The Menil Collection isn’t your average museum. Nestled within a quiet Houston neighborhood, surrounded by bungalows and green space, the Menil is a world-renowned art museum at the heart of its community.
The museum was a cultural gift to the city of Houston, and is filled with the life’s art collection of John and Dominique de Menil. It boasts one of the most important collections of Surrealist art anywhere in the world, as well as Byzantine and medieval relics, Indigenous art from across the globe, plus a strong catalogue of Modern and Contemporary art.
Inside, the works are ever-moving. No visit is the same, with the art rotating constantly to avoid what Dominique de Menil referred to as “museum fatigue”.
Thinking globally and acting locally, the working mission of the Menil Collection, inspired by its late founders, is to make this collection of art treasures accessible to all – entry to the Menil is, and will always be, free.
To get an insider’s perspective of the Menil and its work, we spoke to Sarah Hobson, Assistant Director of Communications, about what to expect from a visit to Houston’s most famous museum.
Hi Sarah! Tell us what you do for the Menil and what a normal working day is like.
I lead the Menil’s marketing and communications team. Each day is different, which is exciting. I spend a lot of my time in the galleries or researching upcoming exhibitions and artists to craft promotions.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
I enjoy working directly with artists and learning about their artmaking process. I also am grateful to be able to share information about the Menil with the broader Houston community, as admission to the museum and all of our programs are free, which makes it accessible to everyone.
Who were the de Menils? Can you give us a brief introduction?
John and Dominique de Menil were French-American art collectors and philanthropists. In 1941, they moved to Houston and became key figures in the city’s cultural scene, supporting and helping establish a number of local organizations. Dominique de Menil opened the Menil Collection on June 4, 1987.
As you mentioned, entry to the Menil is free – how important is that?
Accessibility is at the core of the Menil Collection’s mission, as the museum is committed to its founders’ belief that art is essential to the human experience.
At some art museums, visitors are drawn by one or a handful of famous pieces, or a particular collection. Is that the case with the Menil Collection?
Yes, the Menil is known for its large collection of Surrealist artworks, along with satellite galleries dedicated to the works of Cy Twombly (The Cy Twombly Gallery) and Dan Flavin (Richmond Hall). The museum also supports substantial collaborations with contemporary artists who have used the collection as a jumping-off point for new work, as seen in recent exhibitions Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon and Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma.
Are there any hidden gems at the Menil?
While I wouldn’t describe them as “hidden,” I urge our visitors to explore the full campus and each of our art buildings, including the main building, Menil Drawing Institute, the Cy Twombly Gallery, and Richmond Hall.
The main building’s architecture and lighting are really part of the Menil experience. Tell us a little bit more about the atmosphere inside.
The main building, completed in 1987, was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, who worked closely with Dominique de Menil to make the main building in particular seem “small on the outside but large on the inside,” with 30,000 square feet of gallery space illuminated by natural light filtered through the ingenious system of ferrocement leaves. Due to this component, the lighting in galleries shifts throughout the course of the day or when a storm passes overhead, offering the opportunity for visitors to see artworks in – quite literally – a new light.
The Menil’s outdoor spaces are very popular – how much does that add to the atmosphere of the campus?
The Menil’s campus encompasses 30 acres in the heart of Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Tucked away in a residential enclave of a bustling city, the museum’s green spaces, which are open daily from dawn to dusk, are a source of civic energy and domestic tranquility. The neighborhood is punctuated by major works of outdoor sculpture by artists Michael Heizer, Ellsworth Kelly, Jim Love, and Mark di Suvero. The outdoor spaces seamlessly connect with the art buildings, with numerous pocket courtyards in between gallery spaces.
Community events are also an important part of the Menil’s offering – what sort of things do you organize?
The museum’s public programs aim to attract, educate, and inspire audiences and are vital to the life of the Menil. Exhibiting artists lecture and perform; curators and scholars explore exhibitions, collections, and artworks; music, dance, and poetry performances are held, and all are organized to foster conversation.
Lastly, what tips do you have for first-time visitors?
Give yourself time to explore both the art buildings and enjoy the green spaces. Also, make sure to take a copy of the guides available in select galleries, as these offer additional insight to the spaces and artworks on view.
The museum offers visitor guides in English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Our exhibition gallery guides are printed in both English and Spanish.
Highlights of the Menil Collection
The main building at the Menil marked the first US project of esteemed architect Renzo Piano. The Italian was charged by Dominique de Menil with creating the de Menils’ dream museum space, one imagined long before John de Menil’s death in 1973.
The gallery had to fit seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood, with the requirement that it appeared large from the outside while still providing an intimate atmosphere for Houston locals to enjoy the art.
The de Menils also wanted the gallery spaces to benefit from natural light, which is a key component of Piano’s design. Come rain or Texas shine, the innovative roofing system distributes daylight around the gallery via curved components known as leaf. The weather and season beyond the ceiling create a mood inside.
Subtle and understated, Piano’s museum has one long gallery floor housing the permanent collection. The Menil Collection architect created one of the most unique and innovative art museums in the world.
The Cy Twombly Gallery
Must-see ⭐ Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) – Cy Twombly, 1994.
Cy Twombly was a painter, sculptor, and photographer, and a key figure in contemporary art and its development. Twombly’s connection to the Menil runs deeper than his recognizable scribbles and loops on canvas.
The blueprint of the building which houses Twombly’s dedicated gallery at the Menil was based on a sketch he penciled. The Cy Twombly Gallery was formally designed by Renzo Piano, and opened in 1995.
