Clinton T. Willour
1941 - 2021
Clinton T. Willour
Clint Willour—gallerist, curator, collector, friend, and mentor to generations of artists and other members of a diverse and international arts community—died February 4, 2021. He was respected and loved for his acute memory of images and information, an acerbic wit that slashed through pretense, good-humored gossip, kindness, and generosity. "There are many MEs," he once joked, "and they will all be missed."
Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Willour was raised in Shelton, Washington, a suburb of Tacoma abutting the Olympic National Forest. He attended Whitman College from 1959 to 1962 before completing his education at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he majored in English Literature. Willour made his first art purchase as a college student, acquiring a Mark Tobey monotype from Seattle dealer Otto Seligman, who allowed him to live with the print while paying $50 monthly installments. The dealer's recognition of Willour's connection with the work and Seligman's trust in the young student proved to be a powerful lesson. Willour carried this same trust and generosity of spirit into his own practice as a gallerist, collector, and curator. Following college Willour lived briefly in San Francisco, before making Oxford, Ohio, his home base while working as field secretary for the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. This position afforded him the opportunity to explore museums and galleries across the U.S. and Canada, while also providing a small budget to acquire more art by then relatively unknown artists such as Karel Appel, Sam Gilliam, and Robert Indiana. With a modest salary, Willour continued to use his unerring aesthetic sensibilities to purchase affordable works made early in artists' careers or by lesser known older artists. When later donated to institutions, works from his collection were often the artist's first work to enter a museum collection.
In 1970 Willour settled in Houston, then at the peak of an oil boom expansion. His first position working for Peter Zane Interior Design and Carpet honed his sense of how to calculate interior spaces, a talent that found fuller expression when he became the director of Watson/de Nagy Gallery, Texas, in 1973, the newly established outpost of the renowned New York dealer, Tibor de Nagy. Willour often credited de Nagy as his mentor, as he had introduced Willour to such leading Abstract Expressionist artists as Robert Motherwell, as well as the innovators of Color Field Painting, including Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Larry Poons. Willour brought many of these artists to the attention of local collectors, while at the same time promoting Houston artists, including Robin Utterback, Earl Staley, and Dee Wolff among others. As the gallery evolved, he became managing partner with Marvin Watson, overseeing all aspects of the gallery until it ultimately closed in 1989. Renting a box truck at his own expense and driving across the country and into Canada, Willour took it upon himself to return every piece of art to each artist represented by the gallery.
Willour then transitioned into his second career as a curator, with established talents for managing budgets, marshalling limited resources, recognizing quality art, and promoting artists' works to diverse audiences. Beginning in 1990, he took over the exhibition program at the non-profit, non-collecting Galveston Arts Center, taking it from a rather sleepy entity to one entirely focused on early- and mid-career artists from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Willour barnstormed his territory like a one-man-band, serving as curator, registrar, art handler, and truck driver. His sensitivity to artists' work, curatorial skills, and natural charm endeared him to artists and to staff at other institutions from which he borrowed art or to which his exhibitions toured. In the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008, he guided the organization through its reconstruction, establishing a secondary space to expand his lively exhibition program and ultimately overseeing theGAC's return to its historic building on the Strand in 2015. At his retirement in 2016, Willour calculated that he had created 469 exhibitions in Galveston, showcasing approximately 4,000 artists from across the region, as well as selected national figures. For young artists featured at the Center, an exhibition catalogue produced by Willour was often their first publication. His impact on Galveston was not limited to exhibitions as he helped found the ever-popular Galveston ArtWalk in 1990, which continues today, promoting the visual arts throughout Galveston's historic district and beyond.
Willour made his first gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1976, a Thomas Downing screenprint. Two years later, in support of the Museum's newly founded department of photography, he deepened his commitment, underwriting the purchase of photographs by John Divola and Richard Misrach. With the check he sent to then director William C. Agee on August 18, 1978, Willour indicated his long-term ambitions, commenting "this is only the first of my contributions to the Museum." Indeed, over the decades that followed Willour both donated and underwrote the acquisition of some 1,500 works of art. Additionally, he became a major supporter of the Museum's Hirsch Library, giving more than 2,500 books, catalogues, and artists' ephemera to the collection. His advocacy was backed by service on many committees, including Photography, Decorative Arts, Prints and Drawings, Modern & Contemporary Art, Collections, and the Library. He was a charter member in 1979 of the Museum Collectors, as well as other affinity groups including Photo Forum, the 5A: African American Art Advisory Association, Art + Paper, Design Council, and [email protected] Working with Anne Tucker in 2007 and 2008, he curated two exhibitions for the Museum: Houston Wilderness: A Collaboration and The Sounds I See: Photographs of Musicians. In 2018 Museum curators Dena Woodall and Lisa Volpe mounted the special tribute exhibition 40 Years of Discovery: Gifts of Clint Willour. His and Anne Tucker's devotion to promoting early career artists resulted in the development of the Anne Tucker and Clint Willour Young Photographers Endowment in 2017, a lasting legacy that annually recognizes the talents of an emerging photographer under the age of 35 and not yet represented in the Museum's collection.
