“I worked on large paintings by Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, and Henri Matisse. I felt like this was as good as it got, I loved being in Paris during that period.”
Suzanne Deal Booth is an arts advocate and conservator based in Austin, Texas. Deal Booth’s career in art includes excavating Roman archeological sites in Rome, restoring paintings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and working at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. In 1998, she founded The Friends of Heritage Preservation (FOHP), a non-profit dedicated to supporting preservation projects in the United States and abroad. In its 23 years of existence, the FOHP has contributed to more than 80 preservation and conservation projects in 18 countries. In 2001, she established the Suzanne Deal Booth Rome Prize for Historic Preservation and Conservation at the American Academy in Rome, and in 2012, she was the patron for James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. She also established the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize (now known as the Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize) at The Contemporary Austin in 2016, an unrestricted award of $200,000 given to an artist every two years.
In this interview, Suzanne Deal Booth reveals how Dominique de Menil became her mentor, her experience living in Paris and Rome, and what projects she's most proud of at The Friends of Heritage Preservation.
TGL How was your childhood?
SDB: I was born in Dallas, but I grew up in Houston, Texas. We also always had a small house on a lake in Central Texas, very close to Austin where I now live. My dad had a modest income, but it was really important to him to be on water and in the great outdoors. He was a mechanical engineer by training, and loved history and making things by hand. He was particularly fond of taking us on long driving trips and showing us where Billy the Kid lived and got shot and all the tales of the Great American West and outdoor experiences. My mother worked prior to getting married, and then she focused on being a homemaker and raising her children. She loved to read and shared her joy for literature with us. I was the youngest of three, with an older brother and sister.
When I was three years old, I was hit by a car and sustained a head injury. My parents gave me a lot of added love and attention. As the youngest child, I didn’t have as many restrictions as my older siblings, and I believe that personal freedom empowered me and added to my confidence.
TGL: When did your relationship with art begin?
SDB: My mother took us to all the museums. Houston has quite a few collections, and I especially loved the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. I was always drawn to art and all things visual. Taking art classes was part of my therapy post-accident. I took dancing and visual art classes for my coordination. I loved making things with my hands. The elementary school I went to had a program which brought artists in to be our art teachers. I didn't realize until later that this was an experience specific to my time in that school. Artists were coming into my childhood in the form of teachers and presenting things that were fun and interesting to do. That's one of the reasons why I think I was attracted to preservation and conservation: you work with your hands to take care of things.
TGL: When did you start learning about art history?
SDB: I liked to read, so I was always reading historical novels which took place during the Reformation or the Renaissance or the Medieval Age. It was just an interest of mine, but then I studied art history when I went to college.
TGL: Was it an easy decision to pursue art history?
SDB: I told my parents that's what I wanted to do, and they didn't understand it. What do you do with an art history degree? But I went to the University of Texas, a big state school in Austin, for two years, and I took an art history course. It was very much your basic introduction to art history; the textbook was Janson's History of Art, a gigantic tome.
Between my sophomore and junior year, I worked as a secretary for an offshore oil drilling company. I didn't go back to UT in the fall, because they wanted me to continue working for them to finish the job. After I finished, I decided I wanted to go to Europe instead of what would have been my junior year. I went to Europe and lived with my then boyfriend in a Volkswagen van for a year. We traveled all around. He was quite the intellect; we read, we learned languages, and we visited museums and archeological sites. By the time I was 20, I was inspired to study art history in particular, because I loved all things visual. I felt like it was a vocation, not a choice. After a year, I came back and transferred to Rice University, because I didn't want to go back to a big school. Rice was very intimate, a small school with a great art history faculty. That's where I met Dominique de Menil, which was a pivotal moment for me.
TGL: When did you start working with Dominique de Menil?
SDB: My dad thought it was great that I got into Rice, but it was a lot more expensive than UT Austin. He said he would give me the same amount of money, but I had to make up the difference. I needed a part-time job, so I interviewed with Dominique de Menil and got a Rice student job position with her. Initially I worked out of her office on campus, but later I worked at her home, which was in another part of town. I would drive there after school and work for several hours.
TGL: What did your work entail?
SDB: I did many things, though I was hired specifically for transcribing. At this job, I was transcribing handwritten notes that John de Menil made on note cards about his impressions and purchases of art in their collection. It was very cool. I worked out of an office in the Menil’s house, an early Philip Johnson and the first private residence he ever designed. This was in the late ‘70s when memory typewriters were invented, which were pre-computers. I could transcribe information and have it saved. It was the first time you could do that.
TGL: When did you become involved in conservation?
SDB: Rice University funded my participation in excavations during their summer programs; including 2 seasons at a Roman villa site outside of Rome, dated between the first and second century AD, as well as the Roman city Antipatris built by King Herod in 20 AD in what is now Israel. I became involved in the preservation of works of art on an archeological site when I was still an undergraduate.
