It’s a sad, inscrutable coincidence that I visited the Hispanic Society’s rare-book show at the Grolier Club in New York earlier this week. My dear friend, Mark Roglán, director of the all-Spanish Meadows Museum in Dallas, died on Tuesday at 50, of cancer. Mark was a distinguished scholar of Spanish art, knew the Hispanic Society thoroughly, and was, overall, the preeminent mover and shaker in collaborations between American and Spanish museums.
Mark told me on Sunday that he had only weeks, if that, to live. He said of his cancer, “It’s taking everything away from me,” and that “everything” was so very much. Mark had four young children for whom he was a loving, proud father. His wife, Kathleen, is a wonderful woman whose poise and strength are now tested in ways I can’t imagine.
They’d just met when Mark and I met, in the late 1990s, when I was a curator at the Clark Art Institute, and he was working on his dissertation on American collections of Spanish art in the 19th century. The Clark owned a dozen small paintings by Mariano Fortuny and his circle that came to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s when such things, pretty majas and sunny landscapes, were a craze. He came to the Clark to look at the pictures and the curatorial files. Though the curator of American art, I knew more about Fortuny than anyone else there, so I considered this collection mine. Mark and I hit it off and kept in touch. I went to their wedding.
Mark grew up in Madrid. His father was a television news anchor and considered the Walter Cronkite of Spain. During the 1981 failed coup, he was among the first that the Army plotters arrested. Having enormous credibility, he was to be kept off the screen at all costs. He would have reported what was really happening. Mark’s mother is American. They met in the Retiro rose garden in Madrid when she was on her junior year abroad. His dad died earlier this year. I saw Mark’s parents whenever I visited Madrid.
Mark went to work at the Meadows in 2001 as an interim curator. The Meadows is the art museum at Southern Methodist University, and while the collection he inherited was good, it was mostly unknown. Mark’s talent as a scholar, networker, and diplomat was soon clear. He became a full curator and then, in 2006, the director. He put the place on the international map.
He was one of a handful of museum directors in America who consistently did captivating, compelling exhibitions. He had Spanish machismo, so he took risks, but they were always driven by an uncanny sense of what fantastic objective, what dream show, what jaw-dropping acquisition, was possible. Being Spanish, he was a natural intriguer. In the court of Philip IV, he would have been a high-stepper.
I reviewed a Berruguete exhibition Mark did with the National Gallery in 2019. This was a challenging show. Mark saw that it could be done. Over the years, he did a dozen big exhibitions I consider landmark shows. Another was a never-done and never-will-be-done display of the suite of Zurbarán full-length saints from Auckland Castle in York. The place was closed for renovation, so he nabbed them for Dallas and then sent them to the Frick. There were many other incisive and inventive shows.
He had initiative. His taste in art was impeccable, as were his acquisitions for the museum. So many museum directors in America are timid, pasty bores who not only go with the flow. They hide in it, doing predictable things. Mark was the antidote. I don’t do exhibitions or buy art anymore, but for the gold standard of today, I looked to Mark and the Meadows.
Mark was a friend in the sense that we have lots of acquaintances but count our friends on one hand, or two. I know what I do is controversial, though I didn’t think I’d lose as many friends as I have. They’re lefty academic and curatorial turds, company men and women who like their gilded cages unrattled. I mistook them for friends. Mark stuck with me, read all my stories, and enjoyed watching me deploy my skewer, stiletto, and sometimes, the axe. Loyalty is a Spanish trait.
Mark was the real thing. He had great leeway at SMU because his masters trusted him. He was on message and loyal to all things SMU. He was smart, certainly scholarly, with a big, boisterous personality but down-to-earth. That’s a rare mix. Donors and collectors trusted him. He was charming, smooth, and cosmopolitan, so much so that donors came to him asking, “What can I do for you?” This is fundraising at its best. His death is a loss on so many scores. Among them are his connections. He knew the Spanish museum community like no one else here in America does.
As Hispanophilic as I am, I’ll go to my own Yankee roots in saluting Mark. Fitz-Greene Halleck was an American Romantic-era poet. Of an old friend who died he wrote, “Green be the turf above you, friend of my better days, none knew thee but to love thee, nor named thee but to praise.” God bless you, Mark.
Treasures from the Hispanic Society Library is the new exhibition at the Grolier Club on East 60th Street in Manhattan. It’s a stunning display of over a hundred manuscripts and books from the greatest library of Hispanic studies and topics outside Spain and Portugal. I wrote about the Hispanic Society’s treasures show when it went to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts early in 2020.
I say “stunning,” an overused word, not because I loved the exhibition. And, as you can imagine, I’m rarely stunned. The show’s too big, crammed in cases, and the labels are hard to read. I have to say, though, I was awed, even speechless, stopped in my tracks, by the breadth of the collection in chronology, beauty, and topics. Medieval charters, royal letters, illuminated books of hours, gorgeous book bindings, and maps abound. The objects are both beautiful and rare.
The exhibition is roughly chronological with some thematic groupings. It begins with medieval manuscripts from Alfonso VII, the king of Castile and Leon from 1105 to 1157. Spain wasn’t Spain then but a collection of kingdoms, and, until 1492, the Christian kingdoms were deep into the 700-year Reconquista to oust the Moors. By Alfonso’s time, the infidels still had a big footprint, though mostly in Andalusia. The little Black Book of Hours, from 1485, is tucked in the corner of a case but beckons us like a purring cat. It’s an illuminated manuscript on vellum painted black. I’d never seen such a thing before.