In addition to his extraordinary support of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Willour also donated artworks to museums across Texas including The Menil Collection, Houston; The Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont; The Old Jail Art Center, Albany; and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth. He was generous as well to institutions in his native Northwest, including the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, and Washington's Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, his alma mater.
His generosity and support of non-profit institutions extended beyond acquisitions. Willour was a founding member of the Houston Center for Photography, which was established in 1981. Over the years, he actively served on its board and on various committees. With Anne Tucker, MFAH Photography Curator, Willour led lively and well attended annual auction previews for decades. He often purchased works from the auctions and then donated them to museums. He was an early and avid supporter of FotoFest, serving on their exhibitions committee for many years. It was widely acknowledged that Willour was one of the few who would visit every one of the dozens of exhibitions on view throughout the city during FotoFest's biennials. He also curated a long overdue Suzanne Paul retrospective for FotoFest in 2001, a non-biennial year. Recognized for his multi-disciplinary taste, Willour was also a vital member of the craft and design community. He gave many craft artists their first shows while at the Galveston Arts Center and personally acquired their works to later donate them to institutions. He was actively engaged with the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, founded in 2001, serving on the board and mentoring resident artists during their tenure at the Center.
Willour was a widely respected and sought after as a portfolio reviewer due to his thoughtful but unsparingly direct manner. Photographer Lou Vest acknowledged, "Just knowing Clint was out there looking at our work made us strive to be better." Willour typically reviewed his assigned portfolios and then spent time critiquing additional bodies of work at every FotoFest biennial over the course of more than three decades, as well as for other organizations, colleges and universities throughout Texas. His talents were in demand beyond the state's borders, reviewing regularly at Photolucida and Critical Mass in Portland, Oregon, as well as in Boston, New Orleans, Santa Fe, and Tulsa. Willour employed his well-honed eye internationally by connecting with artists as far afield as Arles, Montreal, Barcelona, Beijing and Buenos Aires. He also traveled overseas as an active member of Oracle, the international organization of photography curators.
Willour's ecumenical taste, combined with his desire to encourage budding talent made him a natural choice as juror for art competitions. To this end, he served as juror for more than one hundred exhibitions, including institutions as far-ranging as Fort Worth Community Arts Center, New Orleans Photo Alliance, Lawndale Art Center, Texas Photographic Society, McNeese State University's Abercrombie Gallery, Holocaust Museum Houston, Baylor University's Martin Art Museum, Visual Arts Alliance, CraftTexas, Glassell School of Art, University of North Texas Art Gallery, and Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts to name just a few. Throughout, he made a point to pursue quality, while always leaning towards inclusivity.
Over the years he also curated shows for numerous other non-profit institutions in the state and contributed essays to more than twenty-five exhibition catalogues by artists such as the Art Guys, Ray Carrington III, Keith Carter, Michael Kennaugh, Lance Letscher, Mary McCleary, Al Souza, and Ann Stautberg.
Willour traveled widely, showing up at exhibitions across the state and the nation, as well as internationally. However, it was in Houston that his presence was felt most palpably. Over the course of five decades Willour was seemingly omnipresent at museum, gallery, and alternative space openings, on the lookout for fresh talent, but also always encouraging more established artists. One individual quipped that Willour would show up to the opening of an envelope. And while he attended openings with zeal, he frequently went back to experience the art independent of crowds.
Willour was recognized by many organizations as well: in 2001 the Dallas Visual Arts Center honored him with their Legends Award; in 2006 the Art League Houston named him Texas Art Patron of the Year; in 2013 he was named a Texas Master by Houston Center for Contemporary Craft; in 2015 Willour accepted the Houston Fine Art Fair's Lifetime Achievement Award; in 2017, Willour and Anne Tucker were jointly honored by the Houston Center for Photography for their service to the organization; and in 2019 he was recognized for a second time by the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft at its annual luncheon.
Willour met his life partner Reid Mitchell in 1981. They were married October 25, 2015, in a joyous ceremony at Houston's Moody Gallery, with family and friends in the wedding party: Peg Stock Penney, Clint's cousin; Don Sanders and Jenene Sanders Quisenberry, Reid's nephew and niece; and Randy Owens, Betty Moody and Anne Tucker, friends.
Having battled cancer for a number of years, Willour died on February 4, 2021. He is survived by his loving husband and mourned by friends everywhere.
Contributions in his memory should be directed to institutions that he had an affinity with over the course of many years, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Menil Collection, Houston Center for Photography, FotoFest, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Galveston Arts Center, Holocaust Museum Houston, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, or Glasstire.
Published by Houston Chronicle on Feb. 10, 2021.
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2 Entries
Reid, so sorry for this loss to Houston and to you.
Patti Jones
March 12, 2021
Dear Reid, sending condolences to you and Betty and Anne, and to Clint's family and friends, and to all of those artists and art people who collaborated with Clint to create his fabulous life. Clint was an amazing curator and his presence will be missed. with love, Victoria
Victoria Lightman
February 10, 2021
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