TGL: What did you do after graduating from Rice?
SDB: When I graduated from Rice, Dominique de Menil offered me a job as an assistant registrar, but my interests were shifting. I wanted to study art conservation. I started taking classes, and Dominique saw that I was a serious student. I left her employment for a year and went to work at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, because they offered me a position in the conservation lab. Then, I applied to graduate schools. When I got accepted to the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, I called Dominique and she said, “You must absolutely live with me.” She knew I didn't have the money to fund this education, and she wanted to help me out.
I lived with her for the two years I was in New York. She had a townhouse in the Upper East Side, which was walking distance to the Institute. I could wake up and be at school in 10 minutes. When I lived there, I helped her with odd jobs, but I wasn't really working for her. My job was to be a student. I was her protégé and she was my mentor.
TGL: Did you enjoy your time in New York City?
SDB: I loved it. It was perfect for me because one of my other interests is contemporary art. So many of the people I met while working for Dominique or even living in Europe were based in New York, and when I went I had this core group of people who had worked for Dominique and had become her proteges over the years. I was the last of this group of proteges, and they were all very welcoming. Not all of them were artists, some of them were studying philosophy and some were working in the arts. One of them, Fred Hughes, worked with Andy Warhol and helped create Interview Magazine in the early years of The Factory. Through Dominique’s support, these protégés found their way in the world in new and interesting ways. Funny enough, I probably slept in the same bed they did. She wasn't just singling me out. I was part of a tradition.
It was special. I loved being in her home. She would talk to me about works of art and how they related to each other. She had a wonderful and ecclesiastical way of looking at art. She didn't have any problem mixing up styles. In her living room, she had an early Jasper Johns, a mixed media painting that had spoons hanging off of it. Next to it, she had a Cycladic vase and a Renaissance painting. She would talk about how these pieces, a Cycladic vase, a Renaissance painting and the Jasper Johns, all had something to do with each other in terms of their resonance and the energy they create. I always thought that was amazing, and that is how I lead my life, too.
TGL: Was this when you met James Turrell?
SDB: I met him through one of these other protégés. In fact, it was at a cocktail party in Glenn Heim's loft. I also met Fred Hughes, Susan Barnes, and Helen Winkler, who were all her protégés too. They'd all gone to the University of St. Thomas, a school she supported prior to Rice. It was Helen Winkler who introduced me to James Turrell. She said to James, “You should hire her.” And he said, “Okay, what can you do?” So I worked with him on his PS1 project. It was not his first Skyspace, but I think it was his first in America. They removed the roof of a school room to create a Skyspace.
TGL: Did you continue working on projects with him?
SDB: I also worked with him at the Whitney, which is right next to where I lived at the time in Manhattan. We kept in touch over the years. In fact, I introduced him to my in-laws, Mark and Lauren Booth, who are now big patrons of his work as well. They live in Connecticut now, but they were in London.
TGL: What did you decide to do after your master's at NYU?
SDB: I was in a four year program. I spent two years in New York, and then I did internships. Because my field was art preservation, I had to have a lot of technical training as well as a Master's in Art History. I wrote two thesis papers and passed two exams in foreign languages, French and German. The French wasn't hard because I'd lived in France, but the German was definitely a challenge.
After I finished the coursework, I went back and worked for Dominique during the summer. Then, I started a Smithsonian fellowship at the Museums of New Mexico, and I lived in Santa Fe for eight months. The reason I chose this fellowship was because it allowed me to work on several different materials used in the making of art. I was interested in contemporary art preservation and there were very few training programs for that at the time. With this position, I was able to work on things like feathers, fabrics, leather, and pigments applied directly to canvas with no medium. Subsequently, I applied for a grant to get an internship in modern art conservation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
TGL: How was your experience in Paris?
SDB: I absolutely loved it. At the Pompidou, everyone spoke French to me. It was the mid-eighties, and the director was Dominique Bozo. I loved what I was doing. They divided the permanent collection into two parts, so they always had something open while they were cleaning, re-stretching, and doing a lot of remedial work on the permanent collection. I worked on large paintings by Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, and Henri Matisse. I felt like this was as good as it got, I loved being in Paris during that period.
TGL: After this fellowship, what did you do?
SDB: The Pompidou offered me a research project, but the funding didn't come in for a long time. So meanwhile, I did private conservation work for dealers and private collectors. But then I decided I needed a job. It is tough to wait for a fellowship to come through when you're a student with no other income. I applied for jobs and came back to the States for a series of interviews. The job I wanted and got was at the Getty, so I moved out to Los Angeles after over three years in Paris.
TGL: What was your position at the Getty?
SDB: I worked for the Conservation Institute, putting together global educational programs. I loved that too. They wanted someone who had the ability to travel and spoke some languages.
