Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Art for Everyone - Texasliving

“The Prince’s Dress Carriage” – c. 1750/55 Wood, gold, paint, varnish, metal, leather, braids, velvet, and glass. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Art for Everyone

Written by: S.W. Campbell

If your taste in art is eclectic, then The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), is an ideal place for a visit! Located in the heart of the impressive downtown museum district, displays range from ancient Shang Dynasty artifacts to Western scenes by Frederick Remington to cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso. Created in 1900, the MFAH was the first art museum in Texas and only the third in the region. Today, the museum is the largest cultural arts institution in the Southwest and boasts more than 65,000 works of art from all over the world, from ancient to contemporary.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “Fire,” 1566
. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Diverse Collections and Exhibits

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has a simple mission: Art is for everyone. Since its inception as an educational project in the Houston public schools in 1900, the institution prides itself on demonstrating the importance of art in all of our lives. They have accomplished this by providing comprehensive learning programs, diverse permanent collections, and meaningful visiting exhibitions that teach, engage, and delight adults, children, educators, and students. The museum’s permanent collection has works from almost every era and from virtually every corner of the globe. Some of the most popular year-round exhibits include:

  • The Glasswell Collection of African Gold, with more than 800 exquisite pieces from the royal courts of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, is considered by many to be the finest such collection in the world.
  • The Latin American Art Collection includes 760 modern and contemporary Latin-American pieces and more than 2,500 Pre-Columbian works of art.
  • The Target Collection of American Photography features more than 22,000 images of important historical events as well as artistic and creative photographs.
  • The Impressionism/Post-Impressionism Collection displays art by Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Vuillard, as well as more modern works by such luminaries as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger.

The MFAH also features ever-changing visiting exhibitions with art from important national and international museums and collections. One spectacular exhibit which continues through January 27, 2019 is Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, which displays 500 years’ worth of portraits of British royalty, including kings, queens, princes, and princesses. The exhibition is unprecedented in the United States, utilizing loans from the National Portrait Gallery in London. According to a MFAH description, “Some 150 objects – most never before seen outside of England – tell the story of Britain’s monarchy through masterworks of painting, sculpture, and photography.”

Also exhibited at the museum through December 29, 2019, is the “Arts of Islamic Lands: Selections from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait,” which includes breathtaking, decorative objects from the 8th through the 18th centuries.  A previous summer’s very special attraction was an interactive installation in Cullinan Hall called Shadow Monsters (2004) by Phillip Worthington. Displayed for the first time outside of New York and London, the creation allows guests to project shadow plays of monsters that use their own morphed silhouettes. According to a museum explanation, “Vision-recognition software augments the gestures of participants with sound and animation, so arms are transformed into mouths with razor-sharp teeth, tongues, eyes, and fins appear from every appendage, and birds and dinosaurs squawk.”

Rich Architectural History

“Evening Gown of Countess (later – Princess) Kinsky,” c. 1900. Silk, tulle, and gold embroidery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The original Museum of Fine Arts, Houston building, was designed in 1924 by Houston architect William Ward Watkin as a “temple for art” in the neoclassical style that was popular at the time. As the museum’s collections grew, architects Kenneth Franzheim and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe enlarged the footprint of the building several times using contemporary designs. Now called the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the multi-phased gallery is one of the primary structures at the museum’s main campus. The other parts of the complex include the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and completed in 2000, the Glassell School of Art, which opened in 1979, and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. An underground tunnel, featuring a dazzling James Turrell light installation called “The Light Inside,” connects the Law and Beck gallery buildings under the street. The MFAH complex also includes a repertory cinema, gift shop, public archives, visitors’ center, two research libraries, restaurant, two house museums, and a conservation/storage facility. The museum is also the home of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, a well-respected research institution for 20th century Latin-American and Latino art.

Relaxing Cullen Sculpture Garden

The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, located next to the Glassell School of Art, was designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1986. It is a serene, one-acre showcase for the works of prominent 20th and 21st-century artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin. According to Noguchi, his garden is “sculpture for sculpture.” MFAH literature describes Noguchi’s design as a “modern approach to the traditional idea of a garden – framed by concrete walls ranging in height, the works of sculpture within it are set among broken curves and abrupt angles. Spread out on a long, horizontal plane, the sculpture garden is not meant for quick consumption, but for thoughtful and contemplative exploration.”

Two Decorative Arts House Museums

Exterior of MFAH, Caroline Wiess Law Building.
Photo by: Robb Williamson, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens is one of the institution’s two “house museums.” Established in former residences in the historic River Oaks neighborhood, about five miles from the MFAH’s primary campus, these two satellite sites are beautiful ways to display the museum’s extensive decorative arts collections in natural and accessible settings. The 1927 Bayou Bend residence is surrounded by fourteen acres of lush gardens and is the former home of Ima Hogg, a Houston community leader and philanthropist. She and her brothers commissioned Houston architect John Staub to design the house to be ”representative of the history, culture, and climate of the Gulf Coast.” Miss Hogg later described the resulting style as “Latin Colonial.” The site features an extensive collection of fine American furnishings, decorative arts, and paintings from pre-American Revolution through post-Civil War. Many of the pieces are from Ima Hogg’s personal collection. An adjacent visitor center was opened in 2010.

Rienzi, the second MFAH house museum, features a varied collection of European decorative arts, furnishings, and paintings from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Located on a wooded, four-acre estate in River Oaks near the Bayou Bend home, Rienzi was also designed by John Staub. Constructed in 1954, it was designed in a contemporary style with “classical references to Palladian and 18th-century architecture.” Rienzi was donated to the museum by owners Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III in 1991 and was opened to the public in 1999.

Exterior of original structure at MFAH, now part of Caroline Wiess Law Building.
Photo by: Robb Williamson, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Future Expansion Plans

The MFAH attracts more than 2.5 million visitors each year and is currently continuing with expansion plans. “The Museum of Fine Arts has become a great museum, befitting Houston as a great city. I am very proud to embark on our largest transformation yet, adding to our distinguished existing architectural heritage,” said MFAH Director Gary Tinterow. “The development of a dedicated building to house our largely unseen collection of 20th and 21st century masterworks, a reimagined Glassell School of Art, and a state-of-the-art conservation center will position us to reshape and reinvigorate the museum experience and the future of Houston’s civic life.”

Location, Hours, and Admissions

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s main location is 1001 Bissonnet. General admission is $15 for adults, $7.50 for youth, and $10 for seniors; parking ranges from $6 to $35, depending on the length of the visit.  Group rates are also available. Admission is free all day on Thursdays and closed on Mondays.  For more information, visit the MFAH website www.mfah.org.