The Museum Director & the Computer Whiz

In the revamped, art-amped bungalow of the CAMH’s Bill Arning and Chiat\Day’s Mark McCray, Catherine D. Anspon discovers who’s in the dining room with Cindy Sherman and John Currin.

Architecture renovation and design Michael Landrum and Philip Paratore. Landscape Sarah Lake. Art direction Michelle Aviña.

This art collection reads like a who’s who of the last 30 years of art history, mixed in with a recent litany of Texas notables. Rare early examples or special editions by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Fred Tomaselli and, yes, the aforementioned Cindy Sherman and John Currin rub shoulders with works by cult figures due for acclaim such as Sturtevant, one of the earliest appropriation artists, whose flower-power canvas from 1966 is a dead ringer for a Warhol. The owners of this remarkable trove are Bill Arning, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s brilliant, hyper-caffeinated director, and his equally brilliant partner, Mark McCray, a software architect with the global advertising giant TBWA\Chiat\Day. The repository of their ever-expanding hoard of remarkable art with a side of design is a revived, historic bungalow that just turned 100, in the gracious Audubon Place neighborhood. Design- and-architecture duo Michael Landrum and Philip Paratore crafted the 11-month renovation, transforming the casa from its shag-carpeted former life to a new incantation as domestic container for the most cutting-edge art.

Arning and McCray in a Q-and-A:


Arning: Director at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston since spring of 2009 • 25 years in the art business, doing everything with art except making it and selling it • written on contemporary art for general magazines like Time Out New York to rarefied academic journals on the theory of the human sensorium • curated shows in museums and alternative spaces worldwide and penned essays for scores of museums, including Jim Hodges for his upcoming survey at the Dallas Museum of Art and on Peter Hujar for the Galleria Civica di Modena in Italy.  

McCray: Technical director at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY, which means architect and develop applications and software integrations for various departments in the agency.

First brush with art.

Arning: My parents were not collectors, but my father was a Sullivan and Cromwell lawyer and considered his taste in art to be superb because he truly appreciated Picasso and Matisse and took us to MoMA regularly. I got from him a taste for going to museums at a very young age. My older sister Valerie had a more advanced sensibility, introducing me to Andy Warhol, John Cage, Rudolf Nureyev, Tennessee Williams and the Velvet Underground, and I devoured everything I could about the edgier art in all disciplines she shared with me. There were other collectors who were partners at my father’s law firm, and one of them took my folks to SoHo in the ‘70s. I remember my father coming back livid that his friend had tried to get him to buy for thousands of dollars a geometric progression of rocks on the floor. Now I realize that was likely a classic early Mel Bochner, but my dad took that offer as an insult, as if he were being tricked. When he came to see the type of wild art I showed at White Columns, he tried to appreciate what I was working on, but he would always have to retreat to the relative safety of a good Picasso Minotaur.

McCray: My parents were never art collectors. And I honestly think that the first exposure I truly had with art was seeing it up close at Chiat’s Venice office. The office itself was a Frank Gehry–designed boathouse-binoculars-treehouse three-part building, which housed many pieces of Jay Chiat’s personal collection. My first art “moment,” however, was at the Whitney’s American Century (1900-1950) with some work by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam.

Manhattan during Factory days.

Arning: I went to Friends Seminary in Manhattan from kindergarten through high school — a very good place for a culturally curious self-starter. We had a sound poet on faculty who had us cut our poems into pieces and reassemble the syllables Dada style. In junior high, my best friend’s dad was the art critic For Newsweek magazine, and he also was one of the early pioneering video artists. I would go to their loft at 80 Wooster Street and see works by Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Komar and Melamid, and Sturtevant. The fact that Sturtevant was repainting artworks I knew were by other artists like Warhol really blew my teenage mind. It has taken 40 years to untangle her complex oeuvre.

At Friends, we did anti-Vietnam war protests and Earth Day celebrations as school activities, and John Lennon, Patti LaBelle, Alice Cooper and Harry Chapin came and spoke to us. Warhol’s Factory was three blocks away and we would walk over and wait for Andy to appear. I thought that is what every American high school student did for fun. I started to subscribe to Artforum when I was 17 and still have every issue going back in our home office, a clear monument to my misspent youth.

I’m lucky to live with a lot of great art from my friends and artists I’ve worked with, but I never think of myself as a collector, because to me, living with these art works is like being in a three-dimensional inhabitable diary of my life. Also I’ve never paid much for anything I own, and consequently everything I have is either an “early work” or
a benefit edition. I can live with that.

On famous friends and my drug portrait.

