MUST-HAVE CIVIC AMENITY has emerged on our nation’s cultural landscape: the megamuseum devoted solely to contemporary art, that hitherto neglected (and often abused) stepchild of American culture. Last year Chicago and San Francisco debuted enormous modern art palaces designed by architects so chic that their names aren’t household words yet. At the moment, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is evaluating architects’ models for a similarly ambitious building set on an eleven-acre parcel just across the street from the Kimbell Art Museum (see “Artbeat,” page 26). Shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn’t even faze one of these privately funded behemoths; the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s yearly operating budget of $14 million dwarfs the $3.7 million that the NEA gives annually to all American museums combined (and compare the $90 million the SFMOMA raised to build and endow its showpiece with the entire $99.5 million federal arts budget). The public, undaunted by warnings of moral corruption and intellectual fraud, is flocking to these cutting-edge venues with unexpected enthusiasm, plunking down hefty admission fees to queue up in numbers usually seen only at blockbuster Impressionist shows.
Amid this extraordinary advance of the avant-garde, Houston’s venerable Contemporary Arts Museum is making a bid to keep up. Closed since the end of last year for renovations, the CAM’s 25-year-old stainless steel parallelogram reopens on May 10 with a subtle but effective face lift, a new attitude, and a plan to remain competitive that is stunningly ambitious in its apparent lack of ambition. Instead of hiring an architect with overseas cachet (Swiss Mario Botta in San Francisco, Berliner Josef Paul Kleihues in Chicago), the CAM’s board of trustees courageously chose a local who promised to do as little as possible to alter Gunnar Birkerts’ distinctive, original design. After the usual star search, the CAM board also broke with precedent by hiring a director who actually knows the city and is well liked in the local arts community: Marti Mayo, who arrived as a CAM curator in 1980 and stayed in town to run the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, was brought on at the end of 1994 to revitalize the museum. And against the current $100 million benchmark for museum expansion established by its catercorner neighbor, the Museum of Fine Arts, the CAM’s $3.5 million for construction costs and operating endowment—the single biggest expense is a new climate control system—is mere pocket change. What the CAM’s plan amounts to is a shrewd but risky low-stakes gamble: Can a tiny, nimble, cost-effective museum, offering challenging exhibitions instead of hundreds of thousands of square feet of luxury-shopping-mall ambience, reengage the public and reestablish its eminence in a contemporary arts scene suddenly dominated by institutional giants?
Built in 1972 to replace a wooden shed once cut in two and trucked from site to site, Birkerts’ prowlike structure sailed proudly through the late seventies and early eighties as the flagship of the city’s visual arts ascendance. From 1974 to 1978, during director James Harithas’ tenure, the CAM functioned almost as an alternative space—largely because it could afford to do little else—churning out exhibition after exhibition of Texas art and providing a hothouse for the maturation of local talent. Linda Cathcart’s directorship, from 1979 to 1987, brought a much higher level of professionalism; if she antagonized many artists who preferred the freewheeling style of the seventies, the friction was actually salutary, for both the museum and the local arts community thrived. By the mid-eighties, however, while Houston artists were establishing a cultural hub as vital as any west of New York City, the CAM began to sink, slowly ceding much of the city’s exploding contemporary arts energy to other institutions: the MFA, the Blaffer Gallery, the elegantly idiosyncratic Menil Collection, and brash upstarts like DiverseWorks. As the CAM’s prestige waned, its annual attendance plunged, from more than 170,000 in 1985 to fewer than 40,000 in the early nineties. Three years ago even the CAM’s board appeared headed for the lifeboats, sending representatives to discuss a merger with the MFA.
The MFA wasn’t interested, so the CAM’s board was compelled to flesh out a survival plan floated in August 1993 at a daylong, facilitator-led retreat. With the options of building anew or renovating an abandoned Houston Light and Power building near the Brown Convention Center on the table, board members were startled to discover a near-unanimous affection for Birkerts’ eccentric geometry—along with an almost equally strong conviction that something had to be done to make entering the CAM a little less intimidating. “When I came here for the first time, in 1979, I couldn’t figure out how to get in,” Mayo recalls of her experience with the museum’s only public entrance, a narrow slit in an otherwise featureless steel skin. “You’re up there on that concrete ramp, feeling like all of Houston is watching you from across the high plains.”
Addressing that problem fell to Houston’s William F. Stern, a collector of contemporary art and an unabashed modern architect in postmodern times. His solution was ingeniously simple and refreshingly uninfected by the currently virulent strain of architectural egotism. A new primary blue steel-and-cable railing reinforces the nautical imagery, making the ascent of the concrete ramp as festive as boarding a cruise ship. And now the entrance slit is clearly marked with a large wedge-shaped white aluminum canopy, a piece of minimal sculpture that echoes both the geometric purity and the enchanting lightness of Birkerts’ building. “It kind of levitates up there,” says Stern. “It’s a traditional way of marking an entrance in a nontraditional form. Whatever I did, I wanted to preserve the character of the building.”
Just as important to the CAM’s new image is a two-tiered urban minipark at the busy Montrose and Bissonet intersection, a collaboration between Stern and Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin. Trees, seating, a gently bubbling fountain, and slick new signage (gone are the huge banners that used to flap