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MFAH and the Menil Are Depriving Us of Local Art

Houston museums should display some Houston art.

Perhaps our Houston art museums have forgotten where they are. How else to explain the pitiful showing of Houston-made art in their galleries? Of the thousands of objects currently on view, I spy only five at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Okay, eight if you throw in outdoor sculpture. A shout-out to those who can tell me what they are. (I'm not counting photography, or the decorative arts in Bayou Bend's Texas room — those are fab, but different beasts from the big "A" art at the MFAH main campus.) And at Menil, zero.

Museum visitors to our city (and residents, too) might be excused for assuming that the only art we've ever had has been bought and brought from elsewhere. They'd know for sure that art had been made in New York and Paris, in Italy, Indonesia and Africa. But Houston? Not so much. Most of the time you can go through both of our major art museums thoroughly and leave without a clue that art has ever been made anywhere in Texas, let alone in Houston.

When I go to Rome or Paris, I pretty much expect to see a little Roman or Parisian art. Actually, I expect to see a lot; I look forward to it, and the museums deliver. That may be easy when you've got the likes of Caravaggio and Monet in your stable, but really, have we never produced anything worth showing in our museums?

When a museum-loving Parisian friend came to visit, I took him to MFAH and the Menil, of course. He loved some of the architecture; he complimented our Surrealists and was polite about our Impressionists (though I rather think he may have seen a good bit of both back home). But imagine my embarrassment when he asked to see Texas art. Sorry, I had to tell him, when it came to our museums.

We rightly (though perhaps a little too often) give ourselves lots of credit for a vibrant contemporary art scene. There's art everywhere. The city is full of galleries and studios. It's no challenge to see art that's being made in Houston. But art that was made in Houston? Seeing that is almost impossible.

Our current vibrancy didn't come from nowhere. It didn't start yesterday. It has roots, and it would be great if we could learn about them, great if we could see the actual artworks (even if they aren't all on a par with Rembrandt and Manet). Great if we could find out how our art past connects to today, and to the other art the museums do find room to display.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that all the art in our museums should be from Texas. I like seeing all that other stuff, too. I'm just saying that some of it should be from Texas — and even that some of it should be from Houston.

In that regard, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Amon Carter in Fort Worth and a few others around the state are doing a better job. Both DMA and Amon Carter have mounted major shows of Texas art over the past few years — Julian Onderdonk, Loren Mozley, and the current and timely "Alexandre Hogue: The Erosion Series" at DMA; and at the Carter, "Intimate Modernism: Fort Worth Circle Artists in the 1940s in 2008," and more recently an ongoing gallery devoted to "Texas Regionalism," soon to be replaced by "Lone Star Portraits."

The DMA has actually integrated some of its Texas holdings into the general American galleries — treating it almost like real art — almost as though the museum is proud of it.

There was a time, pre-Sweeney (that would be James Johnson Sweeney, director of MFAH from 1961 to 1967, who came down from New York to show the provincials how art things should be done) — a time before the phrase "world class" came with an automatic gag reflex — a time when MFAH actually did support local art. (Menil wasn't a museum yet, so it gets something of a pass.)

Back then, MFAH staged fairly regular exhibitions of the work of local artists. It even held an annual juried show open only to residents of Harris County. What better way to show the art of HERE? But Sweeney swept that away in an instant: too rinky-dink. And though area shows have been revived over the years by Blaffer and Lawndale, they're not quite the same without the cachet of our "major" museum.

Sure, Menil did its Forrest Bess exhibit in 2013 — but only after Robert Gober had made him something of a rediscovered sensation in New York. And MFAH put on its big Texas show — 15 years ago — and "Fresh Paint: The Houston School" way back in 1985. (How many of us can even remember 1985 now?)

Surely our local museums could find at least a closet to devote to an ongoing look at our local art heritage — a closet they'd let us into, since they don't seem inclined to take the Houston art they own out of the storage closets they keep it in. (Never thought I'd be begging to go into the closet.)

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1 comments
Kyle King
Kyle King

Houston art can be found ALL over the city. Houston is in many respects an art museum itself. Why two museum/art spaces are somehow at fault for not hanging more local art in them escapes me. You don't like the paucity of local art at MFAH or Menil? Try any number of bars, banks, coffee houses, parks, notable buildings, DOWNTOWN...I mean seriously, this was a topic deemed worthy of an article? Just because you have a pet peeve, doesn't mean anyone else shares it...OR that it deserves space in any publication. Times change, tastes change, cities change. In the words of Sgt. Hulka, "Lighten up, Francis".

 
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