The MFAH’s Folly

by Rainey Knudson August 5, 2018

This summer the MFAH unveiled the first half of its $450 million campus expansion.

Here are some things you could do with $450 million dollars:

  • Buy Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
  • Build Millennium Park.
  • Build 3 Broad Museums.
  • Build 7 Modern Art Museums of Fort Worth.
  • Pay for 13 years of operating budget of the Dallas Museum of Art.
  • Pay for 42 years of operating budget of the McNay Art Museum.
  • Commission 45 artists to make $10 million works of art.
  • Commission 450 artists to make $1 million works of art.
  • Give $50,000 a year for 30 years to 300 artists.

Another thing you could do, if you’re an institution located in Houston, is to forget everything you know about what museums are and always have been — stop thinking like you’re a museum in the 20th century on the island of Manhattan — and look at a map of greater Houston. Houston is not a city. Houston is a region, one that encompasses over 10,000 square miles. Its 9 counties are almost as large as the state of Massachusetts.

Source: The Greater Houston Partnership


Source: The Kinder Institute for Urban Research

With nearly half a billion dollars to spend, you could do wonderful and unexpected things to give Houstonians extraordinary art experiences. Unfortunately, the MFAH has elected to follow the road more travelled and scrape the local coffers to heave up yet another starchitect museum behemoth.

First announced in 2002 by the late director Peter Marzio, the centerpiece of the MFAH’s expansion was always meant to be a new building for modern and contemporary art. In the intervening years, this plan was expanded to include a new Glassell School of Art, which would double the size of the previous building, as well as a conservation lab.

Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the new Glassell School building opened this summer. The MFAH’s modern and contemporary building is slated to open in 2020.

The form of the new Glassell School building is big, intimidating and impressive. God knows how many tons of heavy concrete make up its hulking walls and grand staircase hangout areas (now a de rigeur element of any “academic” building). There is no doubt about what this building conveys, and what it conveys is authority. Forget the fact that the Glassell School is a fancy Art League. With very few exceptions, the school is not for serious artists; it’s for people who enjoy art and have the money to take expensive classes as a hobby. The museum understands this and runs it as a profit center, hence the hustle to get the new school building up and running in time for the start of the fall semester.

I have no major qualms with the Glassell building itself — it feels polished and pricey and spacious and exactly as you would expect something of its budget on a museum campus today to feel. (The outdoor spaces are another matter: one local architect privately described the plaza in front of the building as a “prison yard,” and its expanse of hard surface certainly bakes in the Houston summer sun. I can only imagine how, once the sycamore trees have grown in, visitors in July and August might huddle sweatily under their small patch of shade. I am also mystified as to why the MFAH felt the need to haul the massive granite Eduardo Chillida sculpture from its verdant spot on the other end of campus in front of the new building, for a matchey-matchey effect that almost camouflages the piece.)

But the main issue with the new MFAH campus is not whether or not the buildings or gardens themselves succeed, it’s whether this was the the best strategy for the museum to pursue at all. Imagine if the MFAH had lived up to the bootstrapping spirit of this crazy swamp and done something really radical. Imagine if, instead of doing the same thing that’s been done everywhere else (to unsurprisingly muted national response), they had demonstrated some vision, forged a new path for museums, and changed the world.

At the press preview for the Glassell building this past May, MFAH director Gary Tinterow said that Houston art organizations would be invited to present their programming at the new MFAH campus, and it would be “the center of artistic activity in Houston.” Aside from the dubious idea that an institution like the MFAH is going to foment a grassroots arts scene, there’s a more central problem with Tinterow’s claim: Houston has no center.

The prophet for the future of Houston is a Rice University professor named Stephen Klineberg. For more than 30 years, Klineberg has run demographic studies of Houston and is the single most lucid translator of what this city is, and what we can be.

“Houston was built on a crummy little bayou, 50 miles from any natural barrier in any direction, no mountains, no rivers, no forest, a developer’s dream: built by, for and behalf of the automobile, made possible by air conditioning, and we spread everywhere. We have built a civilization totally predicated on the automobile.” – Stephen Klineberg

Kind of repulsive, right? Well, it’s only repulsive if your idea of a city is a densely packed area with extensive public transportation. Houston is another model of a city, one that needs new ideas about what museums can be.

I spoke with a local patron off the record about the MFAH recently, and they said that Tinterow faces a problem, which (as this person described it) is that he could do a Toulouse-Lautrec show and nobody would come. “If he were in New York,” this person said, “that show would be packed, but not here. The problem is Houston.”