TGL: Did you engage with the art scene in Los Angeles?
SDB: Definitely. I got to know different artists who were around L.A. then. I feel like I have something special in common with them, having all been in the same place at the same time, including Helen Pashgian, Ed Ruscha, Mary Corse, Ed Moses, Bob Irwin, and James Turrell. I wish I’d known James Turrell in Los Angeles. He was part of the Light and Space Movement that was happening when I was there, but at that time he was already working on Rodin Crater in Arizona.
TGL: I imagine working at the Getty was culturally different from working in France. How did you engage with these differences and create your own voice?
SDB: The Getty was actually very international. My boss was Cuban, the head of the Institute was Spanish, and the head of the scientific research group was German. I felt like I fit right in.
TGL: Did you create the association Friends of Heritage Preservation after the Getty?
SDB: When I was at the Getty, I got married and became pregnant. I continued to work at the Getty for about a year after my daughter was born, and then I decided to take time off after the arrival of a second child, my son. It worked out really well for me, because I started working for another program at the Getty called the Art History Information Program as a consultant. I did that for several years, and it was during this time that I formed my preservation group.
TGL: Are you very connected to Los Angeles? How long did you live there?
SDB: I lived there 25 years. Well, one year we lived in Rome, so I guess it was 24 years. I wouldn't say I was very connected to all the museums, but definitely the Getty, LACMA, the Hammer Museum, and MOCA L.A.. I did a lot of projects with MOCA, but I didn't get involved with them on a leadership basis until I came back from living in Rome.
TGL: What brought you to Rome for a year?
SDB: My husband and I were involved with the American Academy in Rome. We decided to spend a year there, because he could work out of his London office. I thought that was great as I have a deep love for Rome. I lived there as a student for my excavations, so I knew it. My son was five and my daughter was 11 at the time.
It was in Rome that I started writing more about preservation, but I still ran my preservation group. Rome gave me this opportunity to spend more time at a computer composing ideas and such. Rome was a really important part of all of our lives. The kids went to an international school and we did some traveling, but it was also the year of 9/11 so suddenly no one was visiting or traveling. This provided me more time to plug into being a multinational living in an incredible city and to get to know the people. I think the same happened for my kids, and they were integrated into the multinational community at their schools.
TGL: The Friends of Heritage Preservation still exists, correct?
SDB: It exists because we still have projects, but because of COVID-19, we are unable to do any of the trips that we planned. We're doing a little hiatus from new projects until we can regroup. I've been doing it for over 20 years, so there are a lot of projects that still need to be completed.
TGL: What is the format of this association and how has it grown?
SDB: We went on one trip a year, and we tried to select projects that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. So not a restoration like Notre Dame, which could take decades. We picked projects that were tangible for us, that we could understand, because I was the only one in the arts in the group. Everyone else came from different backgrounds: finance, medicine, film, real estate. They were just people who wanted to make a difference. The average size of the group was about 25 people. I did all the work, I vetted all the projects, I organized all the trips. This required a lot of time, mostly because I was also making sure the projects were what they should be and that people were getting what they paid for. It was a membership group that benefited the projects we funded, but it also gave back to members in terms of education and experience. I tried to make it enriching so that everyone could gain something out of it. We funded projects that might not have been funded or not funded as quickly. We could move much faster because of the way we were structured.
TGL: What projects are you most proud of?
SDB: We were involved with a still-active pilgrimage site, a sanctuary outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico called Atotonilco. The style is 17th-century baroque and is very ornate. I'm glad we got involved because it triggered the involvement of other institutions, including the state of Guanajuato, the country of Mexico, and the World Monuments Fund. It's now completed. This beautiful site is now completed and is open to visitors.
I'm also very proud of doing a project at the Judd Foundation, because a lot of people can relate to contemporary art. We worked on Chinati, which were concrete block building constructions that Judd created in two parts. The first six of them were poorly grounded. The concrete on which they were built was cracking and water was seeping in. He realized there was a problem and hired a new group to pour the concrete. The second group did a better job, but it still had some structural issues. So FOHP helped sort out what conservation solutions were needed and got the repairs made. This project shows that even though contemporary art is relatively modern when compared to something ancient or historic, it still has a lot of problems with new materials that were unknown at the time.
In the last few years, we have moved into the area of intangible art and the preservation of culture. We were involved in a project about preserving the Mayan language and we worked on a course to teach stone carving and preservation methods to Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Another one of my favorite projects was the preservation of oral history from the Civil Rights Movement with the Alabama Historic Society. I love that our group is moving into this vast new area of cultural preservation.
TG: How do you perceive the consequences of COVID-19 on culture and museums, and also on the preservation of heritage?
SDB: I don't know if I have the whole picture because it's complicated. I think institutions have had to rethink how to reach their audience. Not being able to go out and do things has affected institutions, but people are doing a lot over Zoom. The institutions I've seen have had to become very creative. There's a lot more time for that because we're not socializing.
