‘Essential to Human Experience’: The Menil Collection Is an Art Museum for All
An art campus like no other, the Menil Collection brings together a world of high-quality art, modern architecture, and cultural spirituality to Houston’s Museum District.
Spread over thirty acres, the museum welcomes over 130,000 visitors every year. Since the opening in the late 1980s, it has always prided itself on being free to the public, promoting full accessibility to the arts.
The Menil Collection, alongside the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and its Museum District, has contributed to making Houston the art hub that it is today.
HISTORY OF THE MENIL COLLECTION
Art is as essential as the air we breathe. This was the mindset behind the founders’ aim to build up their art collection – and subsequently the way it was exhibited.
They comprise French-American couple Dominique De Menil (1908-1997) and her husband John De Menil (1904-1973), who emigrated to the US from Paris in 1941 when the Nazi occupation took over France.
Children of wealthy families, Dominique was the heiress of the Schlumberger oil company fortune, and for this reason, they found themselves in Houston, a growing oil town and one of the family company’s branches, while her husband was the son of a baron.
Dominique de Menil. Credit: UH Photographs Collection
In this same period, the De Menils began to buy artworks and slowly build a collection. Their first acquisition for their collection was a 1985 Paul Cézanne watercolour, bought in 1945 for only US$300.
Through the priest Marie-Alain Couturier, the couple was introduced to the crossover between modern art and spirituality, which greatly influenced their collecting ethos.
Over the years, they also became friends with the artists that they began to add to their collection, such as Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, René Magritte, Dorothea Tanning, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
Thanks to their wealth, the De Menils became prominent art patrons and believed in the power of art also in its use of activism.
In 1952, surrealist painter and ex-husband of socialite and collector Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, had his first solo exhibition in the US at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, thanks to the support of the De Menils.
In 1971, African American artist Peter Bradley and John De Menil organised The De Luxe Show, which was one of the first racially integrated art shows in the US.
One of the exhibition’s aims was to bring contemporary art into a low-income, predominantly Black community in Houston.
COMMITMENT TO A MISSION
The museum's mission is simple, stating, “The Menil Collection is committed to its founders’ belief that art is essential to human experience…
“The Menil fosters direct personal encounters with works of art and welcomes all visitors free of charge to its museum buildings and surrounding green spaces”.
The Menil Collection’s culture and actions are guided by the following values of inclusivity, integrity, empathy, excellence, intellectual curiosity and community.
The Menil Collection galleries. Photo by Allyson Huntsman
The Menil Collection has attracted some of the biggest names in architecture.
Italian Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977 with Richard Rogers and later, London’s Shard in 2012, was invited to work on its main building and the Cy Twombly Gallery – completed in 1987 and 1995, respectively.
One of the main criteria behind the main building’s design was for it to seem “small on the outside but large on the inside”, according to Dominique’s wishes.
There is a large focus on the use of natural light within the space, however, as the building’s function is to house and exhibit artworks, the light is filtered through, so as not to cause damage.
The end result is a sleek design that blends in with its surroundings and neighbourhood. Cypress trees are a welcome feature, while natural light fills the exhibition halls and corridors, and glass and steel demonstrate stability yet at the same time a feeling of transparency and room to breathe.
Cy Twombly himself was consulted on the design of the new gallery space named after him, by bringing in the artist’s perspective the space was made to measure for his art.
Interior of the Cy Twombly Gallery at The Menil Collection. Photo by Paul Hester
Next is Richmond Hall, originally built in the 1930s as a grocery store, later turned into a music hall, until falling into the care of the Menil Collection.
American artist Dan Flavin was approached by Dominique to create a permanent site-specific installation for this space, to which he presented a work in his signature style of coloured fluorescent-light tubes.
In November 1996, Flavin passed away two days after he completed his design, with the work eventually carried out by his studio.
Dan Flavin. Installation view, Richmond Hall, the Menil Collection. Photo by Hickey Robertson
In the 1980s, the Menil Collection bought two thirteenth-century frescoes on behalf of the church from where they had been stolen in Cyprus. After purchase and restoration, the works were put on display until 2012, when they were eventually sent back to their place of origin.
Today the Byzantine Fresco Chapel hosts a variety of art installations.
In 2018 the Menil Drawing Institute became the newest addition to the Menil campus.
The architects behind this art building were Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, from Johnston Marklee.
Initially established in 2008 to further the study of modern and contemporary drawings, the Drawing Institute has an exquisite collection of drawings, including Richard Serra and Jasper Johns.
