For the next few months at least, visitors to Houston won’t be able to visit the crown jewel of the city’s cultural scene. On February 26, the Menil Collection’s main gallery temporarily closed to allow work crews to replace the museum’s flooring, enhance the interior and exterior lighting, and update the 30-year-old building’s fire detection system. Although an exact date hasn’t been announced, museum officials expect the Menil to reopen to the public sometime this fall.
During the repairs, the Menil’s other public buildings—the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, the Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall, the Menil Bookstore, and Bistro Menil—will remain open. It was originally thought that the new, $40 million Menil Drawing Institute building would also be open to visitors, but construction issues have delayed its debut until later this year.
Since first opening in 1987, the Menil Collection has attracted art lovers from around the world to its verdant campus in the city’s Montrose neighborhood. The closure of its Renzo Piano–designed main building leaves a major hole in the cultural fabric of the country’s fourth-largest city.
Fortunately, the Bayou City has come a long way since French expats Dominique and John de Menil arrived here in the 1940s. Back then, the Museum of Fine Arts was the only game in town. “When I came here to Houston, I felt a vacuum,” Dominique would later say. (The quote comes from a forthcoming joint biography of John and Dominique by William Middleton, to be published later this month by Knopf.)
Thanks in no small part to the untiring efforts of the de Menils, Houston is no longer an artistic vacuum. To make the (temporary) loss of the Menil Collection more bearable, Texas Monthly has compiled a guide to five Houston museums and galleries where the Menil spirit can still be felt. And like the Menil Collection, they’re all free to the public.
The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Founded in 1948, not long after the de Menils moved to Houston, this museum immediately became Houston’s epicenter of cutting-edge contemporary art, with daring exhibitions devoted to Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and Mark Rothko. In 1972 it moved into its permanent location, an iconic stainless steel building designed by Gunnar Birkerts across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum’s curators continue to push the envelope with challenging shows like the current retrospective of multimedia work by Christopher Knowles and a photography exhibition dedicated to the LGBTQ experience in India.
Christopher Knowles's In a World at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
The Station Museum of Contemporary Art
Like the Contemporary Arts Museum, the Station Museum wears its artistic and political radicalism on its sleeve. Located in a converted gas station in Midtown, the museum stages ambitious exhibitions of work by some of the world’s most innovative artists, as well as shows devoted to Houston natives like Mel Chin, Jesse Lott, and Dick Wray. Over the years, director Jim Harithas hasn’t shied away from controversy, taking on subjects ranging from the War on Terror to Palestinian rights with programming that includes lectures, fundraisers, film screenings, and musical events. Currently on view is a group show, in(di)visible, that explores the Asian-American experience.
Considered an essential stop on any art tour of Houston, this modest one-story gallery in the Rice Military area is renowned for showing the work of top contemporary artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Agnes Martin. Butler, a longtime Houston art dealer, was instrumental in helping the University of Texas at Austin secure Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” a chapel-like installation that recently opened to the public. Outstanding works by Houston artists Joseph Havel and Brooke Stroud are currently on view at the gallery.
Located in the Museum District, this relatively new museum is dedicated to the celebration of black art and culture, featuring a rich calendar of exhibitions, film screenings, and lectures. Currently on view are “Over There Some Place,” a group show of emerging Houston artists who engage with the African-American experience from a distinctly Southern perspective, as well as an interactive exhibition devoted to the tragic 2015 death of Sandra Bland.
The University of Houston’s art museum—formerly known as the Blaffer Gallery—has no permanent collection; instead, it presents an ever-changing series of exhibitions by some of the world’s leading artists. In 2011 the museum underwent a $2 million renovation and expansion under the leadership of former director Claudia Schmuckli, making it into one of the most forward-thinking university art museums in the country. Currently on view are two Russian-themed shows: a film trilogy by Russian-born artist Anton Vidokle, and a conceptual exhibition by Lithuanian curator Monika Lipšic that was inspired by the centenary of the Russian Revolution.