Volume 6, Issue 2 University of Houston
Blaffer director honored for artistic direction
Sultan receives French Order of
Arts and Letters
By Geronimo Rodriguez
When she was growing up, Terrie Sultan thought it was natural to dabble in paint, be the first to run to center stage or even lose her breath at the sight of people admiring a Pablo Picasso painting.
It's only fitting that she admires -- and helps others admire -- works of art for a living. And, as far as France is concerned, she does it well.
In recognition of her work as a curator, Sultan, the director of UH's Blaffer Gallery, was awarded France's Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Dec. 15. She received a medal, a certificate and a green ribbon "that you wear on your lapel forever," Sultan said.
Blaffer Gallery Director Terrie Sultan received France's Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters award Dec. 15 for her work in the American and French art scenes. The award is given biannually to people who have contributed to furthering the arts in France and around the world.
The honor "reflects the Blaffer Gallery's leadership role, and it certainly puts us on the map," Sultan said, adding that it is the equivalent of being knighted in other countries. "That's how extraordinary it is," she said.
French Consul General Denis Simonneau of Houston said Sultan is a well-known curator who "has served in organizing very interesting and famous exhibits not only in the United States, but in France as well."
Sultan was a founding member of Etant donnés, a French-American fund created in New York in 1994 to promote a contemporary art exchange between France and America, and is a member emeritus of its artistic committee.
"The French have a special relationship with Terrie," Simonneau said.
Sultan, who grew up in Asheville, N.C., credited her special relationships with art to her parents, Norman and Phyllis Sultan.
"My father was a businessman who had a studio in the basement, and my mother was an amateur actress who worked as a librarian," she said. "Growing up, we had books just lying around on Picasso, Jackson Pollock and a number of other artists, and we also took art classes and hung around the children's theater.
"So we grew up with the feeling that these were legitimate professions. It wasn't forced on us or anything," she said.
Though Sultan keeps the Blaffer's walls covered with the works of renowned artists, her siblings have also managed to leave tracks leading back to their artistic upbringing.
Donald Sultan, her brother, is a world-renowned artist; Nancy Sultan, her sister, is an amateur actress; and Jeff Sultan, who got his start as a lighting designer, is an electrical engineer.
"(Jeff's) the black sheep of the family," Sultan said jokingly.
Sultan said she isn't surprised her career revolves around art.
"The first time that I ever saw a real-life work of art was when my father took us to Queens (for the 1964 World's Fair) when I was about 12 or 13," she said. "I walked into a museum and saw this Picasso and was amazed that people were coming to see that painting. I said, 'Wow, this would be an interesting thing to do.'"
Sultan, who initially wanted to be an artist, went on to graduate with a bachelor's degree in fine art from Syracuse University, earning her master's degree in museum studies from the Center for Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco.
But Sultan said she wasn't cut out for the artist's life.
"I'm not the kind of person who can work at Starbucks all day and then go home and paint. It wasn't me," she said. "It was then that I realized that I wanted to be the person putting the Picasso on the wall. It is an art form, but I think of myself as a creative facilitator in that I provide the portal for the artist to communicate with the public."
Sultan, who has been a curator for 16 years, organized a number of major and solo exhibitions for various museums and galleries before being named the Blaffer's director in 2000. She came to the Blaffer from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., where she was the curator of contemporary art.
"Most of my fellow curators are astonished at the level of our output," she said. "We've just started to make ourselves known. We're like the campus's best-kept secret, but nobody wants to be the best-kept secret of anything, so we've been very aggressive this past year."
As for the Chevalier medal, "there's only a number
of appropriate occasions to wear it," Sultan said. "I'll just wait to get
invited to some important event."
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