The richest arts prize in Texas – the $150,000 Richard Brettell Award in the Arts – is named for him. He wrote and contributed to more than two dozen books on French painters and paintings, especially the Impressionists: biographies, histories, monographs. A collection just on Monet and the Seine River, another on Monet in Normandy, three on Camille Pissaro.
Richard Brettell died Friday at 71.
Before he became a distinguished professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, Brettell taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Harvard and Yale – the university where he earned three degrees in art history. He lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He was a curator of European paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago when he was only 30. Second only to Harry Parker III – who spearheaded the drive to build the Dallas Museum of Art’s current home in the Arts District – Brettell may well have been the most important director the DMA has had. Before he left the the museum in 1992, he was raising $55 million for the DMA’s major expansion with the Nancy and Jake L. Hamon Building.
Brettell even has three lectures in the well-known “The Great Courses” video series.
But more than a museum director, historian, author and professor, Brettell was perhaps most of all a museum builder — he had a real gift for fusing art, scholarship and fundraising. Even while he expanded the DMA, he was the founding American director of FRAME (the French Regional and American Museum Exchange), which was designed to promote the exchange of art and information between regional museums in France and the United States. Brettell later became the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT-Dallas, which has a $30 million endowment. He returned to the DMA in 2015 when the O’Donnell Institute opened a new research center on the museum’s second floor.
Then, in what may prove the double capstone to his career, in 2018, Brettell snagged the Barrett Collection of Swiss Art for UTD – with its 400 rare artworks. The next year, he topped that by bringing the Trammell and Margaret Crow Museum of Asian Art to the UTD campus — where it will create a new building to house the collection, in addition to its downtown Dallas Arts District home.
UTD – which had been founded primarily as a tech college and then became known for its pioneering fusion of art and advanced technology – has become a major Texas art collector.
Richard Brettell was born in Rochester, New York. He attended Yale University initially to study biophysics but switched his major to art. He met his wife Caroline at Yale, where they both graduated in 1971.
He came to Texas and became the head of UT-Austin’s art history department before moving to the Art Institute of Chicago. After eight years there, he was hired at the DMA — and was widely considered one of the art world’s rising stars.
But in 1992, Brettell was arrested on charges of public lewdness with an undercover Dallas police officer as part of a police sting targeting homosexual activity in public parks. He pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charges and was given a year’s probation. Although the DMA’s board was split on how to handle the scandal — and the regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union called it a case of “gay bashing” — Brettell resigned. He was only 44.
What could have been the end to a career eventually allowed Brettell to pivot, become a major museum consultant — and eventually get hired at UTD in 2000 where he started building museums again. In the past 20 years, Brettell has been something of a whirlwind — even contributing reviews to The Dallas Morning News, while writing, lecturing, running the O’Donnell Institute and popping up with a new endowment or a new art collection. It was only in the past year that he encountered failure – a museum too far — with his dream of creating a Museum of Texas Art at Fair Park. Ironically enough, it would have been housed in the old Dallas Museum of Fine Arts building from 1936 — which is the building the DMA left when it moved to the Arts District.
But the board of Fair Park First rejected Brettell’s pitch.