Arning: I never want to forget how lucky I have been to know the greatest artists of my generation and to have been with them for their breakthrough moments. I have a Cindy Sherman film still because she was on the board of White Columns and donated it to raise money for the space, and at the end of the event it was unsold. She had her first solo museum show at CAMH. I recently got a chance to tell her that I landed here, and she congratulated me for ending up at such a cool museum.

I came to have a Fred Tomaselli drug portrait of myself because Kiki Smith and I were editing an issue of Bomb Magazine and the theme was stars. Fred had been doing these constellation diagrams where every star was a drug — both licit and illicit — that people take to get through life. Fred had been doing these drug portraits of different people, and he said we could include one in the magazine, as long as he could do mine. I had a rock band for a number of years, so when he gave me the drug list, I could check off an awful lot of them. When I saw the finished portrait, I felt funny at the thought of a stranger having it, so I asked him if I could buy it. At the time they were inexpensive. Last year at the ADAA Art Fair in New York, James Cohan Gallery had a wall of them. I ran into a prominent NYC artist who was also the subject of one of the portraits at the fair who had not bought his at the time. He very much regrets it because they have gotten to be quite valuable now.

It had really been quite a while since I had seen John Currin and his wife, the talented sculptor Rachel Feinstein, but they were in Maine this past summer on the last night that Mark and I were on Mt. Desert Island, and we got a chance to catch up with them over dinner. I had not seen their kids, who were marvelous. I bought my Currin painting from his studio when I visited very early on in his career, and it is from the first yearbook portraits that he finished right before his White Columns show.

Restoration tales.

Arning: Our house was apparently the party house for the Audubon Court neighborhood for decades. A couple named Stan and Paul lived in it, and the interior was quite eccentric, shag carpet in the master bath. When we bought it, a friend pointed out that from the top of the stair landing, you can see seven different wallpapers, and none were subtle. Johnny Langer at Source History in Galveston gave us a paint history of the house and said, “This never happens, but there have been five complete paint jobs on the house in the last century, and no one had one bit of imagination. There are five shades of white. You can do any color you want on the house, and it will be historically acceptable.” We went for a color called nightshade on the exterior that appears as a rich brown with these unusual purple undertones in bright sunlight.

Michael Landrum and Philip Paratore found the house when it was first being cleaned up to sale by the late owners’ relatives. I had casually mentioned to Michael and Pepper (as Philip is called by friends) that we were serial renovators. This is my third fixer-upper, and I wanted a piece of “old Houston.” It was about an 11-month process for the renovation, and we kept the room configurations essentially as they were. Having your architects as your next door neighbors was great, as they were very hands on during
the process.

Musical obsessions.

Arning: I was very lucky to see Perfume Genius in New York this summer, and I think their two albums, Put Your Back N 2 It and Learning, are amazing. Rufus Wainwright’s Out of The Game is also on heavy rotation. For Texas pride we love Austin’s Christeene’s first album, Waste Up, Kneez Down, and anything by Houston’s finest psychedelic band, Indian Jewelry.

McCray: Mx Justin Vivian Bond. V, as Kiki from Kiki & Herb, sings one of the best covers of “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You?” by Stevie Nicks. It is quite possibly my favorite song. V is also an inspiration to me … Also Frankie Rose, Dream Cop, St. Vincent, Christeene, Azealia Banks, Wild Beasts.

Personal heroes.

Arning: I took my “Art Since 1945” class with Robert Rosenblum, one of the great art historians of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He would switch to the artist’s first name when he was lecturing, due to his intimate familiarity with them and their work. It was never Jasper Johns for long, it would be “Jasper.” It was never Robert Rauschenberg, it was “Bob.” I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life — I wanted to be able to call the artists of my time by their first names. When I was at MIT, we brought the big European Sturtevant retrospective to Cambridge. We were the only U.S. venue for that important show. Rosenblum had been one of the early supporters of Sturtevant when almost no one appreciated her work in the ‘60s, so we brought him to lecture on her work. (Houston’s Jim Harithas was also another huge early supporter, giving her the first museum show at the Everson Museum in 1974.)

At dinner after his talk, I got a chance to thank Rosenblum for having changed my life by showing me what I wanted to do with my career. I also was able to ask him about a memory I had where he whipped out a Robert Rauschenberg print from his pocket. I knew that could not be true of course. When I described what I thought I saw, he laughed. It turns out Rauschenberg had given him a painting on a functional silk handkerchief that he could put in his pocket to impress us kids. At a certain point, he stopped carrying it to class when it became too valuable. I was very glad to find out I had not hallucinated.

McCray: I admire people who have clear vision like Robert Wilson, Anna Wintour and Steve Jobs. Though the rest of their personalities may not be the kind I would choose in my friends, I can respect their determination, and they inspire me to hone my tastes and approaches to creative endeavors. Bill also inspires me to be a lot more open than I usually am.

Upcoming for the CAMH’s walls.

