Small and Sophisticated, Texas’s Biggest Cultural Surprise
The Menil Collection can be found in a leafy residential neighborhood southwest of the petro-dollar skyline of downtown Houston. Widely esteemed as one of the greatest and most eclectic private museums in the United States, it is a magnificent assemblage of some 15,000 objects (a revolving number are on display) amassed by the late Paris-born Dominique de Menil and her husband John.
Sometimes described as American Medicis, the de Menils (whose fortunes derived from the oil-services firm Schlumberger, Ltd., founded by Dominique’s father and uncle) were legendary as Houston’s patron of the arts.
Dominique outlived her husband by twenty-five years (she died in 1997 at eighty-nine) and it is her expansive spirit that’s so evident in this individualistic and poetic collection.
Opened in 1987 in a simple but elegant low-rise building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, the museum achieves a low-key atmosphere (there is a bookstore, but no audio guides, and admission is free), suffused with natural but skillfully filtered Texan light. Viewing art here is a very intimate experience, just what Dominique de Menil intended.
Often compared to the other small gems of America’s museum scene – the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, the Frick in New York City – the Menil is in many ways broader than them all. At its heart is the justly famous Surrealism collection, with works by Man Ray, Duchamp, and Ernst, and one of the world’s best collections of Magritte.
The Menil is also rich in other 20th-century European artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, and Rodin. Across the street, an annex built in 1995 (also designed by Piano) comprises nine galleries of the work of the American artist Cy Twombly, another favorite of the de Menils.