Museum director by day. Cultural ambassador by night.
by LEE CULLUM / photographs by NAN COULTER
Maxwell Anderson is everywhere, bringing the world home to Dallas. In São Paulo last year, he and Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that the third annual New Cities Summit would convene in Dallas in June. As a prelude to this Max and Mike Show, the Art Museum Directors Association will converge on Dallas two weeks earlier and the U.S. Conference of Mayors will gather here a day after the New Cities summiteers depart. “Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest,” said the satirical English poet Alexander Pope. He might have been writing with this metropolis in mind and certainly the active Max Anderson, who chairs the Arts District along with directing the Dallas Museum of Art.
As if June were not already bustin’ out all over, Anderson also has welcomed to its inaugural offices on North St. Paul Street another group he co-chairs, the Global Cultural Districts Network, just in time to mingle with the New Cities delegates — 800-plus, from 20 countries — at the Winspear. In this fever of activity, Anderson evokes Richard Fisher, president of the regional Federal Reserve, in his vast ability to project a savvy and sophisticated Dallas to a wider world. This is a city, after all, that doesn’t always fare as well as it deserves to in popular culture. So, this mecca of the Southwest, too often misunderstood, benefits mightily from Anderson and Fisher with their enormous intellectual agility, fantastic powers of articulation and canny ability to dramatize their work in a way that also dramatizes Dallas.
Max Anderson grew up in a theatrical family. His grandfather, for whom he is named, was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright who started an artists’ colony in the countryside near New City, New York. Anderson’s father, Quentin Anderson, was a professor of English literature at Columbia; his mother, Thelma, an advertising executive with J. Walter Thompson; and his brother, Abraham “Brom,” a future scholar of Immanuel Kant at Sarah Lawrence. Theirs was a house devoted to the “life of the mind,” but Max’s heart was not made for metaphysics. He loves things, objects: the imposing gong in his office, a gift from the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S., with whom the museum hopes to develop a reciprocal loan agreement (it also has a major collection of Indonesian art); the clock on his bookshelf by Michael Graves, who did the invitations for the wedding of Max and Jacqueline Anderson; the exquisite bowls, Quran and other unexpected treasures in the current Islamic art exhibition called “Nur,” which is Arabic for light. (Anderson did not go seeking the spiritual in this show, but that is a part of what can be found in it.)
It’s all part of the Anderson ethic, which leaves no holy grail un-quested for, no gaps in the DMA’s encyclopedic mission unfilled for long, if he can help it. Is there a tomb for some Etruscan dignitary in the land around Ferrara, Italy, adorned with Greek vases from the fifth century B.C.? Anderson brought some of them to Dallas under an agreement with the Italian government. (Ever the diplomat, he earlier had returned some artifacts to their rightful owner, Italy, which kindly allowed them to remain on extended view at the DMA, and also sent things back to Turkey.) A classicist by training at Harvard, he wrote the wall text for the Greek pieces himself. What about American art? Is it properly honored in its own country? To be sure, Anderson agreed to head Art Everywhere, an audacious effort of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America to blanket billboards, buses, subways, airports and every available public surface with 50 American masterpieces during August. They will have been chosen by popular vote online among 100 entries from five museums — the DMA plus the Whitney in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Chicago Art Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — and announced during the Conference of Mayors in Dallas this month. (Happily, Anderson not only has submitted a Pop Art work by James Rosenquist, Paper Clip, too long gone from the walls of the DMA, he also plans to reinstall it in the atrium, a welcome return of a painting never meant to go missing.) Max Anderson knocks himself out, always, to improve wherever he is, whether it’s Atlanta, Toronto, New York or Indianapolis — and he’s lived in all of them. His favorite cities are Rome, where he taught for a year, and New York, where he was born and largely grew up. “There’s no downtime there,” he says, “unless you plan for it. It’s impossible to avoid surprise. You have to work to find surprise in Dallas.”
That is exactly what Anderson means to do. “We’ve got to get more crowded,” he says, “in the way we connect. At the DMA, people see others they wouldn’t ordinarily see.” As for the Arts District, which he will show off to cultural leaders from Doha, Qatar; Hong Kong; Berlin; and Amsterdam, to name a few, he wants to “awaken Dallas [and not just foreign visitors]to what it has at its core.” No one knows better than Anderson that a city caught in the fever of commerce must also be a city refreshed by the consolation of art. Otherwise its people will degenerate into those described by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” Max Anderson is determined not to let that happen.
LEE CULLUM is the host of CEO, a series of interviews with business leaders on KERA-TV, and is a contributing columnist to The Dallas Morning News. She has been a regular commentator on the PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.