The Hispanic Society is not just Spain. It covers the Iberian Peninsula and the world it acculturated. The Age of Exploration is documented through striking maps and navigational charts. Spain is not just Catholic Spain. Muslims, Christians, and Jews never lived together harmoniously. That’s political pap for today. They did indeed coexist. Jews were actively suppressed until they were tossed out altogether in 1492. For a brief period of years before this, Jews were able to disseminate material in Hebrew. There are good examples in the show.
The Trial and Acquittal of Jesuit Missionaries in 1669 is an illustrated account of the Spanish Jesuit challenge to Chinese superstition and ideology posing as science. A version of today’s trial-court artists rendered stick figures, but they do tell the story.
In those days as in ours, “science” existed but “settled science,” which is usually the shibboleths of the fat, prosperous, and gullible, was usually wrong. Think the earth-is-flat types. Climate change, a multibillion-dollar hoax benefiting big business, is an example of today’s fake science. A 1690 book on astronomy by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, published in Mexico, disputes widely held elite views that comets were malevolent forces. I suppose if one hit you, you’d say it was malevolent, but, as a general sign of looming evil, we’d chuckle today. As antediluvian as that view is, though, no one in Sigüenza’s time would have been dumb enough to think they could change the comings and goings of comets, yet many believe today we can change the climate.
A big ink-and-colored-wash map of New Spain from 1728 has great presence, as do the book bindings. A binding from 1608, made in Granada, shows the enormous influence of Moorish design on Spanish art. The Moors were kicked out of Granada, their last redoubt, in 1492, but their legacy of ebullient patterning persisted. We see it in Plateresque architecture, Velázquez’s intense, sparkling surfaces, Goya’s aquatint technique, and many other places.
It’s a very nice show. Since the labels were so hard to read, I’d suggest a photocopied version for people to have as they walk through. I see that “a fully illustrated catalogue for the exhibition is in preparation.” When I was hired as a curator in, I think, 1996, Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark, told me that if I ever did a show without the catalogue ready on opening night, he’d fire me. He said the same thing to the two other curators he’d just hired. Suffice it to say none of our catalogues was ever late. I believe this is a Hispanic Society issue, not a Grolier Club one.
I’ve seen great exhibitions at the Grolier over the years. It is the oldest bibliophilic society in the country and does great exhibitions. I’ve seen many of them. It’s an old-fashioned place and not a museum, so its space for showing art isn’t the best, but it’s certainly adequate. The exhibitions need to be sized to the space, though. I assume the Grolier’s members and its visitors skew old. That has to be considered, too.
I heard this week that the Hispanic Society, closed for the past five years, is reopening in two weeks. This is good news. Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh is going to be its new exhibition. This exhibition will be fantastic — it features the museum’s collection of polychrome sculptures. I’ll write about it. When visitors see them, they’ll feel that the saint depicted is physically there and about to speak.
Established in 1904, the Hispanic Society is the greatest and best museum no one knows. It owns the finest collection of Spanish art outside Spain. Its Beaux Arts palace-of-a-home is in Washington Heights on Broadway and 155th Street. When collector and founder Archer Huntington picked the site, once part of Audubon’s farm, he imagined that the Upper West Side building boom, with its gracious brownstones, elite cultural institutions, and Columbia, would keep zooming north. He was pleased to have acquired a parcel across from the then-new subway line.
Instead, high-end development stalled around 96th Street. Until recently, Columbia itself was in a shabby neighborhood. The land surrounding the Hispanic Society was developed all right, but not in a Dakota kind of way. Today, it’s another barrio.
I’ve been to the Hispanic Society dozens of times. I think the neighborhood’s fine. For most denizens below 96th Street, though, it seems gangland, MS-13 caliber. Few venture that far north. Most wouldn’t go even if Zorro went with them.
The Hispanic Society’s visitorship was always tiny. It lived off capital. For Manhattan’s philanthropic community, it was invisible. I’ve always felt terrible about this since it’s the worthiest, neediest cause in town. A seven-figure gift would be transformative. Blue-chip hearts at MoMa, the Met, the opera, and Lincoln Center go pitter-pat these days over gifts of the eight- and nine-figure type.
By around 2000, the place was down to its last pesetas. The galleries are done in High Hacienda style, with elegant tile and Plateresque ornament. Infrastructure-wise, the building was looking like the Alhambra, circa 1820. A new board, led by retired Met director Philippe de Montebello and Continental planned a renovation and renaissance. Some of its paintings by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Murillo, and other Golden Age greats went on a successful tour that’s still ongoing, raising money and visibility. The museum developed a $15 million renovation plan. It closed on December 31, 2016.
And it never reopened, until now, though it’s opening only its space for temporary exhibitions. The permanent-collection galleries remain closed. I know that the Hispanic Society’s 200 biggest hits are on the road, but the collection numbers in the tens of thousands. There are ample treasures to fill the galleries. I also know that the big-ticket renovation tasks are done.
I was the director of a museum that reinstalled all the galleries three times a year. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done and sometimes needs to be done. I suggest the museum do a soft reopening of its permanent-collection galleries. It can have a big celebratory blast when its traveling objects return.
Yes, 2020 was a lost year, but keeping a great museum closed for five years isn’t a good idea. That said, the sculpture show is a taste of the grandeur to come.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content on the site including the digital magazine and archives, no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (through conference calls, social media groups, and more). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going.