back in h-town: menil collection

The Menil Collection is a short drive away from the MFAH and CAMH in downtown Houston. It has its own parking lot (yay!) and is free admission (yay!), but it’s only open Wednesday through Sunday, which are kind of odd hours. I know the museum more for the architecture than the art, and more for its history than its current events.

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The Menil Collection is a museum housing the private collection of John and Dominique de Menil and was opened to the public in 1987. Basically, the Menils were loaded, very much a part of the art scene, and contributed a lot to Houston in terms of the arts and architecture. They were also patrons to Philip Johnson, who went on to help define modern architecture.

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The Menil Collection is located in a fairly residential area, near the University of St. Thomas, and it fits its surroundings. It’s a pretty simple rectangular structure with wood siding painted gray, a low profile, and a surrounding portico. You enter in the middle and go either left or right to the galleries. The collection itself is kind of odd, split between twentieth century and contemporary works on the right and antiquities and African stuff on the left. The three exhibits going on right now are “Progress of Love” (weird contemporary stuff, some of which is downright pornographic), “Claes Oldenburg: Strange Eggs” (eh), and “Dear John & Dominique: Letters and Drawings from the Menil Archives” (kinda interesting if you’re interested in the museum itself or art scene and don’t mind reading, but not much to look at).

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As a side note, there seem to be a whole lot of museum guards for the relatively small museum (smaller than the MFAH but larger than the CAMH) – and they’re strict! I didn’t get yelled at, but there were a lot of other people that got evil eyes and strongly worded “No photos” or “Stop that.” Then again, a Picasso got vandalized last June at the Menil, so I can imagine they’re being vigilant to avoid a repeat of that incident. Or maybe it was because I was there when it first opened for the day and the guards were still in a morning grouch.

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The architecture is a classic. Not sure how many people know of the Menil, but we studied it in architecture school, which could be because I went to school in Texas … where we studied a lot of Texas buildings. But it was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, and that dude’s internationally famous. And for good reason. The Menil Collection is mostly known for its louvered ceiling, which bounces light into the museum space, since natural light generally looks great but the ultraviolet rays from direct sunlight can damage artwork. In some of the gallery spaces the ceiling is completely covered to further protect the work from light, which is understandable but unfortunate. But the exterior, where the louvers are exposed … well that could use a real good scrub down.

back in h-town: contemporary arts museum houston

Ah, so last week I posted about the MFAH, which I often visited this past summer during my lunch breaks. If you go to Cafe Express (the MFAH’s cafe) or the food truck parked in the MFAH parking lot, you get free admission to the MFAH if you go at lunchtime. So … me and the other interns went a number of times. Anyhow, I used to intern at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), so I had to stop by to check out its new exhibits. It’s much smaller than the MFAH and it’s a non-collecting museum, so there’s no permanent collection like the MFAH has.


First up, the CAMH got a statue! Of Andy Warhol! “The Andy Monument” by Rob Pruitt was apparently on display in New York’s Union Square for a while, but seeing as I still have not been to Union Square, I never saw it there. And hey, Andy looks like he totally belongs at the CAMH since his shiny chrome surface matches the CAMH’s shiny corrugated steel exterior.


The CAMH has two floors – the ground floor and a basement level – so there are always two exhibits going on at the same time. On the ground floor there’s “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and downstairs the exhibit is “Unfinished Country: New Video from China,” both of which will run until mid-February 2013. The upstairs exhibit was a bit random and confusing because I wasn’t there for one of the scheduled performances, and the performative aspect is lost when only artifacts are shown. It’s an interesting topic, but I felt like there was information lacking, like the exhibit was evidence for a research paper rather than a stand-alone kinda deal. Downstairs I sat and watched some of those videos, but honestly not for very long. Found it kind of lacking.

I like the CAMH, I really do. I have fond memories of my few months working there, but … I’m not a big fan of the exhibits. It’s a small museum (really small), it doesn’t have the resources that larger museums do, and the members of its tiny staff take on multiple roles. But the CAMH isn’t about catering to the public or showing famous pieces of art. It’s about contemporary art – what’s happening in the art world out there right now – whether you like it or not. Plus, it doesn’t charge admission and it’s motto is “Always Fresh, Always Free.” I can appreciate that.

back in h-town: museum of fine arts, houston

Where’s your happy place? For me, I feel most at home in museums and galleries. There’s something about the quiet contemplation of a piece of artwork and the clean, open gallery spaces that settles my mind. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is located in Houston’s Museum District and just a short walk away from the CAMH, where I worked over the summer. Since I’m here for the holidays, I decided to stop by my old stomping grounds and take a look. And hey, on Thursdays the MFAH is free! Unfortunately that also meant that the museum was more crowded than usual.

I’m actually not a big fan of their collection. I’ve been to so many museums over the years and the MFAH just isn’t up to the level of the Met or Smithsonian, which is to be expected of course, but it meant I made it through that museum in record time (also because I’ve been to the MFAH many times before). I saw the animated film “Eleanor’s Secret” (2009) while I was there since they were doing a free screening of it. It was shown dubbed in English as opposed to the original French, and it was cute but not something I would watch again. It was a nice outing and great to visit the MFAH again … but I think I’ve been spoiled by New York!


museum district outdoor sculptures

Personally I’m not a sculpture person. Just not a big fan of it. I appreciate Greek and Roman statuary, but only to the degree that I appreciate the mythology or history they are usually connected to. I’m also not really a fan of performance art or drawing or photography … I really just like painting. But paintings are always (unless it’s a mural) housed in museums, whereas some sculptures are just out there, exposed to the elements. It’s kind of brazen, the way outdoor sculptures shrug off the rain and the heat, while delicate canvas can only hang delicately on a white wall in a temperature-controlled environment.

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“Manilla Palm” (1978) by Mel Chin

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“New Forms” (1991-1992) by Tony Cragg

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“The Dance” (2000) by Linda Ridgway

The above three are outdoor sculptures from the Museum District. The first is behind the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAMH) and the latter two are in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH). I head over to the MFAH quite often because there’s a food truck parked over there and museum café … and there’s really no other food options in the area, which is kind of disappointing. Anyhow, that means that I see these sculptures quite often. (Note: There’s also a prominent red Calder in front of the MFAH, but I didn’t include it because after you’ve seen one Calder, you’ve seen them all … and I’ve seen a lot.)