The Menil Collection, Menil Drawing Institute. Photo by Peter Molick
Finally, the art campus includes one of the Menils’ earliest projects; the Rothko Chapel.
Commissioned by the De Menils in 1964, Mark Rothko produced fourteen large canvases to be shown within the newly built chapel. The space would become an all-faith centre, described as a “stillness that moves”.
In front of the chapel, there is the 1970 sculpture Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman, dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr, who had been assassinated only two years earlier.
This decision by the De Menils was considered controversial in the conservative city of Houston. However, they had always been advocates of art as a means of activism and protecting human rights.
Rothko Chapel, 2010. Credit: Ed Uthman
The extensive collection found in the museum is a good way to understand how art and cultural practices from the past can influence following generations.
The Menil Collection's artworks span several sub-collections of different origins, periods and genres, with a total of 19,000 pieces.
Through the website, it is possible to explore these collections, where the museum has worked on presenting a detailed catalogue of every piece.
The separate collections are Arts Of Africa, Arts Of The Americas And Pacific Northwest, Arts Of The Ancient World, Arts Of The Pacific Islands, Drawings Collection, Medieval And Byzantine Art, Modern And Contemporary Art, Surrealism, and Witnesses.
To ensure that the museum would not become a one-time visit, Dominique De Menil stated that the museum “would rotate the works of art”.
“The public would never know museum fatigue. Works would appear, disappear and reappear like actors on a stage. Each time they would be seen with a fresh eye.”
The Menil Collection galleries. Photo by Daniel Ortiz
The Menil Collection has one of the most extensive collections of Surrealist works. They even commissioned a portrait of Dominique from Max Ernst himself in 1932.
As well as Ernst, two other artists make up the core of this particular collection: René Magritte and Victor Brauner. In addition, visitors can see works by masters of surrealism, such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and Dorothea Tanning.
There is a clear connection between the art movements that took place in Paris and New York in the late 1950s onwards that have made their way into the Modern And Contemporary collection.
In particular, Niki De Saint-Phalle, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko.
Later examples of pop art found in the Menil Collection range from Andy Warhol to Claes Oldenburg. The visitor is spoilt for choice in the array of masterpieces placed within the museum's spaces.
Arshile Gorky, Love of the New Gun, 1944
CURRENT AND FUTURE EXHIBITIONS
As well as the permanent collection and installations, both inside the five exhibition spaces and in the garden, the Menil Collection offers a calendar of temporary exhibitions in the Main Building and the Menil Drawing Institute.
THE CURATORIAL IMAGINATION OF WALTER HOPPS
Joe Goode, Untitled, ca. 1962. Oil paint on canvas, wood, and glass milk bottle, 27 × 25 1/2 × 6 1/4 in. (68.6 × 64.8 × 15.9 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps. © Joe Goode. Photo: Caroline Philippone
Named the Menil Collection’s founding director in 1980, Walter Hopps played a significant role in the museum, from assisting the architectural process of the new building to overseeing the relationship between collection and exhibition spaces.
Over his career, he curated approximately 250 exhibitions, which is celebrated in this new exhibition, where over sixty artists and 130 artworks are shown.
This exhibition will run until Aug 13 at the main building.
CHRYSSA & NEW YORK
Chryssa, The Gates to Times Square, 1966. Cast aluminum, welded stainless steel, neon glass tubing, Plexiglass, and paper, 120 × 119 × 120 in. (304.8 × 302.3 × 304.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert A. List, 1972. © The Estate of Chryssa, National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens. Photo: Image courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, Courtesy Dia Art Foundation
This exhibition (Sept 29, 2023 to Oct 3, 2024) is dedicated to the works of Greek-American artist Chryssa (1933-2013), in particular the pieces made during the 1950s and 70s while living in New York City.
Interested in the crossover between art and everyday life, Chryssa often used found materials from industrial or commercial processes to make large-scale installations.
VISIT THE MENIL COLLECTION
The Menil Collection, Cy Twombly Gallery. Photo by Peter Molick
Open from Wednesday to Sunday, the Menil Collection’s hours are from 11am to 7pm and as mentioned before, admission is free for all visitors.
Located next to the University of St Thomas in central Houston, it is possible to reach the Menil Collection via car, bike and bus.
Cover Credit: The Menil Collecion, Main Building. Photo by Kevin Keim
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She writes for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Radio Cymru. @glesniw