When you think about great art cities in the United States, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami probably come to mind. But Houston is home to a robust arts scene of its own, with everything from colorful graffiti parks to modern museums. If that comes as a surprise, you’re not alone.
“In general, when people think of Houston, I think . . . some still have this concept of it being so Texas—like, cowboys and stuff—and it not being as urbanized as it really is,” says Reagan Corbett, an artist and Houston native living and working in her home city. “Others think of Houston as [having] oil and gas, state fairs, good sports teams, music, good food . . . they know there’s a lot going on in Houston, but nothing super-specific to the art scene.”
Corbett says that, while wealth from oil and gas companies helped bring fine art to Houston in previous decades by funneling money into the construction of museums, the city’s current ongoing growth, affordability, and variety of housing options are attracting a fresh crop of young creatives. They are contributing to the influx of art accessible to a new generation of admirers. Whatever your taste in art, Houston likely has it. Here’s how to take in the highlights.
Spend “Second Saturday” at Sawyer Yards
The industrial park turned creative playground is home to more than 400 artists’ studios.
Set in a working train yard in Houston’s historic First Ward, this creative campus—one of the largest in the country—makes its home in a former industrial complex whose centerpiece is several rice silos repurposed into work spaces. More than 400 artists’ studios, including Corbett’s, fill the complex’s six former warehouses, which open to the public on the second Saturday of each month from noon until 5 p.m., allowing visitors to enjoy a market, meet artists, and explore their paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and photography free of charge. Plus, each of Sawyer Yards’ six warehouses hosts exhibitions throughout the year.
Watch the sun set (or rise) from inside James Turrell’s Skyspace structure
The Insta-worthy, interactive installation will test your perception of light and color.
Every evening, Wednesday through Monday, students and the public alike flock to the lawn outside Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. That’s where you’ll find the “Twilight Epiphany” sequence at the Skyspace, an interactive installation by James Turrell, a U.S. artist whose works challenge viewers’ perception of light and space. Built in 2012, the pyramid-shaped Skyspace structure is topped with a 72-foot, square-shaped steel roof that, during sunrise and sunset on those designated days, is bathed in color-changing light from a built-in LED system. While reclining on benches in Skyspace’s upper and lower levels, guests can peer through the roof’s square-shaped aperture and into the darkening (or lightening, if you’re an early bird) sky. Admission is free, and seat reservations, although not required, can be made in advance. Get your ’grams before going in—photography is prohibited inside the installation.
Tour the public art at University of Houston’s campus
The school’s public art collection is some 600 works strong.
Thanks to a measure created by its Board of Regents in 1966 and passed by the Texas Legislature three years later, 1 percent of construction costs of all building projects at the University of Houston are dedicated to the acquisition of pieces for the school’s public art program. Now, Public Art of the University of Houston System (PAUHS) includes more than 600 works by local, regional, national, and international artists. Sign up for a free, guided tour of artworks around campus, including Tony Smith’s 15-foot-tall, 1962 sculpture “The Snake Is Out,” set on the south lawn of the school’s Fine Arts Building. Steps away from Smith’s sculpture is “Double Physichromie,” a 65-foot-long sculpture by 95-year-old Venezuela-born artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. The colorful sculpture contains more than 2,000 aluminum and steel parts and was the Paris-based artist’s first public sculpture commission in the United States.
Get hypnotized inside the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
The one-time reservoir is now temporarily home to a dramatic and dizzying installation.
Built in 1926 as a drinking-water reservoir and decommissioned in 2007, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is now one of the most distinctive places in Houston to enjoy art. Through April 7, the 87,500-square-foot cistern (designed to hold 15 million gallons of water) is home to “Carlos Cruz-Diez at the Cistern: Spatial Chromointerference.” The dazzling installation by this artist, whose work is also at the University of Houston campus, features the projection of moving, colored light onto the Cistern’s 221 concrete columns, walls, and white cubes so that they appear to float in shallow water on the reservoir’s floor. Cistern access is limited to guided tours, and tickets must be purchased in advance.
Go in search of street art
From feel-good murals to make-you-think motifs, walls around the city are all inked up.
Every other autumn, the Houston Urban Experience (HUE) Biennial Mural Festival—founded by local artist GONZO247 in 2015—brings artists from all around the world who blanket buildings throughout Houston with graffiti, murals, and more. This year’s exact dates and locations are TBA, but Graffiti Park, located at the intersections of Leeland and Chartres streets in the city’s EaDo neighborhood, is one of the festival’s original sites and a fun and photogenic place to enjoy the larger-than-life art year round. Other must-see street art spots include GONZO247’s “Houston Is Inspired” mural, at the corner of Preston and Travis streets; the outdoor Harrisburg Art Museum, whose murals, graffiti, and street art are curated by local artist Daniel Anguilu; and the Via Colori Street Painting Festival, which brings the sidewalks surrounding Houston’s City Hall to life with chalk each November.
Make your way around The Menil Collection
Art and architecture combine to create a world-class viewing experience.
Set mainly in Houston’s serene, leafy Montrose neighborhood, The Menil Collection is an art museum consisting of five separate structures where visitors can enjoy paintings, sculptures, and works in other media. Don’t miss its Renzo Piano–designed Main Building and Cy Twombly Gallery; the late artist Dan Flavin’s untitled, permanent fluorescent-light installation inside the 1930s-built Richmond Hall; or the Johnston Marklee–designed Menil Drawing Institute, the Collection’s sleek, new addition, which opened in November 2018. Hours vary, and buildings sometimes close for the installation of new exhibitions, but admission is always free. Before or after your visit, fuel up at chef Greg Martin’s nearby European-inspired Bistro Menil—where the dishes are works of art, too.
Stroll along the Glassell School of Art’s sloped roof
Awesome architecture is second only to the scenic views at this art school.
The Glassell School of Art is the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school (it’s part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), but you don’t have to be a student to hang out there. Its new, 93,000-square-foot building, designed by Steven Holl Architects and opened in May 2018 as part of the museum’s $450 million renovation project, features a sloped roofline that leads from the sidewalk to the building’s vast BBVA Compass Roof Garden, which affords sprawling views of Houston and beyond.
Whether you check out an exhibition inside or simply walk along the school’s roof, be sure to see Cloud Column before you leave. The 30-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor—the artist who created Chicago’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, widely known as The Bean—debuted in the new Brown Foundation Plaza near the school’s entrance in March 2018, setting off a playful culture war between the two cities.
Check in to the Lancaster Hotel
The newly renovated Theater District hotel is chock-full of made-in-Texas art.
One of Houston’s longest-operating boutique hotels, the 93-room Lancaster reopened in Houston’s Theater District in November 2018 under new ownership after a major renovation to repair damage dealt by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. More than 200 works by 100-plus Texas artists, such as Mark Flood and Margo Sawyer, are displayed throughout the hotel, which guests can explore on their own using in-room guides.
Eat to your art’s content at BCN Taste & Tradition
The only competition for the Montrose restaurant’s menu is the art that adorns its walls.
Not only is the Spanish-inspired fare at BCN Taste & Tradition the real deal (be sure to order one of the dozen or so artful iterations of the G&T—a cocktail the Spanish perfected—as soon as you sit down), but the decor is exceptional, too. While enjoying chef and Barcelona native Luis Roger’s addictive patatas bravas, you can marvel at original works by Picasso, Dalí, and Miró. They’re hung in gilded frames throughout the elegant restaurant, which opened in 2014 in a charmingly restored, Spanish-style 1920s home.
Houston was one of 25 global destinations to make AFAR’s list of Where to Go in 2019 for the burgeoning art scene.
>> Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Houston