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A Conversation With Suzanne Deal Booth

Suzanne Deal Booth

The celebrated philanthropist has shaped important art exhibits and collections, and conserved cultural heritage worldwide. Her first-class new prize is set to put Austin on the international art stage like never before.

by MP Mueller
Photograph by Kate Zimmerman

If Suzanne Deal Booth ever decides to pivot from her art historian, conservator, patron and philanthropist roles, to coaching people on how to manifest their dreams, there will be a stadium-sized crowd (throwing elbows, probably), eager to get close and learn how this change-maker does it.

​Getting the car inspected, making cupcakes for the pot luck and replacing A/C filters are gold-star days for most of us. But Booth seems to check things off like restoring the 11th century Napoleonic Gardens in Italy and preserving cultural heritage like the Mayan language in the Yucatan, with a “yes, why not?” ease. Helping curate a powerful, thought-provoking, 60-works art collection for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business? Done. Engaging world-renowned artist James Turrell, and the greater Houston community, to create a multi-use skyspace on the Rice University campus? Done. “Twilight Epiphany,” aka the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion, is a glowy, mesmerizing and immersive artificial and natural light experience. It tops the New York Times’ list of things to do when in Houston for 36 hours. From early on, she has followed her passion for art and it’s been a foundational and important component of her life. “I find very comforting. It’s like an old friend to me,” Booth shared. And, over the years, she has contributed her eye, mind, money and energy to art projects with intentionality. She gravitates to projects that can answer this question affirmatively: Can it be transformational?

Her latest is to fund and steward a biennial award administered by The Contemporary Austin. The Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize will give $100,000 to an artist selected by a notable panel of art curators and museum directors. The first winner, to be announced this fall, also receives a solo exhibition at The Contemporary’s Jones Center downtown, a public engagement program and a catalogue of the artist’s work. Booth, who relocated to Austin from Los Angeles eight years ago, bel ieves in the first class prize’s possibilities. “It will be a transformative event to have this exhibition for this artist. Hopefully, the same for the museum and community. I saw it happen fast with Rice. The Turrell piece is iconic and made them into an art destination. If you do it at the highest quality that you can, and if your intention is to reach for the stars … ” she mused, her thoughts trailing off left open to imagining the prize’s potential. “Art, very much like literature, music, can affect how people see the world around them and their journey through life. I think I’m kind of a steward for helping bring that into peoples’ worlds.”

Raised in Houston, Booth studied at Rice University, earning a BA in art history. It was there she assisted, and befriended, art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil, an important mentor to Booth. “She was married, had five kids, traveled all over the world. Her husband died 25 years before she did and she did so much on her own,” Booth recounted, noting that many of her great mentors have been women. “Being in the company of people who have great vision is very inspirational, especially if you like to make things happen.” And she does.

After graduating from Rice, Booth studied at New York University, receiving a master’s degree in art history. A lifelong friendship with MacArthur fellow and artist Turrell was born there when she assisted him on his first Skyspace installation in Queens. (There are now more than 80 worldwide, including one at The University of Texas atop the student activity center.) Today Booth currently serves on the boards of art institutes from LA to Rome.

And who says art isn’t liquid? She’s a partner in an upscale Congress Avenue bar, the Townsend. It’s known as the watering hole for the Austin art scene and for its signature cocktails like the Single Engine Plane. And there’s Booth Bella Oaks, a historic, award-winning vineyard in Napa Valley that her family owns. She is perhaps most passionate about a cultural conservation nonprofit she founded in 1998, the Friends of Heritage Preservation (FOHP). The group consists of 25 doctors, lawyers, money managers, documentary filmmakers and people who have their own foundations. Their mission is to preserve cultural heritage around the world like ancient archaeological sites, works of art, languages and homes of artists. “I love my work. We give so much less than we get. I think that’s the highest praise any nonprofit can have. We can’t wait for the next project because we learn so much from it and it enhances lives. And that’s just half of it. The constituents are grateful and happy and ready to take care of it once the work is done.”

When FOHP hits their 20th anniversary in two years, they will have completed 80 projects. The group travels the world together, taking on five to six projects a year. Booth’s eyes lit up when she talked about the preservation of British poet and artist Edward James’ fantasy folly garden and house in a remote area of Mexico’s Huasteca region. “We helped restore part of his house: paintings and poetry in his living and dining rooms. The jungle will win every time unless you maintain.” Mother Nature met a thoughtful and pragmatic adversary. “We try to pick projects that are realistic for the communities. Unless you have people there to take care of it, it won’t make a difference.”

In Austin, this arts entrepreneur and philanthropist sees an opportunity to create something game changing. “Everybody here wants the culture to be stronger to enhance the experience of people who visit, children who grow up here. I think it will be the strongest art city in the world in 25 years. I hope I’m around then,” she laughed. We can’t wait to witness the sure-to-be bountiful harvest from all her plantings.

Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2016