Even in death, a beloved art historian keeps giving
Erica Hubbard immediately determined she needed more boxes. The director of library services for Houston Community College Central, Hubbard arrived at David Brauer’s Heights home last year with the containers she could scratch together — bankers boxes, liquor boxes, anything with five sides — but the pickup of Brauer’s library required a more formidable collection of vessels: 234, to be exact.
Jim Edwards, an art curator and Brauer’s friend, says, “I think of myself as a huge book collector. They’re in my garage, covering my office, my attic. I bet I have around 3,500 volumes, and David had far more than two times that, which is mind-boggling.”
Brauer — a storied art historian and lecturer — died in September. HCC announced he’d gifted the school his incredible collection of art and books. His library tally was just under 10,000 volumes. Hubbard has begun a cataloging process that will take years, as Brauer’s remarkable collection of books is archived and gradually made available to the public through HCC.
Brauer wasn’t a native, but in many ways he was a quintessential Houstonian: an immigrant with deep interest in art and the space program, both of which drew him to Space City from London. Here he sunk deep roots and enriched the soil of the city’s arts culture. His death brought to an end a career disseminating his accumulated expertise about art. But through one of his last acts of giving, Brauer’s influence will continue to
nurture the city for years to come.
He was a fascinating figure who absorbed the past and presented its relevance in the present. Brauer was also a man out of time. He never owned a computer. Friends nagged him into getting a cellphone. Even then he only complied because it would make communication with his children overseas less expensive than through a landline.
“Even then, he complained about the phone all the time,” Edwards says. “He was almost this 19th-century figure at the end of the 20th-century. But a brilliant one at that.”
Brauer’s interests were wideranging, but his life’s focus was art, and he projected his knowledge out into the world to anyone and everyone who might be interested. Brauer didn’t see art as the dominion of the privileged.
“He taught at the Glassell School, the MFAH, he lectured at the University of Houston and Rice, so I asked him, ‘Why are you contacting us?’ ” Hubbard says. “And he told me he came from modest means growing up in Scotland. He grew up poor and always felt this kinship for students who had a similar background. He thought the institutions where he taught had the resources to acquire books. So he liked the idea of these books being at HCC, this publicly funded place.”
Rockets and pop art
The space program was at least partially responsible for drawing Brauer to Houston. Space exploration enchanted Brauer going back to his childhood in London, as the space race unfolded thousands of miles to the east and west. He was born in Dundee, Scotland, the child of a chef from Germany and a social services worker from Scotland.
Deborah Velders, director at the Mobile Museum of Art, says Brauer was encouraged by a primary school teacher who saw something special in him. That
teacher steered his young charge to the Christopher Wren School in hopes of further developing his affinity for art.
“David said that was why he became a teacher,” Velders says. “This one teacher who recognized his abilities and interests. That affected him. David became a historian and a curator. But he always called himself a teacher because early in his life a teacher helped establish the direction for the rest of his life.”
Brauer continued his studies at the St. Martin’s School of Art in London, studying art and art history. He worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, while also starting his career as an educator.
But his interest in space brought him to the United States. He traveled to Cape Canaveral in the early ’70s to watch a rocket launch. In 1975, he moved to Houston to be closer to Johnson Space Center. He would paint watercolors based on NASA’s rocket launches and read everything he could about the space program.
His work, though, was closer to the city’s art scene. Across four decades, he worked with various art institutions around the city. He served as the head of the History of Art Department at the Glassell School, while lecturing at University of Houston, Rice University and the Women’s Institute of Houston.
“Art was so tied into his life,” says Velders, who was for a time married to Brauer. “He wanted to share what he knew. He wanted to demystify what seemed remote. He had an ability to lay out how it related to our everyday lives.
“And he had such a talent for speaking, too. To him it was no different than curating a show. You think about somebody like (President) Obama, such a great orator. Some people can speak in a way that’s moving. David had that talent for speaking.”
Paying it forward
Brauer’s lectures often drew hundreds of wide-eyed and open-eared enthusiasts. He also curated exhibits in Houston and beyond, including a much-lauded 2001 exhibition he assembled with Edwards titled “Pop Art: U.S./U.K. Connections: 19561966” at the Menil Collection.
But Brauer was in poor health entering 2020. He managed to travel to Alabama in February. There, Velders had curated “An Art Historian Collects: The David E. Brauer Collection.” The exhibit opened Feb. 7, 2020, with Brauer in attendance to speak about the works. It ran for a few weeks but was shut down due to the pandemic. As the year went on, Velders decided to extend its run date and reopen toward the end of the year, but Brauer wouldn’t be there to see it close in November.
His died in his sleep of heart failure on Sept. 15.
His nearly half-century of work in Houston created a ripple effect that extended across generations. The impact of his knowledge and enthusiasm for art is unquantifiable.
The University of Houston will archive his lectures. And Velders is now overseeing the future of his art.
“In an ideal world, you’d hope to keep the collection together,” Velders says. “There’s a personal touch that gets lost otherwise.”
Still, the first of three auctions will take place through Simpson Galleries on Feb. 6.
Velders has also been working on a book informed by last year’s exhibit that ties Brauer’s life, work and collection together. The Mobile Museum of Art is currently courting donations to fund its publication.
Before he died, Brauer invited Hubbard to his home to discuss the donation of his library. His Heights home, she says, was as expected: full of books and art, with newspapers and magazines scattered throughout. And no computer.
After Brauer died, HCC had just three days to get his books out of the home before an estate sale commenced. The school wasn’t accustomed to such a big move on short notice, but the HCC Foundation funded the resources needed to get the books boxed and moved into its
Brauer’s book collection was never designed to be a prop or a backdrop. It was filled with titles that were pressed in limited runs and are out of print, as well as rare titles from foreign presses purchased on his travels. Velders calls it, “a high-level collection.”
Hubbard says many of the books — which are diverse but with an emphasis on post-Impressionism and pop art — included pertinent newspaper and magazine clippings inside, as well as index cards with notes about their contents, which he would refer to for his lectures.
“His library wasn’t filled with cheap novels,” Edwards adds. “To him, it was all research material.”
Adds Velders, “He felt books opened up the world. He thought maybe 2 percent of students might care about these books, but he wanted that 2 percent to have access to them. He knew money created access, but he wanted these available to students who had a steeper climb.
“His point was always that these things were tied to your life. He always called it an ‘accumulation’ not a collection. He lived with the books and he lived with the art. They weren’t in a vault. He interacted with it all and then shared what he knew with the world.”