A museum engaged with art for life’s sake
The Menil Collection is an art museum located in Houston, Texas, USA, in a 30-acre neighborhood of art. The main building houses special exhibitions and the permanent collection, and it anchors a campus with four other museum buildings: two are dedicated to single artists (Cy Twombly and Dan Flavin), the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Menil Drawing Institute. Known for displays that allow the objects and works of art to speak for themselves—there are no “didactics” on the wall or media in the galleries—the Menil philosophy is to foster each individual’s direct, personal encounter with works of art. The display of carefully chosen artworks in sympathetic settings are Menil hallmarks.
Loan shows and artist projects are the most visible exhibitions, featuring new perspectives and new scholarship and reflecting the stance of an artist-centered institution. The museum’s own collection—displayed in two-thirds of the main building and often rotated—is built around several types of art loved and collected from the 1940s to the 1990s by the Menil Collection’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil. Best known are the Surrealist and other modern European painting and sculpture. Also included are Byzantine and medieval art and artifacts; African, Pacific Islands, and Pacific Northwest Native art; art of the ancient Americas and the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. The collection area that has grown the most since the museum opened in June 1987 is American art since World War II.
Making art accessible is vital to the Menil’s mission, so no admission is charged and all public programs are free. All of the Menil campus buildings are entered at ground level, symbolic of its democratic ideals. The award-winning, landmark Menil Collection building of 1987 and the Cy Twombly Gallery (1995) were designed by architect Renzo Piano, who worked closely with Dominique de Menil to make the main building seem “small on the outside but large on the inside.” It is illuminated by changing natural light, bringing life to the artworks. The Twombly Gallery was designed in consultation with the artist and combines special sunlight baffles and unpainted plaster walls to create an Italianate glow for the paintings.
The 1996 Dan Flavin installation was created for Richmond Hall, a 1930s commercial building rehabilitated for that purpose. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel, designed by Francois de Menil, housed two frescoes rescued for the Church of Cyprus and displayed from 1997 to 2012, when they were returned—the space reopened in 2015 with the first of a series of yearlong installations.
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