New Designs for Menil Collection Create a Better Art Neighborhood for Houston

Photo courtesy of Gretchen Sammons and the Menil Collection
With the recent appointment of architecture firms Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Johnston Marklee, the Menil Collection slowly moves forward with its plan to enhance and expand the museum's landscape in the heart of Houston.

The 30-acre Menil Collection is known as a museum and "neighborhood of art." The Menil's main building houses works of art from modern artists to paintings by Picasso. Following a sidewalk or pathway brings visitors to other buildings, such as the Cy Twombly gallery and the Rothko Chapel. The surrounding bungalows are residences and offices for the Menil Collection and other art organizations in the community.

In 2009, the museum hired London-based David Chipperfield Architects to undertake the design of the museum's master site plan, which includes new landscape designs, more visitor amenities and additional buildings for art.

The project is set to proceed in the fall. According to Director of Communications for the Menil Collection Vance Muse the museum does not have a total budget yet, since not everything the museum will undertake is finalized, but there will be fundraising involved.

"We do have an endowment but it is modest by many standards and this will involve a lot of support from the community, but I am sure we will find that support," Muse said. "This is an era now of stewardship, because the founding family -- John and Dominique [de Menil] -- are deceased, meaning it's no longer patronage of the founder, but it is careful stewardship of our director and the staff of the Menil."

The Johnston Marklee architecture firm from Los Angeles, known for such works as the Hill House and Vault House in California, was selected last month to design the collection's new Menil Drawing Institute, which according to this press release is the museum's first major building to be initiated under the museum's master plan. The building will also be the first in the United States dedicated to the collection, study and conservation of contemporary and modern drawings.

"I think it's interesting because it's going to house works on paper, which of course are sensitive to light," Muse said. "The Menil and the Cy Twombly gallery and the Renzo Piano buildings are very celebrated for their treatment of natural light, and drawing a building that's housing works on paper has to take natural light into consideration because sunlight is not all that friendly to works on paper."

The Menil Drawing Institute will be a small, one-story building, and according to Muse could be finished in six years. Exactly like everything else at the museum the institute will be free of charge.

"It's a study center and a conservation, a place for scholars; it's not just for the exhibition of works on paper," Muse said.

Meanwhile Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, known for projects such as the Master Plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park and Wellesley College, will begin work on the parking lot and the overall pathway of the museum, connecting the walkways to flow even more from building to building. This press release says there will be a new entrance welcoming visitors off West Alabama Street to the new Menil café and highlighting the physical entrance into the Menil's main building, making the collection more visible to Houstonians.

"I think it's so easy in Houston to go journeying down Richmond Avenue to the south and Alabama to the north and not entirely see the Menil from the streets, so we are very eager for really beautiful pathways into the campus to be executed in the right and very sensitive way," Muse said.

According to Muse there will always be room for enhancement, and with these additions the museum's dynamic collection will have more structures to house its growing collection. Muse said that the exhibits are expected to remain open during developments, and none of the museum's expansions will affect what Houstonians visit the Menil to see.

"I think the Menil has chosen very well with Van Valkenburgh and Johnston Marklee," Muse said. "They really understood what we're all about, which is a very modest footprint; it's very low-key approach which entirely serves the art... The first priority is to serve the art and to honor the artist's intention and to enhance the visitor's experience of looking at the art."

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Miranda Wilcox
Contact: Miranda Wilcox