Since we are starting demolition on December 15, we would like to introduce you to the rest of the team behind the Blaffer renovation.*

Meet Penny Short, lead accountant for the project. Penny grew up in Silicon Valley, California and received her MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. After a twenty year career working for Price Waterhouse Coopers, Penny headed to sunny Florida to start her own consulting firm—Never Short, Inc.

Penny Short paying some bills.

Penny is a stickler with the construction budget, and is most closely aligned with Head Contractor Swen Sabella—both love rules, and impose following them to a tee! When not crunching numbers and pushing Lead Architect Britta Bright’s buttons, Penny enjoys reading, teaching young people how to balance their checkbooks, and trolling the Gulf of Mexico on her yacht with her dog Zippy.

Inspector Jessica Dooright has taken on the difficult job of securing everyone’s safety on the construction site, and supervises everything from the demolition of the current facade to the installation of our new state-of-the-art elevator. She manages the safety of the construction crew and the museum staff with such ease and expertise that nothing is left to the imagination. Jessica grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan just outside of Detroit, and went to the University of Michigan, where she earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Logistics and Supply Chain Management.

Jessica Dooright at work in the new courtyard lounge.

After 10 years in the auto industry with Chrysler, as safety coordinator for the Dodge plant in Hamtramck, Jessica moved to Houston in 1995 to start her own consulting firm—Dooright Logistics. When she’s not tinkering on her 1940 Dodge TC ½ ton, Jessica enjoys running in Memorial Park and attending Star Trek conventions as her favorite next generation character—Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that we have yet to “introduce” you to Demolition Leader AJ Kinevil and Explosives Expert Johnny Golightly, but given the incident that by now is all over the news, and our inability to offer comments on the matter due to the impending trial, we have to refrain from revealing background information on these particular (and at least in one case now former) crew members. What we are at liberty to say is that we offer our deepest condolences to Johnny’s family for their tragic loss. He will be honored with a plaque in the completed facility. For the record, AJ is currently in prison, without bail, awaiting trial for criminal negligent homicide.

Despite this unexpected turn of events, team Blaffer is finally ready to dig in and start building! Stay tuned for news of our progress!

Johnny Golightly and AJ Kinevil during better days.

*Once again, these “Meet the Team” posts are entirely fictional. If you are subscribed to text-only updates from this blog, it would behoove you to see the web version that displays ridiculous pictures in conjunction with the text.


Once again, we continue our series of helping to get you more acquainted with the team behind the Blaffer renovation.*

We begin this post by introducing Chaz Worthington, the interior designer for the project. Chaz grew up in Santa Monica, California and went to college at University of California, Berkeley. After a short stint working for a large firm in Los Angeles, Chaz packed up his belongings and moved to New York to start his own business.

Chaz considers himself an expert on color palettes and takes pride in his ability to decorate his interiors with a selection of hues that many of his contemporaries consider too risqué. He is also well-connected with the New York art scene, and gallerists are known to give him deep discounts when shopping for his clients. Chaz earned national prestige in 2010 when he was selected by Dwell magazine as the “most influential interior designer.”

Chaz Worthington shows off one of his most recent projects.

When not perusing catalogs for drapery, carpets, and furniture, Chaz loves sipping martinis at the hottest nightclubs and eating sushi at posh restaurants in the ultra-chic, new “DoWiSeTrePla”district of New York City. Chaz also enjoys tanning, traveling to Paris, and coffee breaks at Starbucks.

Landscape Architect Vicki Apfelbaum has been tasked with planning the new Fine Arts Courtyard. Vicki grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, and went to school down the road at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture. Vicki’s office is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she is also a faculty member at Colorado State University.

Vicki Apfelbaum loves getting her hands dirty. She is excited to be charged with sprucing up the Fine Arts Courtyard.

IIn her work, Vicki is particularly concerned with concepts of sustainability. When interviewed for Horticulture magazine about the Blaffer renovation, Vicked stated her vision for the Fine Arts Courtyard:

“The Oak tree in the center is beautiful, but it must go. Besides shade, what else does it offer to the student body? In my designs, I have planned for the planting of a small grove of orange trees. When the cafe opens in the museum, students can pick oranges, take them inside, and ask the baristas to make freshly squeezed orange juice.”

Citing numerous health violations, Head Contractor Swen Sabella quickly turned that idea down.

Vicki and Chaz debate interior and exterior color schemes.

