Clockwise from top left the Glassell School of Art, part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened in May 2018. Photo © Richard Barnes. The Houston skyline. Photo courtesy of Project Row

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.

The newly opened Menil Drawing Institute, which describes itself as ‘the first freestanding facility in the US created especially for the exhibition, study, storage, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.’ Photograph by Richard Barnes, Courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston

The newly opened Menil Drawing Institute, which describes itself as ‘the first freestanding facility in the US created especially for the exhibition, study, storage, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.’ Photograph by Richard Barnes, Courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston

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.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) is one of many institutions to have benefitted from the city’s tradition of cultural philanthropy. Photograph by Rick Gardner

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) is one of many institutions to have benefitted from the city’s tradition of cultural philanthropy. Photograph by Rick Gardner

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.’

John and Dominique de Menil photographed in 1965. The couple gifted the free-to-enter Menil Collection, housing 15,000 works of art, to Houston in 1987. Photograph by Hickey-Robertson. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston

John and Dominique de Menil photographed in 1965. The couple gifted the free-to-enter Menil Collection, housing 15,000 works of art, to Houston in 1987. Photograph by Hickey-Robertson. Courtesy Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston

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.

The Audrey Jones Beck building, which is part of MFAH. Photograph by Cameron Bertuzzi

The Audrey Jones Beck building, which is part of MFAH. Photograph by Cameron Bertuzzi

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 now’.

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.’

The Houston skyline as viewed from Sawyer Yards — warehouses that now serve as artistic spaces

The Houston skyline as viewed from Sawyer Yards — warehouses that now serve as artistic spaces

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.

Migration Is, 2014, an installation by Monica Villarreal in Round 41, curated by Ryan N. Dennis at Project Row Houses. Photograph by Alex Barber

Migration Is, 2014, an installation by Monica Villarreal in Round 41, curated by Ryan N. Dennis at Project Row Houses. Photograph by Alex Barber

Meanwhile, in the Third Ward, in Houston’s south, one can find Project Row Houses, a set of 22 properties in a less-well-off part of town that were bought and renovated in the 1990s and have since been given over to a community of artists and single mothers. (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.

Houston artist Vincent Valdez pictured with his controversial four-panel canvas, The City I, 2015-16. Photo © Michael Stravato.  Artwork © Vincent Valdez. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin. Purchase through the generosity of Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster

Houston artist Vincent Valdez pictured with his controversial four-panel canvas, The City I, 2015-16. Photo: © Michael Stravato. Artwork: © Vincent Valdez. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin. Purchase through the generosity of Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster

‘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 with that.’

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 in America’).

Sign up today

The Online Magazine delivers the best features, videos, and auction
news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

‘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 anniversary.

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.