Bigger is usually better, but not when it comes to this year's Best Museum winner. The Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, the only fine arts museum in the area that's located outside of the museum district, might be small, but it's having a big, big impact. Recent exhibits include "Here & Now: The Runge/Howard Collection," which featured several works by Houston artists such as James Surls, as well as internationally recognized painters such as Joan Miró and Max Ernst. Another well-received exhibit was "A Sense of Place: Selections from the Bobbie and John Nau Collection of Texas Art," which featured works by important Texas artists from the 1850s to 1990s. In addition to touring exhibits, the Pearl has also made good use of the private holdings of collectors in the region, often bringing rarely seen works into the public spotlight.

By Bill Olive

When you need a break from glittery lights and electro DJs spinning New Order jams and just want to drink your Jack Daniel's in peace, you go to Lola's. Housed in a dark building just off Montrose, Lola's Depot has been a haven for smokers and swillers for years now. It's our favorite spot to fall into after a hard week, day or month. The shadowy outpost boasts grimy walls littered with more than a decade's worth of band art and has a big back patio that's an oasis in a part of town that is steadily growing sadly pedestrian, infiltrated by amateur drinkers. With Mary's now gone on to the big dive in the sky, Lola's is one of the last bastions for the true, affable Montrose drunks.

Photo by Altamese Osborne

Super Happy Fun Land is home to truly strange and innovative music-makers — noise, punk and freak-folkers. Located inside an old warehouse off Polk near the train tracks, Super Happy has art installations, graffiti murals, a newly installed back patio and a larger-than-average stage where traveling bands and locals do their thing. There is a community at Super Happy made up of artists who patronize each other's creations, and they're doing some of the most unique and irreverent work in the city. At last fall's Monotonix gig, the band played inside the venue's restroom, next to the tracks, on a Dumpster outside and finally onstage proper. Happily, that kind of chaos is welcomed at Super Happy. Try doing that at Jones Hall.

When it comes to size, no one beats FotoFest. During the 2010 event, one thousand photographers showed their work in dozens of official and unofficial venues throughout the city, and 250,000 viewers from 32 countries visited the exhibits. And when it comes to quality, FotoFest again stands alone. Each of the biannual shows features a theme — it was China in 2008, and violence in 2006, for example. Curators literally scour the world looking not only for well-established talents who can interpret the theme in a new way but also for practically unknown photographers who are also pushing the boundaries of the medium.

In the upper Heights sits Big Star, one of the city's most lively alcoholic redoubts. You can disappear at Big Star in a dark corner, or you can hold court with your drinking team on the dark back patio. The place has become a popular after-work hang for Houston chefs. This spring, if you stopped by on the right night, you could scarf oysters or tacos with your Lone Star. Fridays and Saturdays, curious interlopers from the clean and pressed Cedar Creek around the corner come by to mingle with Houston's indie-rock self-appointed elite.

In our minds, Warehouse Live is the best venue for mid-level acts visiting Houston. Now that the Meridian or whatever it is called has dried up, live music is nearly dead in East Downtown, save the random warehouse party. Luckily we still have this venue up and running, with its two stages and separate lounge space. It's not a bad place to begin or end your night, either, with a wine bar across the street and Lucky's Pub next door for pre- or aftershow grub going until right before last call. The prices at Warehouse Live aren't ridiculous, and most spots in the ballroom and studio rooms offer excellent vantage points, especially the raised section in the main hall.

The midnight film series at the Landmark River Oaks edged out the competition for Best Film Series earlier this year with a screening of the horror film The Human Centipede, First Sequence, a delightfully horrific and gruesome tale by writer/director Tom Six. (We won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say, potential viewers always say, "Oh, that is sick!" followed by a quick, "When's the next showing?") Regular midnight screenings run the gamut, with action flicks, classics, thrillers and the ever-popular The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

If you are a regular at Anvil in Montrose, you no doubt know Mindy Kucan's bright, smiling face well. The brassy brunette has been slinging drinks at the Westheimer haunt for close to a year now, and she has a devoted following. An eight-year vet of the bartending scene, Kucan got into the more crafty side of things four years ago for a competition. She won the grand prize and fell in love with a more intricate art of drink-making. Now you can give her any set of ingredients and make magic happen in a glass. Next time you come into Anvil, ask her to make you a Hot Summer Night. As for her own favorite drink, that depends on her mood and company, but you can't go wrong with Fernet.

Only three shows into its new Houston residency, Art Palace had shattered expectations. From its first exhibit, Jonathan Marshall's sophisticated sci-fi/psychedelic "Doubled Vision," it felt as if the originally Austin-based gallery had landed intact from a SoHo storefront rather than from country-crafty Central Texas. By the time Emilie Halpern and Eric Zimmerman's mind-bending "Cosmos" arrived in May, Art Palace had challenged its two longstanding and respected commercial neighbors, Inman and CTRL, in depth of concept and relevance. At a time when the majority of Houston galleries present straightforward solo exhibitions and haphazard group shows, Art Palace is thinking deep, pushing boundaries and keeping it fun. Credit director Arturo Palacios for maintaining a light touch and a comfortable, approachable atmosphere. We look forward to many future visits.

For his solo exhibition "Holy Ghosts!" at Moody Gallery, Bise, an atheist, delivered an apocalyptic series of drawings based on his own experiences growing up in a radically religious family. It might have been easy to interpret some sort of political agenda or bitterly judgmental attack lurking in Bise's subject matter, but rather than exorcising childhood demons, Bise's confessional tone revealed a benevolence and tolerant acceptance of the belief system he would eventually discard. In all of Bise's drawings, the detail is unbelievable — the textures and patterns on clothing, the hairstyles, the jewelry. The most impressive work, Revival, depicted an ecstatic tent-revival scene of 100women engulfed in an evangelical frenzy. And Bise gave us personal sketches of childhood rites, both disturbing and compassionate. At one moment, we felt sympathy for Bise's cartoon-nightmare doomsday visions and the corporal punishment he received in religion's name. At others, we empathized with the disappointment parents feel when their children engage in repulsive acts. Bise's brave series of drawings opened a childhood rabbit hole and dared us to fall in with him.

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