Lead Architect Britta Bright asked Vicki and Chaz to define a similar palette for both the interior and the exterior. Vicki’s exterior design is a warm palette replete with earthtones, including oak benches and tables among the atrium of red brick. Conversely, Chaz is insisting upon on “more lively palette” of magenta, teal, and lime green. Luckily, they still have some time to come to an agreement before final decisions on such matters have to be made.

*Once again, these “Meet the Team” posts are entirely fictional. If you are subscribed to text-only updates from this blog, it would behoove you to see the web version that displays ridiculous pictures in conjunction with the text.

The renovation team.

When you witness a building that is seemingly erected overnight, do you ever stop and think about how many people are involved in such a construction? Due in part to the fact that we’re State of Texas employees and must keep our activities transparent, we at Blaffer Art Museum want you to get to know the team in charge of our own renovation. Over the next few months, you’ll get to meet via this blog the Demolition Leader, the Explosives Expert, the Inspector, the Accountant, the  Landscape Architect, and the Interior Designer. But as with any renovation, the two most important figures are the Lead Architect and the Head Contractor, and their significance with the Blaffer renovation is no exception.*

Britta Bright reviews her plans for a 45-story condo tower in downtown Dallas.

Architect Britta Bright was selected to design the Blaffer project in early 2011. Britta has over 15 years experience in architectural design. The daughter of two corn farmers in Iowa, Britta learned at an early age about basic structural principles when a tornado destroyed the family barn. After her father enlisted her help to rebuild the structure, Britta knew it was her life calling to be an architect. At age 17, Britta shipped off to Boston to begin her architectural studies at Harvard University. Concluding a tremendously successful career at Harvard, Britta was the youngest student to ever be awarded a public commission. Her glass and steel expansion to the David Hasselhoff Museum and Library in Culver City, California, received numerous accolades in architecture publications worldwide.

Swen Sabella always makes sure his buildings are up to code.

Head Contractor Swen Sabella grew up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother, a school teacher, worked hard to discipline her son when she found him hanging out with the wrong crowd. His father, a roughneck steel mill worker, strove to teach his son the value of hard work. Together, they shaped the once troublesome boy into the stern, by-the-book man he is today. Prior to his career in construction, Swen graduated with honors from West Point Academy. After just two years in the military, he was honorably discharged after blowing the whistle on a major “Code Red” scandal at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Swen and Britta at odds over features of the new Blaffer Art Museum.

For the most part, Britta and Swen work well together. On the record, Swen has spoken highly of Britta’s design, and Britta has praised Swen for his efficiency. Unfortunately, however, we have seen the two butt heads on a few issues. Swen has cited numerous potential hazards as laid out in the blueprints. In fact, it was Swen who flat-out refused the structural stability of the cantilevered staircase, which forced Britta to design the front entrance wall support she calls “the wallumn.” We’ve also seen the two break out into arguments regarding materials. Britta always seeks aesthetically pleasing solutions, but Swen has repeatedly scoffed at her ideas in order to stay on budget and to keep the building up to code. In fact, while we’re only required to follow State of Texas building regulations, Swen insists on following the strictest codes in the U.S. even if they apply to other states. It has given Britta quite a headache.

Stay tuned to hear more exciting stories about the construction crew!

*Do not, for one second, believe anything you read in this blog posting.

One of the goals of this blog is to reflect upon some of the exhibitions we’ve had at Blaffer over the years. Our curators strive hard to present artists and themes that are on the cutting edge of contemporary art. But what happens after the artists leave Houston and their works get crated and shipped off? How has their Blaffer debut impacted their careers?

urs ficher work

In the first of our “Where Are They Now” series, we take a look at former Blaffer exhibiting artist Urs Fischer. What became of the Swiss-born, New York-based artist known for his thought-provoking sculptures? Much like how his taunting sculpture Noisette (2009) shown above, Fischer has intrigued his viewers for years. His exhibition at Blaffer Art Museum, Urs Fischer: Mary Poppins (5/13/06 – 8/5/06), transformed the museum into a space of inventive illusion. The show was full of allusions from a world of fantasy and magic.

installation view of Mary Poppins at Blaffer
His most recent U.S. exhibition, Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty (10/21/09 – 2/14/10), took up three floors in the New Museum, New York. The show immersed the viewers in a dimension of hallucinations. One might ponder, “Is that a croissant floating in mid-air with a butterfly attached to it?”, or, “Is it just me or is that piano melting?”

Fischer just finished an exhibition alongside Georg Herold at the The Modern Institute in Glasgow, Scotland (7/2/11 – 8/20/2011). The exhibition transformed the gallery into a studio space, as it displayed clay figures sculpted from life poses situated aside the live models they were derived from.

