by Jean Dykstra
It would have to take a pretty sweet offer to lure someone away from a top curatorial position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For Malcolm Daniel, who had been at the Met for 23 years, nine of them as curator in charge of the photography department, that offer came from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2013. Daniel has taken over the MFAH’s photography department, established in 1976 by Anne Wilkes Tucker, who retired in June after nearly 40 years. “The MFAH is a really first-class museum,” he says. “It’s smaller than the Met, but there’s something quite nice about that – you don’t have to walk three blocks to get to another curatorial department, for instance.”
Known for his expertise in 19th-century photography, Daniel curated some 25 exhibitions at the Met, including shows on French daguerreotypes, Roger Fenton, and Julia Margaret Cameron. “One of the pleasures of being at the MFAH,” he says, “is that the collection is different from the Met’s. Anne’s great knowledge and passion have been the middle half of the 20th century. I will focus on the bookends – strengthening 19th-century holdings (which makes my heart beat fast) and more recent photography.”
A Baltimore native, Daniel attributes his interest in art to the school he attended, where the arts were part of the curriculum, not extracurricular. He studied art history and printmaking at Trinity College in Hartford, then took off for Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass.
After his Wanderjahr, Daniel took a job at the Baltimore Museum of Art, training docents and running the school tour program, but after five years, he missed the academic world. He went to graduate school at Princeton, where he worked with Peter Bunnell. “The thing I so enjoyed with Peter was the opportunity to work with original material,” he says, “and the fact that photography was largely virgin territory.” Daniel’s dissertation on Édouard Baldus became an exhibition at the Met (in 1994), after he took a job as a curatorial assistant with Maria Morris Hambourg. “I often refer to my early years at the Met as post-doctoral vocational training,” says Daniel. “You learn a lot of stuff you don’t learn in graduate school.”
Daniel says the move to Houston has been gratifying. “The living is easy,” he quips. He and his husband, who works for Getty Images, have a house and a sweet-natured rescue puppy, and the town has been welcoming. “Anne built a wonderful group of supporters,” he says, “and there’s a large audience for photography.” Daniel has just installed the third in an ongoing series highlighting the depth and breadth of the collection – 25 pictures from daguerreotypes to the present day as well as 15 images by Bill Brandt. Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, organized by ICP, will go on view September 24, and Daniel will show 12 large-scale works by Vera Lutter in late November. “I think it will be an eye-opener for a lot of people,” he says, “and it’s also interesting for me because of her relationship to the history of photography.”