But Houston isn’t the problem. Houston is the opportunity. And once again, the MFAH — the second-richest museum in the country — has blown an opportunity to conceive of a grand and innovative strategy worthy of this city, to meaningfully connect Houston audiences with art. True, I don’t think people in greater Houston are going to get fired up enough about a Toulouse-Lautrec show to schlep in to see it. But that’s not because Houstonians are rubes. No, the main reason Houstonians won’t schlep in is this:

What I am getting at, of course, is the idea of the decentralized museum. Other museums are starting to kick this notion around; in a recent interview, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, stated, “I can envision a future where we double the size of LACMA over time, but it’s in other communities and in other parts of L.A. during my next 10 years.”  (Of course, Govan has his hands full in the meantime trying to raise $1 billion for the new LACMA campus on Wilshire Blvd.)

A decentralized museum, in which outposts are created in different areas of town, or even a nimble mobile unit is developed for bringing art to people, or crowd-pleasing immersive “art,” the likes of which the MFAH mounts every summer, could be presented in temporary spaces, and would solve the problems of the museum-going experience today, namely cost, crowds and commute or travel time.

It isn’t grand, and it may not appeal to donors, and it starts to sound like Creative Time, but if you’ve already abandoned the museum’s traditional role of repository and protector of objects from our global cultural heritage, it would better serve the new role of museum-as-amusement-park serving vast crowds of people. Of course, the numbers suggest that museum attendance is declining, a fact that must have sent cold shivers down the spines of trustees and directors throughout the country. Once they made audience size the metric for a their success, museums were wedded to maximizing audience size to be considered successful — which means they have to physically be able to attract and accommodate huge audiences of customers. Which means costly infrastructure.

But what is the endpoint of all this audience-jamming? At which point do we say that the number of people in a museum are destroying the experience? At which point do we admit that this isn’t fun anymore?

If you live in a suburban Houston neighborhood, how invested will you be in the idea of driving 30 or 45 minutes (or an hour) in to see something at the MFAH? What if, rather than the “if you build it they will come” strategy, the MFAH (and other major museums in major Western cities) embraced a more expansive, generous, radical idea of bringing extraordinary art experiences to you? What if the MFAH looked at a map of Houston and considered how best to reach that vast region? The answer might not be a big, impressive 20th-century idea of a museum. It might be even harder to raise money for than the more obvious path the MFAH has pursued. But this path might forever change the way museums operate in the megaopolis city-regions of the future.



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D Morrison August 5, 2018 - 12:09

I agree with the idea that we should strive to make art more accessible. But are you saying that the museum should NOT be building galleries to show their growing contemporary collection? Or simply that that work should only be seen in Katy or Sugarland? Or that the conservation studios should remain outdated and off-cite? Or that the overstuffed Glassell was perfectly adequate? Or that the requisite parking for visitors should be limited? The premise for your argument is often used against the arts in general. Wouldn’t $450 million be better spent feeding the hungry, fixing our schools, curing cancer? Yes, buildings cost money and that money could be spend on any number of other things. They could have built franchises across the greater metropolitan region. And then, no doubt, you’d be complaining that there’s no gallery to see contemporary art. Or that they’ve neglected the art school. Or we have second rate conservation.

Dune-Micheli August 5, 2018 - 12:32

I would definitely gotta the MFAH to see a Tolousse-Lautrec exhibition. And, at one time living in uber-upper Westheimer (close to Submit) I would travel almost two hours to visit the MFAH at least four d4g days a week-long happily with a membership; not just on “free Thirs’days”..visiting also the Jung, 4411, CAMH, Harris Gallery, Holocaust, and even the Bike Museum [which is now closed I presume due to no traffic (pun intended) ]. I guess one would say, “Well, sure, you’re an Artist so all that makes sense”…which, I would agree with except for the irony that many people that go to the MFAH aren’t artists nor have any real interest in the beautiful Histories of ART-F or genres and periods of art- that they are looking at… “I like that big silvery chrome thing that’s at the end of the garden/beginning of the Glasses School courtyard area. It’s like that one in Baltimore”…!

Cary Reeder August 5, 2018 - 13:42

You raise some valid points but was this jab necessary?: “With very few exceptions, the school is not for serious artists; it’s for people who enjoy art and have the money to take expensive classes as a hobby.” It’s a pretty broad and inaccurate generalization. I know dozens of artists who went to Glassell and I consider serious artists and it sure ain’t a “hobby.” I chose to go to Glassell and continued there when I could have gone to grad school. Why? At the time, classes were a relatively affordable $500 and I got one-on-one instruction and mentorship from some top Houston artists and former Core Fellows. I didn’t have to quit my day job while doing so and am not saddled with debt. I don’t have an MFA but I have had solo shows at Lawndale, Galveston Arts Center, Optical Project/Bill’s Junk, etc. And I have two shows this September at the Mystic Lyon and the Silos on Sawyer. So, I am a serious artist, and I’m a bit tired and cranky, and I also teach at the Art League so I didn’t like that jab either. Good day, ma’am.

Robert Ziebell August 5, 2018 - 18:40

Thank you Cary for these making these points. Some of my best teaching experiences were with the continuing education program, the junior school and art students at Glassell, and I am still amazed on how well it does with these programs. Cheap shot indeed.

