding a career in printing or advertising.
After graduating from college in the 1960s, Mr. Willour briefly lived in San Fransisco, where he attended his first gay pride parade. He then moved to Oxford, Ohio and became a field secretary for the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. This job took him across the country: he drove his first Ford Mustang from Halifax to Vancouver to San Diego to Miami, and back again. In the towns and cities he visited, Mr. Willour always stopped in to see the local museums and galleries, sometimes purchasing works that would ride with him until he made it back to Oxford.
Upon moving to Houston in 1970, Mr. Willour worked briefly as a nanny before finding a job at Peter Zane Interior Design and Carpet. Although he had no experience in interior design, Mr. Willour was soon running the business, which boomed due to the increase in spec homes built in the Champions and airport areas of the city. During his three years at the company, Mr. Willour developed his business acumen, and also learned how to calculate, measure, and eyeball interior spaces.
In 1973, Marvin Watson, a Houston architect, recruited Mr. Willour to help with a gallery he was opening in partnership with the famed New York gallerist Tibor de Nagy. After traveling to New York and meeting with and shadowing Mr. de Nagy, Mr. Willour was named the director of Watson/de Nagy Gallery in Houston.
In addition to selling works by Texas artists, the gallery specialized in the work of second-generation abstract expressionists, including artists like Larry Poons, Robert Motherwell, and Kenneth Noland. While the gallery was considered to be these artists’ “second gallery” — second to the representation they held in New York, San Fransisco, and elsewhere — Mr. Willour said that artists (to the objection of New York critic Clement Greenburg) would ship works to Houston because they would sell. Eventually, due to the expense of showing artists from outside of Texas, Houston gallerist, art collector, and philanthropist Meredith Long became a silent partner in the gallery.
In these early Houston years, Mr. Willour formed lifelong working relationships and friendships with other curators and gallerists, including Anne Wilkes Tucker, who began working for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1976 and went on to build the institution’s photography collection, and Betty Moody, who was just opening Moody Gallery in Houston.
Mr. Willour soon moved with Watson/de Nagy Gallery to Colquitt Street, which, with the addition of Moody Gallery, Davis/McClain Gallery, Hooks-Epstein Gallery, and others, became known as Houston’s gallery row. Later, Watson/de Nagy Gallery, renamed Watson Gallery, ran into financial trouble, and in 1989 the gallery closed. Mr. Willour took it upon himself to rent a box truck and return the gallery artists’ artwork. He drove, as he told Glasstire, “from Houston to Toronto,” dropping art off along the way so that the artists wouldn’t have to pay to have their work returned.
After the gallery closed, Mr. Willour worked briefly for other galleries and organized an exhibition for the Houston nonprofit FotoFest. In 1990, he was hired as curator at the Galveston Arts Center, a job he held until his retirement in 2016. He served for a stint, from 1993 to 2003, in the dual role of curator and director of the organization, and he helped guide the organization through many hurricanes, including Hurricane Ike, the devastating 2008 storm which severely damaged the Art Center’s building and caused Mr. Willour’s exhibition program to move off-site for about seven years. His tenure wrapped up with a two-part exhibition celebrating his 25 years at the institution.
Because of his reputation as a curator, Mr. Willour was asked to jury numerous open call exhibitions and also regularly participated in portfolio reviews locally (like those of FotoFest), nationally and internationally. He held varying board positions throughout his career, including membership on the Exhibitions Committee of the Houston Center for Photography, FotoFest’s Art Board, and multiple boards at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among many others.
Emily Todd, a former executive director of DiverseWorks in Houston, noted to Glasstire Mr. Willour’s commitment to his responsibilities as a board member: “Over the years, we sat on various boards together: the UH public art program was the best. He always had excellent ideas for artists who would fit UH’s percent for art budget. He could summon up recommendations for any scale and for any building. This gave lesser-known artists the opportunity to demonstrate their chops. It was wonderful to see his mind at work.” She continued: “For almost 50 years, he wove together a community of interconnected people as he drove endlessly around the state and showed up at almost every opening. He paid close attention to the important stuff. I feel so privileged to have known someone of his integrity and decency, always ready with help and a side of relevant history (read the inside story).”
Mr. Willour’s work promoting Texas’ artists was widely recognized during his lifetime. In 2001, the Dallas Visual Arts Center presented him with a Legends Award, which recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the visual arts in Texas.” In 2006, he was named Texas Patron of the Year by Art League Houston, and in 2007 he was named Best Art Guru by the Houston Press. The Houston Fine Art Fair presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft both named him a Texas Master in 2013 and honored him with its 2019 fundraiser.
With Mr. Willour’s death, Texas’ art community has lost one of its smartest and most knowledgeable supporters. A pluralist who was also very discerning, Mr. Willour will be remembered by those who knew him as a sharp wit with a compassionate and loving heart.
He was a walking encyclopedia of Texas art, artists, and art spaces, both past and present. He consistently ducked in and out of art openings wherever and whenever they were happening, oftentimes wearing his signature Hawaiian shirts. As one of Mr. Willour’s Houston contemporaries, Fredericka Hunter of Texas Gallery, told Glasstire: “Now I will never know what is going on… Thanks, Clint… a wonderful colleague and a favorite friend… and Hawaiian shirts never looked better on the mainland.” And Sally Sprout, longtime curator of the Williams Tower Gallery, said that she called Mr. Willour “‘the peripatetic curator,’ because he went to every corner of Texas to seek out and bring to our attention practicing artists of every sensibility.”
Betty Moody, one of Mr. Willour’s closest friends, told Glasstire that he “was a character if there ever was one. He was also one of the smartest people I met in my life.” She went on to say that Mr. Willour “helped more artists than anyone I’ve ever known. He was an extraordinarily informed curator and he truly loved art. He was thoughtful and creative. He was a true friend, and I’ll miss him for the rest of my life.”
Mr. Willour is survived by Reid Mitchell, his husband and life partner. The two met in 1981, and were married in 2015 in a ceremony at Moody Gallery.
In lieu of flowers, Mr. Mitchell requests that donations be made to some of Mr. Willour’s favorite art spaces: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, FotoFest, Houston Center for Photography, and the Menil Collection. Mr. Willour’s family and friends will organize a public celebration of his life at a later time, when public gatherings are more feasible. We will share that information as it comes.
Ultimately, Mr. Willour accomplished his mission, as he explained to Glasstire: “My mission was to show the best art being made in the region by artists living and working in the region or projects made in the region.” He appreciated art’s complexities, but also recognized that art is simply good for the soul. As he told Glasstire: “If it is just beautiful and makes you happy, that’s probably really the best thing.”