Many galleries have closed and there's been a reduction in staff. I think art is selling, but it's just not the same without art fairs and that dynamic interaction you have with people when you could see them in person.
TGL: After 25 years in Los Angeles, why did you move back to Texas?
SDB: A lot of good reasons, but the main one for me was my parents. They were getting elderly, and I wanted to be closer to them. And my husband, now my ex-husband, wanted to expand his company. When he mentioned Austin, I said, “That's the only place I'm going to move, because it’s where my parents are.” I lived in Austin for two years when I was at the University of Texas, so I knew it was a beautiful place. It has fresh water lakes in the middle of the city fed by springs.
TGL: What did you do when you moved to Austin?
SDB: I was on the board of Rice University at the time, so I was going back and forth to Houston. I also stayed on the board of LACMA, and I got involved in local organizations like The Contemporary Austin and the Blanton. I also went on the board of The Menil Collection. So I was doing a lot of board work and also traveling for art fairs and putting together collections.
Going to art fairs was not just for myself. I put together the collection for my ex-husband's company, which is global with offices all over the world. I also started working with Rice and the University of Chicago to put together their collections. I was buying for the collections, organizations, and businesses with different outlooks. They wanted to show different things than what I would have collected for myself. It was such an education to be out there, looking and thinking about how the people who worked in a building or went to a university would benefit from seeing this or that kind of art.
TGL: What led you to create a Suzanne Deal Booth Award?
SDB: I was on the board of The Contemporary, so I could see firsthand what was going on in Austin. Austin had the Harry Ransom Center, a fantastic photo archive and collection of some of the most important early photographs in the world. It's home of the first photograph, taken by Nicéphore Niépce around 1826. I just thought there could be something deeper going on there. I had done something similar at Rice as the patron for their James Turrell Skyspace. I saw how doing one thing can be transformative. Putting a Skyspace at Rice University, making it accessible, and having it connected to the music school enabled a lot of people to understand what he was trying to say with light and sound.
I wanted to do it again in Austin, but I didn't want to do another Skyspace because they already had one at the University of Texas. I thought the prize could bring international global acclaim to a creative place that not many people knew about and to put Austin on the arts map. We've had three recipients so far, and there's going to be a total of five awards. Rodney McMillian was the first recipient, and Nicole Eisenman’s show just closed. Tarek Atoui is going to be the first recipient in sound installation next year.
TGL: You have done many different projects in terms of category and geography. How do you formulate a successful project?
SDB: I think intention is really important, it comes from a certain authenticity. For example, I have a new project, a vineyard in Napa. On this property I have decided to grow medicinal herbs, fruiting trees, and flowers – botanicals I can make essences out of. It will be something new and distinct coming from this property that is mostly known for its cabernet sauvignon vineyard and olives. I've been playing around with the idea of doing a scent or creating essential oils.
It's important to know what you want and identify the end result when you have an idea. And if it's more than what you can do or it’s out of your expertise, find the right team.
Another example would be the art prize. We had a wonderful director, Louis Grachos, and now it's sharon maidenberg. It’s important to have a certain vision at the helm, people you want to work with and an institution that is flexible and eager to have a prize, because it takes a lot of energy to do it. After the first yea, which was with Rodney McMillian, I was approached by Glenn Fuhrman from the Flag Art Foundation. He was so complimentary, he said he wanted to do a prize too and that he looked around at all the prizes. He decided that the one he wanted to be most like was mine, but he didn't want to imitate me. He asked how I would feel if he joined me? I thought it was just wonderful. We'll make it bigger and better. Now we have two venues: New York and Austin. The Nicole Eisenman show is at Flag Art Foundation in New York and expanded when she went to New York to include another artist, Keith Broadwee. I love that projects can innovate and grow.
TGL: How did you build your own art collection?
SDB: I don't collect very much figurative or representational art. I like to collect art that is contemplative, that is quiet. Art is in rooms, so you are creating a feeling in the room. I think to myself, how do I want to feel in my house? I want to feel invigorated and excited in certain places, and in other places, I want to feel calm and restful. I like art that helps me find those moods that are conducive to me having a great life. It’s a very personal response. I'm not collecting for investment or to fit into any kind of crowd. I also learned a lot from Dominique in terms of how works of art interact with the space around them. I strive to create harmonic spaces.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
SDB: I thought about this and I came up with the Dalai Lama. I don't know if we'd be having dinner or tea, but I want to hear what he thinks about things.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
SDB: Continue to work hard and always give it your best. Have motives of goodness, aspire to achieve something that makes the world a better place. Those are the things that have driven me and if I was going to advise myself as a younger me, I’d want to know that it's worth it because when you are mindful of doing good things, good things happen to you.