Apollo Magazine (UK)


- By Louise Nicholson

In the 20th century, Houston became the energy capital of the world – and wealthy locals began to plough their fortunes back into the city. But few could have foreseen how the Museum of Fine Arts would boom to become one of the leading encyclopae­dic museums in the US

In 1941, a young French couple, Dominique and John de Menil, fled occupied Paris for the United States. Settling in the modestly sized city of Houston, Texas, they began to put their wealth to good use – she was an heiress to the Schlumberg­er oil-equipment fortune – and threw themselves into improving their new hometown, which they found surprising­ly internatio­nal and open to ideas. Eighty years on, it is their 17,000-piece Menil Collection, opened to the public in 1987, that above all else draws cultural pilgrims to the city. ‘My parents knew the De Menils,’ Gary Tinterow says. Houston-born and -raised, Tinterow has since 2012 been director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), an institutio­n that has one of the largest encyclopae­dic collection­s in the US – and which will later this year complete an ambitious expansion project that began in 2012. As a child, he was taken to the De Menil home on social occasions. ‘I became aware of their art when they had a large mobile home parked on Rice University campus – with air-conditioni­ng – and put on proper exhibition­s on cubism, Picasso, Braque, Surrealism,’ he says. ‘I went to see them when I was at high school.’

Such largesse was typical of the De Menils. They believed that art was ‘primary’ to human life and helped to cultivate spiritual consciousn­ess. They promoted religious tolerance, contribute­d to the life of the city, encouraged both existing art collectors and new ones: ‘They had a club,’ Tinterow says. ‘The De Menils bought the art, and members could then choose to buy it.’ They were also extremely active trustees of the MFAH, whose original museum building, which opened in 1924, was the first to be built in the state. ‘They guided policy and acquisitio­ns in the 1950s and ’60s,’ Tinterow explains. It was the De Menils who in 1961 helped to recruit James Johnson Sweeney, founding director of the Guggenheim Museum, as director. He knew Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had already added a dramatic, free-span exhibition space to the museum in 1958, and invited him back to add a monumental sweeping lobby with a gallery above and a theatre in the basement below. These are Mies van der Rohe’s only museum buildings in the US and remain untouched, still fit for purpose. Assuming – not without justificat­ion – that the De Menils would eventually present their collection to the museum, acquisitio­ns were often made to complement it. ‘When they decided to go off on their own, it was a major shift,’ says Tinterow. ‘But we made up for it.’

The MFAH and the Menil Collection are a 20-minute walk from each other in the downtown Museum District, via Philip Johnson’s striking Chapel of St Basil (1997) and his other buildings at the University of St Thomas. After the De Menils struck out alone, the two museums developed very differentl­y while both, in their ways, reflected the boom-town’s story. Houston was founded in 1836 by two

brothers from New York state, shopkeeper John K. Allen and his bookkeeper brother Augustus, who came west with other adventurer­s to snap up cheap land. They bought 6,642 flat, dusty acres on the west bank of the Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that meandered south to the bustling port of Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles away. Naming it after a friend of theirs, the politician Sam Houston, the frontier town flourished. Entreprene­urs living in log cabins traded quantities of cotton and hides that arrived by wagon and, soon, on 17 railway lines. When ambitious businessme­n funded half the cost of transformi­ng the Buffalo Bayou into the Houston Ship Channel, which opened in 1914, profits soared. With the first oil extraction in the Houston area in 1901, wooden derricks began to dot the prairies while refineries soon lined the channel. Houston became the world’s energy capital.

Away from their offices, Houston’s early oil tycoons and business barons lived in homes with lush gardens that flourished in the warm, congenial months from September to April (the infamous heat strikes only in summer). They gave lavishly to their city but few were art collectors; these would emerge in the next generation, from the mid 20th century onwards. After the death in 1939 of Monroe Anderson, who with his brother-in-law William Clayton built up the world’s largest cotton brokerage, his charitable foundation funded a cancer research hospital that would become the kernel of the Texas Medical Center (TMC), establishe­d six years later on what were then the southern fringes of the city. Around this same time, air-conditioni­ng in private homes became feasible, contributi­ng to a housing boom and, between 1940 and 1950, a population increase of more than 50 per cent.