Fischer is currently featured in the 54th Venice Biennale, ILLUMinations. Fischer’s work, in the Arsenale complex, consists of a series of life-sized wax sculptures. A system of embedded wicks is lit to melt the sculptures, causing the figures to slowly deform. In the picture below, Fischer’s 1:1 ratio replica of Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women is imbued with an added layer of horror as hot wax oozes down the nude bodies to the floor below.

Fischer's rape of the sabine women

One of Fischer’s monumental works, Untitled (Lamp/Bear), sold for nearly $7 million dollars at auction in May. That same month, Christies loaned the deceptiviely cuddly, 23-feet tall, 17-ton cast-bronze peice to the Seagram Building on Park Avenue at 53rd Street where it will be on view through October. The yellow stuffed bear appears to be wedged into the space between the base and the shade of an old desk light that glows at night, seemingly celebrating a object that defines a young child’s life. 


Urs Fischer’s next solo exhibition opens at the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, in February 2012, and we at Blaffer look forward to following his career and celebrating his successes for years to come.”

 Fischer’s Rape of the Sabine Women image courtesy Happy Famous Artists – Bad Art for Bad People
Untitled (Lamp/Bear) image courtesy of The Culture Report

Priceless book cover

With Blaffer closed for the renovation, we’re committed to offering unique off-site exhibitions and events to keep you engaged. In June, we presented our second installment of the Window into Houston series at 110 Milam Street; be sure to check out Patrick Renner’s window that he created with students from the Young Artist Apprenticeship Program before it closes at the end of September. And speaking of September and unique activities, we have a real treat in store for you this fall. Working with a host of other departments on campus — Law Center, Honors College, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Student Program Board, Alumni Association, and Office of Human Resources — as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, KUHF 88.7 FM, the UH School of Theatre, and Dance and Brazos Bookstore, we are thrilled to present two lectures on September 8 by noted art crime detective Robert Wittman. The event is underwritten by Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

Wittman after saving Goya painting

Robert K. Wittman is the former senior investigator and founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team and author of the New York Times best seller Priceless. The son of antique dealers, Wittman was well acquainted with the business of rare, high-priced artworks long before his law enforcement career. In 1988, he brought his knowledge of the art world to the FBI. Assigned to the Philadelphia Field Division, Wittman went into action tracking down stolen art. As documented in Priceless, Wittman has recovered numerous major works of cultural and historical significance. In the process, he also brought a host of criminals to justice. Some of his career highlights include:

  • Recovering $50 million worth of Goya and Brueghel paintings from a Spanish mobster
  • Catching an appraiser turned con man who used PBS’ Antiques Roadshow to steal countless heirlooms from war heroes’ descendants
  • Rescuing the Rodin sculpture that launched the Impressionist movement
  • Recovering the golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king
  • Saving an original copy of the Bill of Rights that had been believed lost for 100 years

Wittman on The Colbert Report

He will present the lecture “Pursuing the Priceless: Stolen Art, Investigation and the Law” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Brown Auditorium (1001 Bissonnet. St.) at 7 p.m., September 8. Tickets for this event are $10. Seating is limited. Wittman also will deliver a free lecture to members of the UH community at 9 a.m., September 8 in the university’s Elizabeth D. Rockwell Pavilion (second floor of the M.D. Anderson Library). Admission is free, but tickets and a UH ID are required. Seating is limited; reserved seats will be released five minutes before the lecture for visitors without a ticket. Click here to get tickets. 

Stephen Colbert show Wittman's book on The Colbert Report

Wittman was recently on Comedy Central’s hit satirical news show The Colbert Report. In the episode, host Stephen Colbert asked Wittman about art theft and what it’s like to be an undercover FBI agent. Here are some of Colbert’s laugh-out-loud interview questions:

  • They say it takes a thief; are you a cat burglar turned good?
  • How is art crime committed, because from the movies, you see a grid of lasers and Catherine Zeta Jones… [going through] the grid?
  • So art museums don’t have the giant doors that come closing down and Karari darts that hit you in the neck?
  • Do you ever go into a museum and look at a piece of art and you go, “I could steal that”?
  • Do you have a mustache and a beret … when you go undercover in the art world?
  • So you travel the world? You’re like Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair.

Go to Hulu to see Wittman’s reponses.

Wittman on The Colbert Report

The end of July was bitter-sweet for the Blaffer staff. Bitter, because it was the final week of work for associate curator Rachel Hooper, a fabulous coworker who left Blaffer to pursue a Ph.D. in art history from Rice University. Sweet, because after months of planning, we were finally embarking on a new chapter in the museum’s history: it was time for us to move offices.


