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Texas Adopts the Arts

On an early fall evening in Houston, a typically hot and muggy one, some of the city's most powerful business and social leaders gathered in the expansive main hall of the Museum of Fine Arts. They were there to celebrate the opening of a retrospective of Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist best known for his Social Realist‚style murals, who, together with his wife Frida Kahlo, changed the face of Mexican painting. The men wore business suits—with or without cowboy boots; the women, designer dresses in electric shades of red and purple. A more common topic of conversation than Rivera and his art was the museum's giant new addition, an $83 million project under construction next door. The four-story, 192,000-square-foot Indiana-limestone structure, designed by Pritzker Prize‚winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, opens March 25. It will be named for Audrey Jones Beck, who, with her husband, donated a prominent collection of works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Seurat, and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.

When the Beck Building opens, this art museum, established in 1924, will become one of the largest in the country. But the stakes are a lot greater than the construction of more exhibition space might suggest. All across Texas—in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and even El Paso—art museums are either undergoing major expansions or being built from scratch. To an outsider it might appear as if Texans are trying to buy culture, much the way the University of Texas at Austin has been accused over the years of buying academic legitimacy by spending millions to acquire original manuscript collections for the Harry Ransom Research Center. But to Texans, spending large sums on art museums is nothing so much as an expression of civic pride, a love that often borders on blind adoration.

Sometimes this devotion to place takes on odd overtones. Witness a phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere: residents bequeathing their estates—even their houses—to art museums. For instance, in March 1999, Rienzi, once the home of Harris Masterson III and his wife, Carroll Sterling Masterson (her father was one of the founders of Humble Oil, which became Exxon), opened as an extension of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. It contains examples of English furniture, European paintings, and an impressive collection of 18th-century Worcester porcelain. But Rienzi pales in comparison with Bayou Bend, the sprawling Colonial Revival mansion formerly owned by legendary Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg. After her father bought the property in the early part of the century, Hogg and her brothers built the house, struck oil, and created eight gardens, renowned for their azaleas. Once Bayou Bend opened as the American decorative arts wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966, the public could tour the house, located on Lazy Lane in exclusive River Oaks (Houston's Beverly Hills), and see rare pieces of American furniture, Audubon prints, and a collection of ceramics and silverworks that includes pieces by Paul Revere.

Given this distinctly Texan philanthropy, it wasn't hard for the Museum of Fine Arts to raise the millions needed for the Beck Building. With the addition, the museum, which currently comprises the original Beaux-Arts building and two Mies van der Rohe wings built in 1958 and 1974, will be able to display permanently works that, due to space limitations, could be shown only on occasion—such as certain paintings by Picasso, Pollock, and Warhol. As if to underscore its already significant Pollock holdings, the museum bought 18 works from the artist's estate just before breaking ground on the Beck Building. "The Beck will focus international attention on the museum and Houston," says Joseph Havel, one of the associate directors, who is himself an artist. (He created the bronze sculpture Curtain that will be displayed on either side of the Beck's front doors.) "It's a very active and exciting art scene that's only going to get brighter."

Havel isn't alone in his enthusiasm. Two nights after the sponsors' preview of the Rivera show, which drew the cream of Houston society, the MFA was packed, not with the cultural elite, but with mainstream art lovers—members of the museum who support the institution with as little as $40 a year. While hundreds of people streamed into the museum—2,000 would ultimately show up—a mariachi band played in a corner of the main room. Before the night was over, viewers were standing 10-deep to look at Rivera's paintings. (Rivera, who championed public art, would have loved the MFA's sculpture garden just across the street. It contains an array of pieces by artists as varied as Matisse, Frank Stella, David Smith, and Ellsworth Kelly.)

The next night, not far from the museum, another crowd turned out for another opening—actually several openings and open houses on Gallery Row, a group of eight galleries ("our little SoHo," one owner calls it) in a strip mall. The main event was at the Barbara Davis Gallery, a show of drawings and sculptures by James Surls, the Texas-born founder of the Lawndale Art Center, an alternative exhibition space. "It's happening here," says Barbara Davis. "Texans aren't just decorative-art buyers anymore; art has become a lifestyle for many collectors. I've been in business for seventeen years, but the big change has taken place over the past four or five years."

With local institutions such as Project Row Houses, which presents the work of Texas artists in an area reclaimed from urban blight, and a recently refurbished Contemporary Arts Museum, there are enough art-related functions that it can be hard to keep up. Some nights, as many as 20 events are going on at once—a level of activity that ranks Houston with cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, if not New York itself. "The gallery scene has developed here—that's for sure," says Doug Lawing, who gave up a legal practice five years ago to open a gallery downtown. "I have a national client base; I just happen to be located in Houston."

IF ONE WOMAN COULD BE CONSIDERED THE MOTHER OF arts patronage in Houston, if not in all Texas, it's the late Dominique de Menil. In a state where supporting the arts has become de rigueur among certain social cliques, de Menil has assumed legendary status. In many ways, Dominique, along with her husband, forged the way for a style of patronage based as much on a commitment to place as on an individual vision. What's more, the de Menils reflected perfectly the Texas vogue for Modernism. While Texans will collect art from other periods, it's what's current—contemporary, even cutting-edge—that appeals to them most. A state of pioneers—and pioneering art.

Dominique de Menil's father was Frenchman Conrad Schlumberger, who invented a device to locate oil that made him very rich indeed. Dominique married Jean de Menil in 1931. As Europe came under the shadow of Hitler, the couple left the Continent and settled in Houston. There Jean (who changed his name to John) ran the Schlumberger company office. All of Texas society waited to see how the de Menils would spend their money.

They began by hiring a young architect named Philip Johnson to build a house for them in River Oaks. That house would change the direction of American architecture, prefiguring the weekend home the architect would later build for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut—the seminal Glass House. The residence Johnson designed for the de Menils, his first, had five bedrooms in a 5,900-square-foot rectangular structure—big enough to accommodate a brood that grew to five children: Georges, Philippa, François, Adelaide, and Christophe. Building on a collection they had begun in the forties, which included a number of Modernist masterpieces, the de Menils began, in the sixties, to buy works by contemporary artists whose popularity increased dramatically during that decade—Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. At the same time, the de Menils supported a range of social causes. Especially sensitive to racial issues, they endorsed the Black Panthers and later sponsored local African-American politicians such as Congressman Mickey Leland, who became a close friend.

In the mid-sixties, the de Menils approached Rothko about creating, as Dominique would describe it, "a religious environment, a sacred place." When Rothko suggested an octagonal-shaped chapel that would house new paintings he'd create especially for the project, to be open to the public, the de Menils again turned to Philip Johnson. Johnson's Rothko Chapel contains 14 paintings—each a beautiful, large monochrome canvas—that Rothko produced from 1964 to 1967. The de Menils were proceeding with the construction of the chapel when, in 1969, they offered Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk to the city of Houston, with the stipulation that it be dedicated to Martin Luther King. The city refused. Unfazed, they decided to create a space for the work themselves—next to the spot they'd chosen for the Rothko Chapel. The meditative quality of the Rothkos seems to echo in the sober lines of Newman's obelisk, which is set in a reflecting pool just outside the building.

Visitors came by the thousands to the Rothko Chapel, until it was closed in 1998. Cracks had appeared in the foundation and threatened to destroy one side of the building. Following renovations, the chapel will reopen early this summer.

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