Today, dozens of research institutio­ns draw experts from around the globe to TMC, making it the world’s largest medical centre. Meanwhile, Shell Oil Company relocated its headquarte­rs to Houston in 1971, leading the way for scores of major companies to establish a presence in the city. The citizens of what is now the fourth most populous city in the US are so internatio­nal and culturally diverse that in 2000 the census found it had no racial or ethnic majority; furthermor­e, its ethnic diversity registers at every socio-economic level.

It is not tourists but local inhabitant­s who are the leading consumers of Houston’s world-class music, opera, ballet, theatre and visual arts. The diversity of the population is reflected in the multitude of museums and arts projects across the city. Asia Society Texas Center, for instance, establishe­d in 1979 to promote greater knowledge of Asia and its cultures, has a performanc­e and art programme to rival its parent, Asia Society New York, and a building by Yoshio Taniguchi, completed in 2011, that stands beside any in this architectu­rally rich city; the steam that rises from its entrance canopy evokes a Japanese landscape painting. Then there are two impressive university museums, the Moody Center for the Arts, part of Rice University campus, and the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. Across in Third Ward, one of Houston’s historic African-American neighbourh­oods, Project Row Houses was founded by seven African-American artists in 1993 as an engine for social change; it comprises 22 little wooden houses, a few of which are still family homes, the rest used for community projects (the project now makes use of further structures in the area, too). And in Buffalo Bayou Park, which runs through the city centre beside ten miles of the

river, the cistern built in 1926 to bring drinking water to the city now hosts art installati­ons.

The MFAH and the Menil Collection anchor all this artistic energy. Once the De Menils decided to build their own museum, they put Dominique de Menil’s dollars to work creating their own art campus. They selected Renzo Piano to design a home for their stellar collection of 20thcentur­y art (from Matisse and Magritte to Twombly) and smaller holdings of antiquitie­s, Byzantine, medieval and ethnograph­ic art. Piano rose to the challenge of creating a building that was ‘small on the outside yet large on the inside’: in the elegant exterior, the extent of the space and number of intimate galleries come as a surprise on every visit. The 30-acre campus has four small buildings, too. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel – built for frescoes that have since been returned to Cyprus – has changing displays of contempora­ry installati­ons. The other three are permanentl­y devoted to a single artist: the sky-lit, interfaith Rothko Chapel (1971) hung with 14 meditative paintings by Mark Rothko (currently under restoratio­n and due to reopen this summer); the nine-room Cy Twombly Gallery (1992), also designed by Piano; and Richmond Hall, which houses a mesmerisin­g Dan Flavin light installati­on that was Dominique de Menil’s final commission, completed in 1998, the year after her death. Finally, there is the latest addition, the Menil Drawing Institute, which opened in 2018 and is the first purpose-built institutio­n of its kind in the US. Designed by architect Johnston Marklee and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg­h, it chimes with Piano’s building – as refined in detail as the works it contains (see Apollo, March 2019).

If the Menil campus realises its founders’ lofty aim for art to be experience­d in an intensely personal, preferably spiritual way, and attracts internatio­nal visitors, then the MFAH is more down to earth – a people’s museum. Most visitors are locals. ‘Their diversity continues to surprise and delight me,’ Tinterow says. ‘People come for relaxation and stimulatio­n. They choose to come, they have to make the effort, get in the car.’ Having worked at the Metropolit­an Museum of Art in New York for 28 years, he makes a cutting observatio­n: ‘Our visitors are more focused, engaged and aware than New York’s, where they seem glazed and shuffle through with a sense of obligation.’

