ArtSmart Roundtable: The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas

exterior, Menil Collection

Beginning in 1971, with the opening of the Rothko Chapel, the de Menil family had big plans for this neighborhood in Houston, Texas. The Chapel is a structure designed to house the paintings of Abstract Expressionist artist, Mark Rothko and a place for reflection and spirituality, regardless of your god. It set the tone for what was to come. A few years later, in 1987, the Menil Collection opened its doors and over the years has become more than just the art collection of a family housed in a museum. While, it does refer to a building of such expression, it is just one of many in a campus of art, architecture, and sculpture collected by the de Menil family displayed in the Montrose neighborhood. In addition to the Rothko Chapel, there is outdoor sculpture, galleries dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly and Dan Flavin, and until this year a re-imagined Byzantine Chapel to house frescos saved from Cyprus. (After 15 years, the frescos were returned to Cyprus in March 2012. You can learn more and see video and photography of the former installation, at Byzantine Fresco Chapel website.) All-in-all, the Menil collection and its environs is a place to be inspired, to feel, and to interact with art in a way that’s uncommon in today’s wall-text driven art experience.

entrance, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
the building

Before I dive into the collection, let’s take a moment to discuss the crown jewel of the complex, the museum designed by Renzo Piano. At first glance, you may not recognize that it’s a museum as it doesn’t follow any of the standard tropes. No grand staircase or dynamic facade. The most striking element of the exterior are the louvered panels or leaves that harness the strong Texan sun to create a light, airy interior. What’s remarkable about the museum is not the statement that it makes, but instead, the space it creates. Indoors, the exhibition spaces are varied from brightly lit rooms with walls of glass and gardens, huge warehouse-like gallery space or the smaller and darker enclosed rooms of a traditional museum.

suspended louvers or "leaves," Menil Collection, Houston Texas
the collection

For one family of collectors, the collection of over 16,000 works of art stretches far and wide. From French surrealists to Post-War American painting, indigenous works from Africa, Pacific Islanders and photography with a humanitarian slant. The strength of the collection isn’t in its breadth, but rather in its curation. There’s a personality felt throughout the museum, as if the ghosts of John and Dominique are walking with you, showing you their favorites. That isn’t by chance, as the museum was designed to display art much like they did in their own home. Dominique also wanted the ability to move the art and create new juxtapositions. For some works, that simply wasn’t possible but today, I think the Menil Collection accomplishes her wishes, in part, through their temporary exhibits. Take the current exhibit, Silence, for example. Varied bodies of work gathered around the central theme of silence, allowing the viewer to ponder exactly what that means within the context of art. (The exhibit is open until October 21, 2012, by the way. You can read a review of it in the Houston Chronicle.)

Michael Heizer, Isolated Mass/Circumflex (#2), 1968–72, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
the experience

I've visited the Menil Collection only once on a sunny, summer afternoon. As I walk through my museum visit in my mind, it's not a singular work that holds my attention, but the feeling that I left with or the feeling of the experience as a whole. An experience orchestrated by the art, how it was displayed and the building itself. I didn't look at the art with a desire to learn, but instead of one to feel. The art wasn't held up as relics of the past, but as objects of beauty to admire, reflect and become inspired.

Further Reading

To learn more about de Menil family and their legacy, I highly recommend Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil. Available at Amazon or your local library.


website: Menil Collection
cost: Free!
don't miss: Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, an exhibit of the objects of inspiration for Surrealist artists. A cabinet of curiosities that re-imagines what everyday objects may have inspired the artists of that age.


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Art Smart
Art Smart is a virtual roundtable discussion with other bloggers who love exactly what I do, art and travel. This month's topic is museums or collections. For more ideas on museums to visit during your travels, check out these posts:

A Sense of Place: The Architecture of the High Museum

EuroTravelogue: A Visit to the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague

Career Girl Travels: The Meaning of Maori at Te Papa Tongarewa


I love museums based off of a personal collection - you truly get a sense of the collector and what they were trying to achieve/promote with their interests.

Some of my favorite museums - like the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and the Frederic Mares Museum in Barcelona - are both based on individual collectors.

I agree, they're so much fun. Really regret not going to see the Barnes Collection before it moved.

Renzo strikes again! He's everywhere, isn't he? This is a really lovely post - I like what you posed at the end - what do we feel as a whole when we leave a museum, based on the entire experience? I'll have to remember that....

Wow..I would have loved to see the frescoes of Cyprus! I bet it was stunning! Piano really understood the importance of light and the louvres are fascinating! What I loved most about this post is the fact that you reflected on your experience and how it made you feel. Very touching indeed. Thx for the wonderful post Kelly!

Those frescoes were really amazing, especially in the way they were displayed. Glad they recorded it so at least, you can view it online. Thanks for the kind comment Jeff!

That's exactly how I feel in the Piano wings of the High, especially the contemporary art gallery. It's like he's able to build temples to art.

I travel to Houston every year to see The Modern, thanks for the inspiration to add a new sight to my itinerary.

I also agree about viewing a private collection. It gives insight on how someone thinks. This looks like a great place. If I make it to Houston I will find this place for sure.

I thought this was a house then later on found out that it is a museum. A nice museum though. Do you have pictures of the collections and artworks?