After the final exhibition at Blaffer — the AAM-sponsored Museum of Broken Relationships— ended in early June, the registration team spearheaded by Youngmin Chung emptied out the museum’s storage facilities. Everything that was to be stored offsite for the duration of the renovation was placed onto large pallets and temporarily stored in Blaffer’s first floor low ceiling gallery. The rest of the galleries and all the storage areas were now empty. The faint sound of footsteps that is normally diffused by the art in the museum now ominously echoed against the bare walls and ceilings. This is how the museum remained until the end of July.

empty storage room

Living in an empty museum was oddly unsettling . No banging of hammers by the construction crew. No drilling into walls by the installation team. No curators running around making last-minute aesthetic changes to the placement of artworks. Pure silence.


Most of the staff had packed up their offices by July 28. On the afternoon of Friday, July 29, the IT team from UH’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS) came by to help us pack up our computers. The move was scheduled for the following Monday, but a delay in the movers’ schedules meant we wouldn’t see most of our belongings until Tuesday. Needless to say, the staff found out first hand how much we depend on our computers.

Wrapped Office

The actual move occurred without incident. Luckily, no tales of damaged office supplies, or worse, broken bones. We are situated in surprisingly large cubicles in one of the many buildings of UH’s Energy Research Park, a section of land alongside the Gulf Freeway about one mile south of UH’s main campus that once housed the offices of Schlumberger’s Houston branch. The one room building we’re in is quite expansive — the cubicles encompass only about a third of the space — and the glossy wood floors and clerestory windows give the interior the look of a dance studio. Last week, we posted a picture on Facebook and half-jokingly asked for the donation of a ping-pong table to help occupy the space. Other ideas have since been generated. A Saturday night discotheque. A roller skating rink. And let’s not forget about Blaffer group yoga.

Setting up the new office

While it’s inherently not convenient to be located away from Blaffer for the duration of the renovation, the space will suit us just fine as we work hard to plan wonderful exhibitions and programs as we move forward with this exciting new phase in the museum’s history. Plus, it’s probably safer for us to be away from the destruction, dust, and debris as the wrecking ball begins knocking down walls at Blaffer. But for those thrill-seekers looking for danger, we’ll host membership tours of the renovation progress; hard hats have already been ordered. Hope you’ll join us for one!

We’re still looking for a ping-pong table, by the way.

Setting up the office

In the winter of 2011, Blaffer Art Museum announced a major $2 million renovation that would be designed by WORK Architecture Company (WORKac). WORKac, based in New York, is celebrated for their sensitivity to the arts, collaborative work ethic, and original and innovative approach to design. Blaffer Art Museum is WORKac’s first commission in Texas and is being developed in partnership with Gensler. In April, guests of the museum’s annual gala — fittingly named “Rock the Casbah: The Wrecking Ball” — were the first to see renderings of what the new space will look like. And now that it’s summer, we’re rapidly moving towards construction. Be on the look-out for the wrecking ball!

[Rendering of the front entrance]

As the inaugural post for this blog, we (the staff) felt the best way to kick off our renovation ramblings would to be show the renderings by WORKac and talk about the some of the new elements coming to our building. The cool new features are:

  • A courtyard cafe and a lounge.
  • A street-side entrance, which will serve as the main staircase to the second floor. When viewed from outside, you’ll be able to partially see through the translucent bands of clear and textured channel glass
  • The addition of an ADA compliant elevator and a restroom (currently visitors have to share facilities with students in the courtyard).

The renovation will also allow for the integration of a studio/classroom for our award-winning Young Artist Apprenticeship Program (currently housed in an off-site trailer), a dedicated gallery for the recently launched project series “First Take,” and the redesign of the courtyard in view of the presentation of art and entertainment which will turn it into a destination for people on and off campus.

[rendering of cafe-side entrance]

According to WORKac cofounder Dan Wood, while designing the staircase above the new entrance, his structural engineer said the cantilevered platform needed an extra bit of support. Rather than a plain column, they added that wedged wall to support the staircase. Wood calls it “the wallumn” (“column + wall”). Not only does it provide support, but it also visually blocks the loading dock to the left. Wood also stated that angles first seen in the wallumn are repeated throughout the design, even in the planned lighting system. In the rendering above, you can see the neon lights zig-zag upon the ceiling, rather than being placed in uniform linear fashion.

Look for these renderings to become a reality next spring!

[rendering of the new courtyard]

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[rendering of cafe-side entrance]