Founded in 1900, the MFAH got its first building 24 years later, with a neoclassic­al design by local architect William Ward Watkin (Fig. 1). Then it took off: three expansions filled the road-constricte­d plot before the MFAH spilt across its boundaries – in the 1980s to a sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi (now with site-specific commission­s by Tony Cragg and Ellsworth Kelly) and then, in another direction, to a block of galleries by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, completed in 2000 and dedicated to European and American art. Five rooms display Old Master paintings from the Blaffer Foundation. Establishe­d by the oil heiress Sarah Campbell Blaffer in 1964, the foundation exists to promulgate its founder’s love of art – particular­ly by sending parts of its collection, such as its Goya and Hogarth print holdings, on tour to communitie­s beyond the reach of major art museums. Works on display at the MFAH include Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge (c. 1665; Fig. 4) by the Dutchman Willem van Aelst, known for his ornate still lifes; its lavish use of ultramarin­e, made from expensive lapis lazuli, adds to its exotic luxuriousn­ess.

Here, too, is the Audrey Jones Beck gift of 70 Impression­ist and Post-Impression­ist pictures – among them Gustave Caillebott­e’s The Orange Trees (1878; Fig. 3) and exceptiona­l Fauve paintings such as Andre Derain’s landmark work, The Turning Road, L’Estaque (1906; see p. 37), painted the year after he went to the south of France to join Matisse. Beck, who lived modestly despite inheriting a fortune from her grandfathe­r, the renowned banker, developer and politician Jesse Jones, formed her collection specifical­ly to give to the MFAH; from her grandfathe­r’s Houston Endowment she gave $20 million towards the Moneo building. The tunnel to this building is one big artwork. James Turrell’s The Light Inside (1999; Fig. 2) has walls of neon and ambient lights; walking through it is an all-encompassi­ng experience, like floating, as the light changes from blue to crimson to magenta. People go back and forth just to enjoy it.

As well as being housed in a maze of buildings, the MFAH is a cultural institutio­n of many parts. There is the museum, a major art school used by some 7,000 students of all ages, a research institute, two research libraries, a conservati­on studio, as well as myriad outreach programmes. ‘We are constantly looking at ways to engage the community,’ Tinterow says. There are also two satellite house-museums in River Oaks, a 15-minute drive away. Set

in lush gardens shaded by trees such as flowering dogwood, silverbell, and soaring American sycamores and winged elms, they evoke the elegance of upscale Houston life in the 20th century. Both were designed by local architect John F. Staub: at traditiona­l Bayou Bend (designed with Birdsall Briscoe and completed in 1928), 28 period rooms furnished with 17th- to 19th-century American decorative arts and paintings were created by Ima Hogg – whose vast fortune arrived when oil was found on her cotton plantation­s, and who campaigned against race and gender discrimina­tion in the 1940s; by contrast, at Rienzi (1952), Carroll and Harris Masterson enjoyed their carefully collected European decorative arts – which the MFAH is augmenting – in a mid-century home with plate-glass windows.

At the core of the MFAH, however, is its encyclopae­dic collection. As Tinterow says, the museum ‘made up for’ the non-arrival of the De Menils’ collection. ‘We did not try to fill those lacunae, we did something of our own. Most obviously, we built the leading Latin-American museum collection in the world, setting standards in art, acquisitio­n and publicatio­n’ – the museum’s Internatio­nal Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICCA) focuses on 20th-century Latin American and Latino art. Then there are the dazzling roomfuls of African, Indonesian and Pre-Columbian gold, assembled by Alfred Glassell Jnr (1913–2008), founder of the Transconti­nental Gas Pipe Line Corporatio­n. Wandering through them one encounters art that is often underrepre­sented in museums or kept in store: a gold crown (1900–50; Fig. 6) made by the Ewe people, who live mostly in the coastal regions of Ghana, blends European style with indigenous ways of depicting an elephant and antelope to illustrate a pithy proverb: the elephant may be big, but the little antelope is wiser. The MFAH has also started to embrace Islamic art, and in 2012 Tinterow struck a deal that has led to a long-term loan of 250 objects from the remarkable al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait. Among the museum’s own acquisitio­ns is a delicate 12th-century bronze incense burner from Persia, shaped like a cat and with a removable head for putting in the expensive incense ingredient­s – an object that gives an idea of exceptiona­l achievemen­ts in metalwork across the Islamic world, from Spain to India (Fig. 5). The museum’s current exhibition of new acquisitio­ns and gifts, ‘Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection’ (until 26 April), shows it to be establishi­ng a foundation collection for this field.

