Labor day may be the unofficial end of the season but the heat and sunshine are still going strong in California. How did you spend your summer, readers? In July I took a break from sweating in my apartment to sweat in a new and exciting but still center-of-the-sun-degrees location: Houston, Texas. As soon as I deboarded the plane it was VERY clear that I’d be charting the most air-conditioned paths possible – hello museums! I don’t know that I’ll be going back in summer, but I definitely will make the trek again.

Before this trip Texas wasn’t high on my art tourism wish list, but as it turns out the only thing more shocking than the extreme heat and humidity was how incredibly wrong I was! My updated evaluation of the art scene is: “impressive and well funded”. Houston has a long, rich history in the arts and amazing institutions, many of which are free or nearly free.  The Museum of Fine Arts is huge, free and regularly open late. The Contemporary Art Museum next door, less huge, periodically free and very well curated. A little ways down the road, past the shady oaks of St.Thomas University (another great art department) is the Menil collection. A group of buildings holding the huge collection of the de Menil family.

Dominique and John de Menil were both born in France in 1908 and 1904 respectively. She studied math and physics at the Sorbonne and he supported his family as a banker in his younger days. The couple married in 1930 and began collecting art as they traveled Europe and north Africa. The family’s fortune came from Dominique’s father, an engineer whose invention revolutionized oil drilling. When the Nazi’s occupied Paris in World War 2 the couple took their children and penchant for art and activism to the United States.  Though their fortune was “peanuts” in comparison to the already well established oil barons of Texas, they used their funds to impressive ends as patrons, philanthropists and fixtures of Houston’s counterculture.

The standing Menil collection  is comprised of some +10,000 objects including prehistoric carvings, African totems, surrealist paintings and a very impressive collection of American modernists. The main hall was designed by Dominique and Renzo Piano, now the museum builder of choice who’s recently redone the Whitney and Harvard Art Museums.  The outside is missing the traditionally intimidating museum architecture and has a sense of stillness. The  surrounding houses have been strategically bought and painted the same “Menil Grey” to further integrate the gallery into the landscape. Even the interior arrangement is very un-museum like. Pieces are grouped in all different ways, sometimes by region, material, form, or concept to elicit thought outside of a chronological record. To accompany the European Surrealism exhibit there was also a room full of reference material making it more art as translation instead of the usual artist as magician route. You can browse selections on the organization’s website but nothing compares to the real thing. I’d suggest the recently closed Barnett Newman show as a starter. To preserve the intimate atmosphere of the place there is a strict no photography rule which was frustrating but understandable.

Beyond the main building there is still much more to see. The Cy Twombly gallery holds over 30 paintings, sculptures and works on paper and could easily take hours to go through. The Rothko Chapel, one of the first buildings erected in 1971, is a quiet meditative space full of monumentally simple yet sophisticated paintings, all commissioned by Dominique. There is also the Byzantine chapel, and the Dan Flavin installation in a decommissioned supermarket, plus a book store and cafe. Arranging them in bite sized sections makes it less of an overwhelming art smorgasbord, but if you’re anything like me you’ll still want to eat it all at once. I wouldn’t exactly call it a hidden gem, it’s one of the most important private collections in the country, but it was quiet enough to feel personal, and I imagine that’s how Mrs. de Menil intended it.

Where are your favorite art spots in your city? Do you have a go-to section of your local museum to beat the heat? Leave a comment down below and take a gander at these links for more on the De Menil’s work and legacy.

Originally published at

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