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 over the facade like cheesy Going Out of Business Sale signs) entice passersby. “We’re saying to the public, ‘We want you as an audience,’” says Mayo. “We’re not in business to make it difficult for you to look at art. We’re in business to get you in the door.”

Once in the door, visitors will find a clearly identifiable information desk—a first at the CAM—but the single large upstairs gallery remains unchanged. The difference is in the basement, once home to the museum’s offices and the dungeonlike Perspectives Gallery, to which so many local artists were consigned over the years: The offices have moved to a refurbished house down the street, and the gallery has tripled in size, allowing it to take full advantage of two basement-level slits of natural lighting. A new elevator, a public lounge, and a self-service Starbucks should likewise help provide Texas artists with a vastly more attractive forum for what is often their major-museum debut.

Upstairs or downstairs, the new CAM promises a more user-friendly experience. “I was raised as a purist,” Mayo admits. “You put up white walls, hung pictures on them, and used as little labeling as possible. We were like high priests guarding the cult, deliberately making this art too obscure to understand.” Her conversion came in 1988, during the furor over Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine. “I realized then that we were truly estranged from the broad public,” she says. “Either the public was dumb or we weren’t doing a good job of sharing what we know—and I don’t believe the public is dumb.” Mayo acted on her determination to change even before the CAM temporarily shut down for its redo, hiring local artists and art historians to roam the floor and make themselves available to the curious or bewildered. And when a Serrano retrospective came to the CAM in 1995, Mayo approached the local clergy before the opening, showing them exhibition catalogs and explaining the whats and whys of the artist’s irreverent oeuvre. Thanks to the advance work, the show came and went in Houston without protest. “We have to frame good reasons for showing controversial work,” says Mayo, “and then respect the people who disagree with us.”

But all those good intentions will do little for the new CAM if it can’t fulfill its primary mission, which is to define art’s cutting edge—locally, nationally, and internationally—with sufficient authority to avoid sliding into provincial irrelevance. That may seem a difficult challenge given the CAM’s bantamweight budget (about $1.5 million annually) and dimensions. With 11,500 square feet of gallery space in its new incarnation, it doesn’t exactly measure up to the SFMOMA’s 50,000 square feet, not to mention its additional 175,000 square feet lavished on a library, theater, conservation lab, and soaring atrium lobby with a celebrated periscopelike skylight. And right now, Fort Worth’s museum plan calls for 75,000 square feet of gallery space along with 125,000 square feet committed to offices, a restaurant, a theater, a party pavilion, and so on. The measuring tape, however, doesn’t tell the whole tale. Most of the space at these megamuseums is gobbled up by permanent collections that may have significant holes (the hope being that local acquisitors will fill them in with bequests). The CAM, by contrast, doesn’t have a permanent collection, and its board has decided not to pursue one. “Frankly, we don’t have the community of major collectors here to do what they’ve done in Chicago and San Francisco,” says veteran board member Sissy Kempner. “What we want are more shows that we originate, with good catalogs.”

That unflinching focus plays to the CAM’s strength: the 7,500-square-foot upper gallery (now named the Brown Foundation Gallery), which is still as large as any single space in the nation devoted to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and has an uninterrupted flow adaptable to almost anything an artist could aspire to put under a roof. Without the enormous expense of seeking and maintaining a permanent collection, the CAM can devote the bulk of its resources to mounting and seeking state-of-the-art fare for that space. And the staff is up to the challenge. Mayo has a fine eye and the catholicity of taste to avoid getting stuck on her own preferences, a problem endemic to previous CAM directors. Senior curator Dana Friis-Hansen also knows the local turf (he was on the first board of DiverseWorks) and, with five years in Tokyo under his belt, is regarded as an expert in the contemporary art of the Far East, a region that has the cognoscenti as excited as Germany did in the eighties. The new regime has already offered some notable shows in the past year, including a full upstairs presentation for Derek Boshier, one of Houston’s most-powerful narrative painters during the eighties, as well as introducing hot imports like Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and Los Angeles painter Lari Pittman.

The danger is that even the CAM’s best efforts will be swamped by the new leviathans, reinforcing the notion, so successfully challenged by Houston artists in the past two decades, that Texas remains a cultural colony of the two coasts. But so far there is no evidence that bigger is better. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which ten years ago inaugurated the new era with its exquisite Arata Isozaki—designed California Plaza building, has drawn local ire for originating only three major one-person retrospectives of L.A.-area artists. Aided by the deep pockets of its Bass-led board, the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth may well become the most formidable of the giants, finally revealing the eye-popping collection it has squirreled away over the years. It should also provide a suitable local showcase for the Fort Worth—organized shows that have begun to tour internationally with a frequency the CAM board can only sigh over. But the last major showing of Texas art the Fort Worth Modern offered was “Texas/Between Two Worlds”—organized and toured by the CAM during the doldrums of the early nineties.

Small and plucky, the refitted CAM remains the Texas institution most capable of cruising into the deep waters now dominated by dreadnoughts like the SFMOMA and firing the shots necessary to preserve Texas’ hard-won artistic independence. It isn’t putting too sharp an edge on that still-proud stainless steel prow to suggest that whether the CAM stays afloat or sinks will in substantial measure determine the international status of Texas culture some distance into the next century.