Art cities: How Houston became a hotbed of contemporary art
In the first of a new series of guides, Alastair Smart examines a culturally diverse, economically booming city which, besides several new institutions, boasts ‘a gallery scene you wouldn't expect to find anywhere outside of New York or London’
If an outsider were asked to name, off the cuff, what the city
of Houston is famous for, chances are he or she would mention
NASA pretty promptly. Oil, likewise. Perhaps also former US
presidents such as the late George H.W. Bush, who represented Houston in the House of Representatives, or his son George W. Bush, who was raised in the city.
Less likely to receive a mention is the visual arts scene.
The writer Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t especially complimentary
about the city’s cultural offerings in 2004, when he called
Houston ‘a shabby, sprawling metropolis’.
The Menil Drawing Institute
There’s rather strong evidence, however, that things have been
changing. Earlier this month, the doors opened to the
Menil Drawing Institute’s (MDI) 30,000-square-foot building.
The MDI refers to itself as ‘the first freestanding facility
in the US created especially for the exhibition, study,
storage, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.’
It is currently overseeing the publication of a six-volume
catalogue raisonné of the drawings of Jasper Johns.
This opening comes hot on the heels of that in 2017 of the
Moody Center for the Arts, an interdisciplinary space at
Rice University. The city’s largest museum, meanwhile, the
Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), is undergoing
a $450-million campus redevelopment. This is set for
completion in 2020 and will include three new buildings and
a sizeable set of plazas, gardens and tunnels connecting
new features with old.
A tradition of cultural philanthropy
‘These are great times for the visual arts in Houston,’ says
Jessica Phifer, Associate Vice President of Christie’s in
the Southwest US. ‘Those in the know have long been aware of Houston as a visual arts gem, but over the past few years that awareness has palpably broadened.’
How are we to explain the change, though? In terms of the new
buildings being constructed, one might look to the fact that
Houston is a rare case of a big city in the US without zoning
laws, which is to say, in theory, anyone has the permission
to build anything anywhere.
Houston is also the energy capital
of the world. Higher prices for oil over the past two years have seen the
local economy boom, and — according to Bill Arning, director
of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) from 2009
to 2018 — ‘the local economy is integral to the success of
Houston’s arts scene. As a museum director on the lookout
for the support of patrons in this city, you have to be constantly
monitoring the price per barrel of oil. Rule one: never ask
for financial support in a week where prices have gone down!
‘Put in a slightly more serious way, Houston has a tradition
of cultural philanthropy that’s second to none, and institutions
like CAMH benefit immensely from it.’
The most stunning testament to that philanthropy is the
Menil Collection, the museum of which MDI forms part.
Free to enter and boasting 15,000 art works, with a particular
strength in Surrealism and European Modernism, it opened
in a Renzo Piano-designed main building in 1987, as a gift to the city of Houston from the collectors John and Dominique de Menil.
The Museum District
The Menil is located in Houston’s tree-lined
Museum District, a cluster of 19 cultural institutions
southwest of downtown that receives more than 8.7 million
visitors a year. The district, which even has its own stop
on the metro, also includes CAMH and MFAH.
Earlier this year, it held the third iteration of Right Here, Right Now,
its biennial group exhibition which, in Arning’s words, ‘takes
the pulse of the art that’s being made in the region right
Houston’s studio and gallery scene
Arning adds that that pulse in Houston is ‘incredibly strong.
Artists are attracted here by the fact that Houston offers
affordable housing and studio space; a warm climate; a wealthy
collector class who are loyal to local artists; and a gallery
scene you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere outside of perhaps
New York or London.’
Houston boasts around 70 galleries, most of them dotted organically
around the city rather than concentrated in a single area.
In the First Ward, in Houston’s north-west, one can find
Sawyer Yards (above), eight blocks’ worth of ex-industrial warehouses
that have been repurposed as artistic spaces.
In Houston’s historic Third Ward, one can find Project Row Houses, a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering people and enriching communities through engagement, art and direct action. Founded in 1993 by seven African-American artists, the site serves as home base to a variety of community enriching initiatives, art programs, and neighbourhood development activities. (Project Row Houses has been dubbed ‘maybe the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country’ by The New York Times.)
America’s most diverse city — with an art scene to match
One of the leading artists working in Houston today is Vincent
Valdez. In the summer of 2018,
he made headlines worldwide when his painting The City I was unveiled at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. This
30-foot canvas depicts a dozen Ku Klux Klansmen assembling
menacingly in a moonlit landscape. Because of political sensitivities
in the contemporary United States, the Blanton actually held
off exhibiting The City I for a whole year.
‘These are divisive times,’ says Valdez, ‘even if people don’t
like to confront that reality in the art they look at.’ Valdez,
who moved to Houston from Los Angeles a couple of years ago,
adds that ‘this is a special moment to be in this city, and
I’ve every intention of sticking around. It’s a real hotspot
right now, a place of incredible diversity — in a border
state — and all the socio-political consequences that go
At the last census, in 2010, Houston’s population was found
to be 43.8 per cent Latino, 25.6 per cent white, 23.1 per
cent black and 6 per cent Asian, with the white proportion
expected to drop at the next census in 2020, as it has done
in every decade since 1970. (
An L.A. Times article from last year bore the
headline, ‘How Houston has become the most diverse place
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‘Houston defies categorization and boundaries,’ says Phifer. ‘There is no centre to it. It’s conservative and progressive, traditional and eccentric. For example there is a robust legacy here of celebrating the ‘outsider’ or visionary artist. I think the visual arts scene overall is wonderfully reflective of those dichotomies. You can find work anywhere within that spectrum.’
Christie’s is proud
to support three separate projects in Houston this winter. As well as sponsoring the opening of MDI and an exhibition
of British royal portraiture at MFAH,
Tudors to Windsors, Christie’s will also support the CAMH in celebrating its 70th
Economic, historical, geographic and political factors, then,
have all combined to ensure Houston has become a hotbed of
contemporary art. In short, there’s more to engage visitors
than ever before. In artistic terms, the city has well and
truly struck oil.