A Local Curator Shares What You Can’t Miss In Houston

Clare Elliott, assistant curator for the Menil Collection, tells the story behind Houston’s most influential art figures.

Houston is much more cosmopolitan and dedicated to great art than people might think. And not just visual art—music, symphony, even opera. Many of these experiences can be found in Houston’s Museum District, where the Menil Collection lives.

See all in “The Next Great Art Cities.”

The museum, which opened in 1987, houses the collection of John de Menil and his wife Dominique. The couple moved to Houston from Paris in the 1940s during World War II when France was occupied. John died in 1973, well before the space opened, and there were some rumors that Dominique would head back to Paris, but she didn’t. She decided to stay and keep the museum in Houston.

The collection is really diverse. The Menils were interested in everything from African art and antiquities, to Byzantine work and, especially, surrealism, which we’re most known for. We have especially strong holdings with René Magritte. We recently did two exhibitions, one of the early work and one of the late. Today we buy work from artists of the same vein, such as Robert Gober.

Dominique died in 1998, and she left it really open to the next generation, but we’ve been very careful to honor what she started here. She was adamant that there be no panels or blurbs explaining the works. Instead, she wanted visitors to have an unmediated experience with art.

The original collection started with the school of Paris-type painters—Braque, Picasso—but then the Menils got very interested in surrealism, what we’re most well known for. Our holdings with René Magritte are so strong that we recently hosted two exhibitions, one of his early work and one of his late. Today, we buy work from artists in the same surrealist vein, like Robert Gober; he’s a natural artist to pursue.

Renzo Piano designed the building to blend in. Even though it’s not someone’s house, the surroundings feel domestic. You’ll even find lots of middle-class bungalows around the property in Houston’s Museum District.

While not all of this district is walkable, pockets definitely are. From the Menil, you can easily walk to the Rothko Chapel, the Cy Twombly gallery, and Dan Flavin’s installation of fluorescent lights. The neighborhood is divided into zones, and each zone is featured quarterly during Museum Experience days, which are basically block parties that feature family friendly activities, music, readings, food trucks, and performance art. In other words, it’s the perfect event to build a trip to Houston around.

Kayleen Schaefer is a journalist and author of Text Me When You Get Home, which was widely praised as “witty,” “timely, nimble, essential” and more, by outlets such as ELLE, The Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, BuzzFeed and many others. She also wrote the bestselling Kindle Single memoir Fade Out. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, and many other publications. Her new book, But You’re Still So Young, is out now. She lives in New York City.