Coming in from a busy avenue to stand under the bright, spacious rotunda of the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on a March morning, I felt a sense of grace descend. Sunlight filtered through the cloud-inspired ceiling, and the harsh Texas glare softened into something like a beneficent aura.
Surrounding me were doorways leading to full-room installations by the likes of James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama, and Gyula Kosice. Beyond the circular, Guggenheimesque balconies above me, a maze of galleries contained, among other things, the country’s most important collection of Latin American modernist art.
The Kinder, which opened to the public in November, houses more than 1,200 works of modern and contemporary art, almost all of which were not previously on permanent display. These range from international treasures, like a pair of fireplace murals painted by Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger for Nelson Rockefeller, to masterworks by local legends Robert Rauschenberg, who was born in nearby Port Arthur, and Jesse Lott, who has lived in Houston since his childhood.
The story of how Houston became home to such wonders begins in the 1940s, when the French-born oil-industry aristocrats John and Dominique de Menil began spending most of their time in the city where they would eventually establish themselves as major art patrons. Friends from Paris and New York couldn’t understand how they could move to such a cultural desert. John responded with a biblical joke: “It’s in the desert that miracles happen.”
Seven decades later, I’m amazed to hear that some still think of Houston as part of “flyover country” when it has become one of the world’s great art cities. What would it take to wake people up to all that diverse, sophisticated Houston has to offer? The answer might be something like the Kinder.
Hiram Butler, a longtime Houston art dealer who represents Lott, Turrell, and others, sees the Kinder’s unveiling as a defining moment for his city.
“Suddenly you’re walking into an encyclopedic museum that could only have been experienced in New York, Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s the great reveal.”
My hotel, the ZaZa Museum District, was just a couple of blocks away, and later that day I found myself walking past the Kinder again, this time after dark. In tribute to the Texas-size clouds over Houston, architect Steven Holl jacketed the exterior with rounded, incandescent ribs, giving the three-story building the soft, puffy feel of a cumulous white night-light. I began to think of the Kinder as a stellar nebula — the genesis, perhaps, of a new polestar for the U.S. art world.
The Kinder’s unveiling is not the first time that a new era for Houston has arrived in the form of a cloud. In 1900, a major hurricane destroyed nearby Galveston and left Houston, which is farther inland, as the primary seaport for the region. The next year brought another historic plume — of oil, this time, from a well 90 miles east at Spindletop. The discovery transformed this part of Texas into an economic powerhouse.
One of the first things you notice when exploring Houston’s art world is the importance of patronage that is both visionary and very rich. Thanks to the unquenchable market for oil and gas, Houston has rarely been short of benefactors eager to turn petrodollars into cultural treasures. Fortunately, they have often been tasteful and forward-thinking, with an eye for talent and an understanding of art history.
For that, much credit goes to the de Menils, whom the New York Times Magazine once described as “the Medici of modern art.” The couple played key roles in the development of both the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Several of the works they acquired are on view in the Kinder Building, including the 16-foot Alexander Calder mobile that dominates the rotunda.
But the best way to delve deep into their legacy is by visiting the Menil Collection, a charming 1987 Renzo Piano building in the Montrose neighborhood. (The mellow park alongside the museum is also the best spot in the city for a picnic. Grab lunch at the on-site Bistro Menil or one of Montrose’s many great restaurants, such as Eunice and One Fifth.)
The museum contains numerous objects of fascination, from the prehistoric to the up-to-the-minute, but what I love most is the way the curators have put works by European modernists in conversation with traditional and ceremonial art from Africa, the South Pacific, and Indigenous America. I was struck by the resonance between the Picassos, Mirós, Ernsts, and Magrittes and, for instance, the elegantly exaggerated human forms of the Dogon wood sculptures of West Africa. A visitor can see how Surrealists and Cubists of prewar Europe were inspired by anthropological art and artifacts to develop (and borrow) new languages of representation.
This idea of cross-cultural pollination is crucial to the imprint that the de Menils left on Houston. In 1959, after visiting a Menil-funded exhibition that stressed the value of Indigenous sculpture as high art — in Houston, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement — architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller dashed off an excited telegram to influential curator Jermayne MacAgy with a sentiment that I think still rings true today. “You bring honor to Houston,” Fuller wrote, as the first city leading the way in building a new world around the “fundamentality of art.”