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The Vision Thing

The beautiful, visionary Menil Collection turns 25, and looks ahead.

The central museum of the 30-acre Menil campus, meant as an intersection of art appreciation and spiritual reflection, is situated unassumingly amid blocks of ’20s bungalows in Montrose.

Its unique roof, resembling a series of sails, filters softened natural light into art spaces inside.

City for Display: 

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, and hundreds of folks are gathered in and around the Menil Collection on a tree-shaded section of Sul Ross Street.

Outside, little kids play, couples flirt and art lovers sunbathe on the easygoing green space of the 30-acre Menil campus, where the main museum building, the Cy Twombly Gallery, Richmond Hall and the Rothko Chapel are tucked alongside 1920s-era bungalows. Inside, where a massive art collection is housed and displayed in a modern, gray-painted building of steel and cypress and glass, strolling throngs view works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst.

If there’s such a thing as a perfect marriage—in this case, art and architecture, with the outdoors and an overall awesomeness—the Menil Collection, which was conceived by French-American art collectors John and Dominique de Menil, might be it. After turning 25 this year amid fanfare—the Renzo Piano-designed main building was dedicated in 1987—the semi-privately owned art institution that’s often lauded as one of the world’s best has bold expansion plans.

“There’s no place like the Menil,” says Toby Kamps, the Menil’s curator of modern and contemporary art who put together the well-received, John Cage-inspired Silence exhibit this fall. “First the collection—with its holdings in antiquities, modern and contemporary, and African, Oceanic, Native American and Byzantine art—is extraordinarily great.

“Second, the architecture and the quiet, green urban campus setting make for a sublime space to encounter art,” says Kamps. “Plus, the entire staff works very hard to let individual works of art, regardless of their epoch or culture, speak to the audience on their own terms and in their own voices, so you don’t have a typical museum-going experience.”

Thank the de Menils for the exceptional takeaway. The couple—wealthy philanthropists and patrons who fled World War II-ravaged Europe to Houston in 1941, where he would become a top executive of her family’s Schlumberger oilfield-equipment mega-corporation—wanted to create what they called an “unconventional and farsighted” place to experience art. As a result, in the late 1940s, they bought and preserved blocks of charming homes in an early-20th-century portion of Montrose, hired architect Philip Johnson to sculpt buildings on the nearby University of St. Thomas campus (while making other monumental contributions to Rice University), and, in 1971, commissioned Mark Rothko and Johnson to create the nondenominational Rothko Chapel.

In 1973, plans for a centerpiece museum stalled following John’s death at age 69. Eventually, in 1987, Dominique, who died in 1997 at age 89, opened the Menil Collection, which showcased—and continues to feature—the now 17,000-piece collection on rotating display.
It was worth the long wait.

For the past quarter-century, viewers have enjoyed René Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and hundreds more masters inside Italian architect Piano’s first structure in the United States. According to Vanity Fair’s World Architecture Survey, Piano’s deceptively straightforward-looking creation, swathed in the same attractive gray that the de Menils painted all the neighboring bungalows, is the second greatest new building in the world.

Besides its architectural excellence, the Menil’s mission makes it unique. “The Menil prides itself on presenting our extraordinary collection and our pioneering special exhibitions free of charge at all times, and free of anything that might detract from a direct, profound connection between the visitor and the art,” explains Menil Director Josef Helfenstein.

The Menil’s unique vibe attracted Sheryl Kolasinski from the East Coast, where she worked for 25 years for the Smithsonian Institution and the City of New York, to become the Menil’s deputy director. Since assuming her post in May, Kolasinski has found some pleasant surprises at the Menil, as well as with H-Town itself in terms of its heft as a genuine art town. “I already knew that Houston is a vibrant city for the arts, but my experiences have shown me that this community is one of the most culturally engaged anywhere in the country,” says Kolasinski.

Now that the Menil Collection has put the finishing touches on its 25th anniversary program—an impressive series of events that, at the time of this writing, was scheduled to include a $2 million-plus benefit gala and a concert by minimalist master Philip Glass—they’ll continue moving forward.

Helfenstein explains that the complex will be improved and reconfigured with additional green area. More pieces will be added to the collection. And the Menil Drawing Institute, which collects, exhibits and studies modernist drawings—works by Claes Oldenburg and Richard Serra, for example—will be built in its own freestanding 18,000-square-foot building at a to-be-determined location. Additionally, a café will be installed across from the main building.

The first quarter-century has been extraordinary, not only in bringing to life the bold dream of the founding couple but also for serving as a catalyst for Houston’s world-renowned emergence as a global hub of art and culture. What might the Menil at 50 look like? “My goal for the next 25 years is to augment the visitor’s experience and carry forward the founders’ vision,” says Helfenstein, “so that the Menil, at last, fully realizes the remarkable vision of John and Dominique de Menil.”