Arning: We are co-organizing the Marilyn Minter survey in 2014 with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and my co-curator on the project is the brilliant Elissa Auther. We are going to show 35 years of Minter’s strong, sexy conceptual painting. I think it will really be a game-changing exhibition. Many people think of Minter from her recent celebrity, working with Madonna on her last tour, the glamorous fashion-based work that took her to household-name status. We are going to show that her work of today
is grounded in a very long feminist-based painting history.

Who would play you on the big screen.

Arning: After seeing The Master, I think Joaquin Phoenix can play anyone, and I am sure he would get my mad, art-filled, hyper-caffeinated rhythm perfectly. As Mark’s beard continues to get wilder day by day, I could see Liev Schreiber growing his beard out correctly to get the look down.

McCray: For me, Luke Perry for looks, Mark Ruffalo for personality. For Bill, Jon Hamm for looks and personality.

Recommended art jaunts.

Arning: I keep returning to the Fort Worth Modern — I went last month for a day trip to a luncheon with Christie’s Jessica Phifer, but also really wanted to experience Michael Auping’s extraordinary Lucian Freud survey. I’m going to return for an overnight trip to see one of my favorite artists, Gary Simmons, at the same museum. I did his first large show a few decades back at White Columns, “Disinformation Schoolroom,” that had a live white cockatoo teaching an empty classroom.

I just led a trip for CAMH supporters to see the gallery district in the Lower East Side of New York. I arranged to have a number of artists meet us at their shows including Dave Cole at Dodge Gallery, Kembra Pfahler at Participant Inc, Alix Pearlstein at On Stellar Rays and Desi Santiago at Envoy. It was a marvelous day.

I’m very lucky that my family home is in NYC, so I stay with my brother and his wife in my old teenage bedroom in the East 20s in Manhattan. I walk straight west and hit galleries in 15 minutes.

McCray: I really love Chicago. I get to visit great friends and walk on the lakeshore path. We get to see Anish Kapoor’s “Bean” and check out the modern wing of the Art Institute.

Three on your fast track.

Arning: We’re working on a big painting project for CAMH, so I’m thinking a lot about abstraction, and painters like Keltie Ferris, Charline Von Heyl and Tauba Auerbach are keeping me busy puzzling out their complex relationships to historical models and how wild their practice seems in relation.

McCray: Jim Hodges. I saw a piece of his at a gallery in New York that had a disco ball that descended from the ceiling into a black pool in the ground as four small spotlights tracked its path providing the familiar disco ball lighting effect. But there was no sound. It was a really powerful piece for me.

Favorite Houston tables.

Arning: Power lunch is Cinq at La Colombe d’Or, great food and very quiet. As a hotel restaurant, it’s always serving, and the Caesar salad with oysters is a perfect lunch. I love Canopy because it’s so charmingly social; I feel like I often know someone at over half the tables — that means no real business gets done, but fun is always had. I am also now a huge fan of lunch at L’Olivier. They have an inventive menu and really good art on the walls.

McCray: Canopy: The food is consistently good and they’re dog-friendly. L’Olivier has turned out wonderfully. I’m really excited for them. [Brasserie] Max & Julie: beef Filet with Béarnaise sauce and pommes frites. Da Marco has the best panna cotta I’ve ever seen or tasted. Lucky Burger is a guilty pleasure. Black Hole is my coffee house of choice.

Latest art acquisition.

Arning: I have loved Elijah Burgher’s mystical drawings since I first saw them in a show at a funky Chicago alternative space in Wicker Park. Mark and I went to see the great Roy Lichtenstein survey at the Chicago Art Institute this summer, so I visited his studio and finally bought one. It’s at the framers now. Also I could not resist the Geoff Hippenstiel show Devin Borden mounted at the Houston Fine Art Fair, and we got one of those jewel-like beauties.

McCray: A Joyce Pensato. I had not planned on spending any money at the last CAMH Gala, even though I was salivating over the Pensato. I think towards the end of the night, there might have been one other bid. So I threw Bill’s number on it minutes before the auction was ending, and it was mine. I really love it.

Five fave blogs.

McCray: is a great place to see all kinds of information related to emerging technologies from various fields. The writing is always a bit snarky, but it’s always interesting and it’s always inspiring me to approach tech projects differently., to find out the next big thing with Apple. to find out what’s going on in the world and in NYC. because I enjoy the news-sharing aspect of the site. for Morning Becomes Eclectic, NPR, and Radiolab.


Arning: I went to New York University in Greenwich Village mainly because it was near CBGBs rock club, where my band played and where I saw the most incredible live shows: Talking Heads, Television and the Ramones doing two sets a night for a $3 cover charge and, for dinner, a $2 bowl of punk rock chili made in the back of the club. CBGBs was where I learned that art should be edgy, vivacious and smart. I thought my future career was going to be “rock star,” ignoring the fact that I was technically challenged as a musician.

