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Commentary: Remembering Dallas Arts Leader Richard Brettell

Dr. Richard Brettell
UT-Dallas website
Dr. Richard Brettell

Rick Brettell, founder of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a mainstay in many ways of the cultural life of Dallas, died July 24 at age 71. 

Commentator Lee Cullum remembers him:

I always thought Rick Brettell would live forever. He was everywhere, doing everything. So many ideas, so little time. Art historian, institution builder, gifted pianist, accomplished cook—some might say he was a Renaissance man, but that is to say not nearly enough. His creative energy flowed from leading the Dallas Museum of Art to founding the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at UT Dallas to reviewing art for the Dallas Morning News. And that’s only a fraction of his life’s work.

Rick could leave any audience, large or small, spellbound with his command of concept as well as language. He was unfiltered, unguarded, exuberant, exhilarating, an intoxicating brew of intellect and feeling. In this respect he had an irresistible innocence, always willing to believe the best, or that the worst could be converted to the best. That’s what drew people to him. They too wanted to believe in the possibilities Rick always saw in unexpected places.

Take Texas art. Long dismissed as regional, sentimental, never to appear alongside master works from the New York School or Los Angeles, these paintings by Texas artists could be stunning in their scope and sophistication. Rick saw this, and at the end of his life he was working hard to build a Museum of Texas Art, MoTA. Just as he brought Pre Columbian Art into special focus at a new wing of the Dallas Museum of Art, with MoTA he was telling us who and what we are.

Rick had an eye for talent that eluded some more bound by convention. He spotted Phyllida Barlow, a British sculptor whose reputation as an artist had never caught up with her soaring stature as a teacher of art. She was already 60 when Rick brought her to Dallas to live and work for a few months at an artisan residence he had started in South Side on Lamar. He helped her get materials for her enormous, overpowering, fantastic pieces, and by the time, just over a decade later, he persuaded Jeremy Strick to give her an exhibition at the Nasher, she was seventy-one and a sensation in the U.S. and Europe.

The last time I saw Rick, aside from a gathering on Zoom, was on Monday, March 9, only a few days before Shutdown City descended upon us. He was teaching a seminar for graduate students at the University of Texas at Dallas on the invention of the Museum of Texas Art. and invited me to visit.

His students ranged from African-American to Chinese, Hispanic and Iranian. This is the New Dallas, he said. No longer is it a city that can think of itself in terms of a triad: Black, White and Brown or Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. As usual he was creating community along with a home for art. He had hoped to put MoTA in the old Dallas Museum of Art Building at Fair Park, but the board said no. Now we have to hope for another location where Rick’s final vision-or one of them-can be fulfilled.

I have long believed that Dallas cannot afford to lose a single talented person. Now we have lost three or four, all in the irreplaceable, unforgettable singularity that was Rick Brettell.

Lee Cullum hosts "CEO" on KERA-TV.


Richard Brettell: KERA Art&Seek

Texas Standard Obit

D Magazine: Richard Brettell

Lee Cullum was the host of CEO, KERA’s original monthly series of interviews with North Texas business leaders that previously aired on KERA television and radio. She is a commentator for Morning Edition on KERA-FM and contributes columns to The Dallas Morning News. A veteran journalist, Lee was previously a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered on NPR. In addition, she was editor of the editorial page of the Dallas Times Herald and host of Conversations, a series on KERA with major newsmakers. Lee also worked as a reporter, on-air moderator and executive producer of Newsroom on KERA.