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Hiding in Plain Sight: Houston's Menil Collection

Despite its unassuming ways, Houston's Menil Collection astounds with internationally known works of art
Written by John Davidson.

Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, installed near the Rothko Chapel, serves as a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

The best treasures are often hidden, and sometimes the best place to hide them is in plain sight. Thirty years ago, when Dominique de Menil began implementing plans for a museum to house the art collection she and her husband, John, had assembled over four decades, she met with the Italian architect Renzo Piano (who had caused a sensation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and asked him to design a building that would blend in with the blocks of modest, gray-and-white, 1920s bungalows she owned in Montrose, one of Houston’s established inner-city neighborhoods. A generous and understated woman known in Houston for wearing a mink coat inside out, Mrs. de Menil explained that she wanted the museum to look small on the outside, but be as big as possible on the inside.

To fulfill Mrs. de Menil’s request, Piano designed a neighborhood-scale, block-long, cypress-sided building that appears to float above the lawn. Surrounded by the arts-and-crafts bungalows (all painted the color that has come to be known as Menil gray), the serene, elegant building is considered one of Piano’s best. This distinction is appropriate for the Menil Collection, which ranks with the great private museums in the United States—the Frick in New York City, the Gardner in Boston, and the Phillips in Washington, D.C. The Menil continues to build its collection, and now includes multiple buildings scattered across a 40-acre campus that is woven smoothly into the fabric of the Montrose neighborhood.

The Menil’s director, Josef Helfenstein, describes the Menil as an “oasis within the city.” The Menil, he says, “gives visitors a friendly, completely unmediated experience of the art. There’s nothing noisy here. We’re not interested in putting on blockbusters. There are no long lines. Nothing stands between the viewer and the art. The way the museum fits into the bungalows and the fabric of the neighborhood—there’s no other place like this in the world.”

“Negative space” works by Michael Helzer attract interest on the Menil’s front lawn. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)The primary entrance to the Menil’s main building is from Sul Ross Street. You won’t see banners or big signs. Staff members note that visitors occasionally pull to a stop alongside the museum building and ask “Where is the Menil?”A broad sidewalk leads to a long porch that runs across the front of the building. The façade is gray cypress; the steel beams are painted white. The louvered roof looks something like a very large Venetian blind stretched horizontally to tame the Texas sunlight for the interior galleries. Dominique de Menil wanted visitors to see the art as she enjoyed it in her light-filled home, with the light changing throughout the day. And entering the museum is a bit like entering someone’s house. There’s no admission fee, no gift shop, just a simple desk on  one side of the room where a staff member awaits questions. Beyond the main foyer, another room leads to a secondary entrance onto Branard Street.  A long hallway leads in both directions toward the museum’s galleries.

Dominique and John de Menil began collecting art after moving from France in the 1940s to establish the Houston office of Schlumberger Ltd., an oil field services company. Her father and uncle collaborated to invent an electronic sounding device that, when lowered into the borehole of a well, would reveal the composition of minerals beneath the surface. As CEO, John de Menil managed Schlumberger Ltd. (established in France in the 1930s) as it grew into a giant international corporation with its headquarters in Houston. Mrs. de Menil would later say that they were inspired to collect art by what they didn’t find in Houston. They bought work by Picasso, Cézanne, Braque, and Matisse, and began assembling a collection of surrealist pieces that featured Magritte, Duchamp, and Max Ernst. The Menil now houses collections of classical, medieval, Byzantine, African, Northwest Coast, surrealistic, and contemporary art. The museum’s curators mount exhibitions from approximately 16,000 objects that rotate through galleries from on-site, upstairs storage vaults known as “treasure rooms.”


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