The gallery houses a rounded collection of works by the Virginian – including his large calligraphy-heavy canvases – which forms a timeline covering 50 years of his seminal life in art.
Twombly’s work was influenced far more by the past than the present or future. It was largely inspired by antiquity, ancient Mediterranean history and geography, the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, and classical literature, echoes of which jump out of the works on show in the Menil Collection.
Surrealist Art Collection
Must-see ⭐ Golconda – René Magritte, 1953.
The de Menils were champions of the Surrealist movement, and built one of the most important collections in the United States, having started buying up artworks in the 1940s.
As well as over 300 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from the likes of Max Ernst, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Salvador Dalí, the Menil’s world of surrealism includes the exhibit Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, made up of tribal artwork which had a profound inspirational effect on the artists of the movement.
Rooms are dedicated to specific artists of the genre, with the space given to Magritte a particular highlight – his captivating, head-turning imagery slows the stream of visitors trickling through the galleries.
Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall
Must-see ⭐ Untitled – Dan Flavin, 1996.
The Menil has a permanent home for the work of minimalist Dan Flavin, whose fluorescent builds were pioneering during the 1960s. Flavin used store-bought materials to create the alluring installations which would become his signature style, drawing commissions from around the world.
In the early 1990s, Dominique de Menil approached Flavin about a permanent exhibition for Houston, the design of which the New Yorker completed just two days before his untimely death in 1996.
As well as three bespoke works, the Menil’s Richmond Hall is home to four earlier pieces by Flavin, and is one of the artist’s few dedicated exhibits in the United States. Flavin’s work transforms the airy space – formerly a grocery store and a music hall – into a glowing gallery, a chapel dedicated to light and colour.
The Menil Drawing Institute
Must-see ⭐ Bottle and Glass – Pablo Picasso, 1912.
Opened in 2018 after a multimillion-dollar design project, the Menil Drawing Institute was the first new building constructed on the Menil campus in two decades.
Dedicated to the ‘research, exhibition, and conservation of unique works on paper’, the gallery space barely scratches the surface of what’s inside – the Menil Drawing Institute has a study room, a seminar hall, offices for curators and staff, courtyards, and more, albeit not all of these areas are accessible to the public.
The innovative design of the Drawing Institute allows some natural light into areas of the building, while protecting its sensitive paper marvels from the adverse effects of excessive sunlight.
The freestanding facility boasts over 2,000 pieces, premier examples of Modernism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, large and small.
Works from the hands of René Magritte, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, Roy Lichtenstein, and hundreds more are within the Menil’s drawing collection.
Menil Park & Green Spaces
Must-see ⭐ Jack – Jim Love, 1971.
Nothing highlights the Menil’s role as a community pillar more than its outdoor spaces. The Menil campus sprawls and fuses with the Montrose neighborhood across 30 acres, much of which is made up of oak-lined, sculpture-dotted lawns.
Open from dawn until dusk, Menil Park is the perfect place to escape the city, and just like the Menil Collection itself, it’s free.
Snooze in an old oak tree, picnic in a shaded corner, or walk from artwork to artwork in a tranquil outdoor area that will prompt one of those long contented exhales.
The park is a stone’s throw from the famous Rothko Chapel, an intimate, multi-faith space that’s open all year round. This striking brick chapel – home to 14 of Mark Rothko’s iconic paintings – was commissioned by the de Menils in 1971, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. If the quiet greenery of Menil Park doesn’t put you in a state of spiritual reflection, the Rothko Chapel certainly will.
Who were the de Menils?
The de Menils, John and Dominique, arrived in Houston from Paris in 1941, escaping the Nazi occupation of their native France. They brought with them cultural intellectualism, European flair, and political ideologies that were initially met with narrowed eyes and minds in conservative Texas.
Wealthy from their stock in the Schlumberger oil empire, founded by Dominique’s father and uncle, the de Menils began collecting art in earnest after their move to the United States.
They immersed themselves in Houston’s cultural community, hosting exhibitions and introducing European artists into the American vernacular, while collecting fiercely. But they were also champions of liberal causes, setting up and supporting initiatives in aid of civil rights, minority causes, and education.
The Menil Foundation was set up in the 1950s to formalize this work, and the Menil Collection is the well-known face of the foundation’s mission to support the arts, education, and social initiatives.
The de Menils had five children – Adelaide, Christophe, Francois, Georges, and Philippa – all of whom inherited their parents’ love for art and culture.
The Menil Collection FAQs
Is the Menil Collection free?
Yes! Access to the Menil Collection is free, and always will be. Reserving a timeslot isn’t required but is encouraged, and you can do so here.
When is the Menil Collection open?
The Menil Collection is open from 11am to 7pm, Wednesday to Sunday. The Menil is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, as well as all the usual major holidays.
Where is the Menil Collection?
You’ll find the Menil Collection in the quiet Montrose neighborhood of Houston, Texas. It’s just a short drive from downtown Houston.
Address: 1533 Sul Ross Street, Houston, Texas 77006
Where to park at the Menil Collection?
There are two parking lots available to access the Menil Collection. One is located at 1515 West Alabama Street, with the other next to Richmond Hall. Additional free street parking is available on Sul Ross and West Main Street.
Can I take pictures inside the Menil Collection?
The Menil have a strict policy of no photography within the galleries to respect the quiet and contemplative atmosphere of the museum spaces. There are areas in the foyers and corridors between galleries where you can grab a pic to remember your visit. It goes without saying: leave your selfie stick at home!