It’s hardly surprising that the MFAH needs even more space – or that it has raised more funds than it needs to pay for a massive, four-part extension. In a fundraisin­g campaign led by Richard Kinder, chairman of trustees and co-founder of one of North America’s largest energy infrastruc­ture companies, most of the $472 million has been raised locally (the goal was $450 million). A new conservati­on building, art-school building and public plaza are complete. And on 1 November, the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building opens, designed by Steven Holl Architects and providing more than 100,000 square feet for displaying the museum’s collection – in particular what Tinterow describes as ‘our very strong collection of modernist abstractio­n from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, in the same league as the Met, Chicago, LACMA’. In these airy new spaces visitors can look forward to enjoying more of the MFAH’s American art, from Mark Rothko’s familiar Red and Pink on Pink (c. 1953) to lesser-known pieces such as American Dream’n (2009) by Fahamu Pecou (b. 1975). Such works complement and continue the museum’s strong modern art holdings, which include Constantin Brancusi’s A Muse (1917), an adaptation in bronze of his 1912 version, Pablo Picasso’s Woman with a Large Hat (1962) and two remarkable commission­s by Nelson Rockefelle­r in 1939 for the grand salon of his New York apartment: soaring fireplace murals by Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse (the latter is on long-term loan to the museum).

Stroll along the avenues of live oaks, with their spreading boughs, and across the Rice University campus and you’ll reach the local sunset hangout on the lawn in front of the music department. James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany (2012) was given by Suzanne Deal Booth, a Rice alumna who worked for Turrell and helped build his first Skyspace at MoMA PS1. This is the only two-storey Skyspace and the first to be engineered for acoustics, which the music students experiment with. In a square pavilion, LED lights in tune with the dwindling sunlight cast floating colour over the walls, creating an ethereal experience. The very keen can get up early and experience it at sunrise, too. Ⓐ

‘It’s hardly surprising that the MFAH needs even more space’

 ??  ?? 1. The south facade of the original building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which opened in 1924
1. The south facade of the original building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which opened in 1924
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 ??  ?? 2. The Light Inside, 1999, James Turrell (b. 1943), neon and ambient light, length 35.97m. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
2. The Light Inside, 1999, James Turrell (b. 1943), neon and ambient light, length 35.97m. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
 ??  ?? 4. Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge, c. 1665, Willem van Aelst (1627–after 1687), oil on canvas, 67.3×54cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
4. Hunt Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge, c. 1665, Willem van Aelst (1627–after 1687), oil on canvas, 67.3×54cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
 ??  ?? 3. The Orange Trees, 1878, Gustave Caillebott­e (1848–94), oil on canvas, 154.9×116.8cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
3. The Orange Trees, 1878, Gustave Caillebott­e (1848–94), oil on canvas, 154.9×116.8cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
 ??  ?? 5. Incense burner, 12th century, Persia,
Seljuk dynasty (1040–1194), bronze, ht 30.2cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
5. Incense burner, 12th century, Persia, Seljuk dynasty (1040–1194), bronze, ht 30.2cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
 ??  ?? 6. Crown, 1900–50, Ewe, Ghana, gold, ht 17.1cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
6. Crown, 1900–50, Ewe, Ghana, gold, ht 17.1cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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