When I discovered the NYU art history department, I found I could speak to my fellow students in a language that made sense to me for the first time in my life. I got my first gallery job on 57th Street, which represented one truly great artist, Barton Lidice Benes (who just passed away this year). I met a few celebrities there, such as Warren Beatty. In 1985 I got a job at an established not-for-profit called White Columns and began learning how to raise money and work with funding organizations.    I stayed at White Columns for 11 years, then taught, and did some curating and freelance writing. Then I became exhibitions curator at the very prestigious MIT List Visual Arts Center, where I stayed nine years. It really takes a decade to make a difference in the cultural ecosystem of a city, to understand what it already has seen, what it needs to know, and to put the systems into place to fill in the gaps in its art experiences.

McCray: I started at Chiat when I was 20 years old. So it was a long time ago ... When I first began college, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. Years after moving to NYC, I started NYU and graduated in 2008. I’m currently applying to Northwestern University for a graduate degree in Medical Informatics.

After a stint in LA as a hardware support rep at a multimedia company, which taught me all kinds of things about how computers actually worked, I landed a job at Chiat as an IT help desk person. I’ve moved up through the ranks to becoming the subject-matter expert for all financial and job tracking systems for the agency. Now I architect and develop applications and software integrations for various departments in the agency. I started at Chiat in Venice, CA and  relocated to Manhattan in April 1997. In 2009 I moved to Chicago to get a break from NYC, then in late 2010, I moved to Houston.

On romance.

Arning: Like most people these days, Mark and I met online. He was living in Chicago, but his family lived just outside of Houston. Our first proper date was when he was visiting his folks and we went to see Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at Houston Grand Opera. A few weeks later, I had a business trip to Chicago. We went to hear Jonsi, the singer from Sigur Ros solo tour there. For a while, we commuted back and forth between our cities until Mark relocated here about two years ago.

Life before Bill.

McCray: I was more interested in music for a long time; I played bass in a band for a while and was making music on my own. But once I moved to Chicago, I think I somewhat started to see differently. Something about moving from New York to Chicago, following my head and my heart, gave me some space, both physically and mentally, to open up a little. I started to notice my surroundings a bit more. And though NYC has so much to offer arts wise, things somehow started to click in Chicago. And then when I met Bill, I was immediately exposed to so many new art experiences. I’m much more interested in it now.

On art collectibles and your John and Oko pillows.

Arning: The Art Production Fund in New York has a really wonderful program of artist-made functional items (Called WOW or Work on Whatever), so the Jonathan Horowitz John and Yoko pillows are from them (we also have the Gertrude and Alice set). We have beach towels by Marilyn Minter, Jack Pierson, Elizabeth Peyton and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Every year in Miami, they launch next year’s beach towels, and you have to be quick. I missed the Rob Pruitt Panda towel — the artist whose Andy Monument just arrived in Houston, and I still kick myself for that!

On your night table.

Arning: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Changing My Mind; Caitlin Moran’s How to Be A Woman; Bill Clegg’s 90 Days; Alan Downs’ The Velvet Rage; C Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowiz, Lynn Gumpert and Klaus Kertiss; Toxic Beauty, The Art of Frank Moore; Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner’s West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977.

McCray: Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Kicking back at the casa.

Arning: Mark and I like to entertain, but I don’t drink, and Mark is a one-beer-a week kind of guy, so our fun is a little different. We like to throw barbecues with a twist — our best theme dinner was in early September, a “creative Weenie roast.” I grilled three types of hot dogs, (traditional, gourmet and veggie), and guests had to arrive with creative toppings. Lawndale Art Center’s Regina Vigil won with an avocado, honey Dijon and gorgonzola mix. My bacon, red onion, sour cream and blue cheese was pretty good, too. Proud Pony Production’s Jarrod Gullett tried a version based on chopped chicken liver that was good on paper but kind of failed on the tongue. Mat Wolff from the AIA Houston won an honorable mention for a yummy homemade aioli but arrived late and missed the judging.

McCray: Typical Sunday: Sleep in late, iced latte. Dog park with Daisy. A relaxing lunch with Bill and friends. Sometimes gardening. Sometimes music-making. I sometimes like to have nothing planned to do on the weekend as that’s my downtime. And weekends can never be long enough.

On my Mac love affair and my next tech acquisition.

McCray: This doesn’t exist now to my knowledge, but it has to be coming soon: A new iMac with a retina display. It would give my eyes the biggest sigh of relief.

Who cooks.

McCray: It’s 50/50. We’re both into cooking. I’m more into baking. I bartend. Bill barbecues.