The vision alone of the Core Program with the Glassell – MFA/H, and that it has continued since 1982, alone is amazing. Coming to Houston in 1983 and watching the museum and school continue to grow, mature, and expand to what it is today, and what it will be as it continues with the new contemporary wing, is stunning. I would have never thought when I arrived in 1982 this kind of expansion would even had been in the cards for a funny little surrealist swamp town that had a “can do” spirit. But it continues today to “can do”.

Is it perfect? No. But it is one of many art institutions in Texas that host many great exhibitions that rival any that you find on either coast. Toulouse-Lautrec or not.

Laura Spector August 5, 2018 - 17:16

I still drive 3+ hours to see show in Ft. Worth and Dallas. If people are interested they will drive. (Perhaps your article would be better served as a call for public transportation?)

The idea satellite exhibitions could be the future is only relevant if you could get insurance companies onboard, which would be completely cost-prohibitive.

As an arts educator (at the dusty old Art League and at the fancier Glasscock Continuing Ed school), I think you’re missing a much larger point. In order to get public engaged or interested in art, they first need an education in the arts. Until arts funding stops getting slashed from public schools, we will continue seeing a financial burden in arts businesses, which in turn directly affecting our communities. The two are intrinsically linked. Why would someone with no knowledge of art history or art-making drive 45 minutes to see a painting at a museum show?

BTW, plenty of my “hobbyist” students have gone on to have vibrant careers in the arts. I wish The Glassell School much luck, and I can’t wait for the new expansion of the MFAH library.

Rainey Knudson August 5, 2018 - 20:29

I would love to see intercity bullet trains in the Texas Triangle. I hope they come to pass.

Lester Marks August 5, 2018 - 22:17

Thank you D. Morrison, Cary, Robert and Laura for your thoughtful and insightful comments. Your thoughts were far more enlightening than the article.

Suzanne Manns August 6, 2018 - 13:55

Thank You!

David August 6, 2018 - 16:28

Everyone should have access to art whether they are professionals or amateurs. Glassell provides a place with 1)equipment 2)instruction and access to professional artist’s/teacher’s feedback. I appreciate that the many people that work there are sincere, dedicated and hardworking. All of the students that I have met there also come to the school in all sincerity. Glassell provides a service to the city and to all kinds of people in this city. Why can’t we have a place for both hobbyists, students, professionals? I appreciate that both the young and the older can receive lessons there. As an educator, I am appreciative that they reach out to teenagers and supplement their education. They have access to things such as dark rooms and kilns. What an amazing opportunity! Glassell also hires professional artists and gives them employment. Glassell is another route to understanding art, joining the MFAH and being invigorated by the museum district and all of the art that is offered. And yes, people travel distances to see artwork. Thank you Glasstire for providing the service of posting art openings but you could stand to improve your writing by being more considerate to your own audience.

Alyssa August 7, 2018 - 00:35

I would love to seen an expanded campus or two like the HMNS or like UHS’ public art system. There is so much work rotated out and in storage that can be brought to like by adding more viewing spaces in more communities that might not be Houston by zip code but by community. Sugar land, Pasadena, Webster, La Porte, etc. those are a lot, but 450 million can pay for 2 to start.

Robert Boyd August 7, 2018 - 06:15

What art institutions in the suburbs in Houston have ever worked? What we don’t need is a bunch of new Pearl Fincher Museums. It seems good in theory to put art out in the burbs, but nothing in my experience suggests that the burbs want art.

C A Fitzgerald August 7, 2018 - 07:01

Your article raises some valid points.Your questions about the museum’s mission are something to be considered for the long term. I think the shot you took at the students and faculty, however, was low. However, if Glassell wants to continue to attract serious artists, raising the price as sharply as it has will make that impossible. I will reserve my final judgment until I see how the building holds up to daily use over the long term, especially since so many programs are now housed in one building.

KJ August 9, 2018 - 14:38

Great points. Geographic context and orientation toward the future seem to have been anemic in the project. The comments bristling at the jab on the Glassell or interpreting this op-ed as a request for suburban outposts miss the point of the article. Unfettered boldness in vision, invention, and innovation is missing. And that could be fine for the board – it is their choice. We’ve all seen a building, a courtyard, a shiny sculpture. We could see that model done better than ever before but it would still be familiar and in 2018 it is almost quaint. Don’t most museums innovate along those same dimensions? What one single thing can we say is theoretically or tangibly different about this project? What will Houston be in the next 5 to 20 years… and what will other museums be doing in high-density urban centers that our museum will or won’t be able to compete with? All the things that differentiate Houston (both constraints and assets) could have been fertile ground for unique inventiveness… constructing and reinforcing a unique identity, which the author correctly notes starts with geography. And why willingly submit to the tyranny of the audience size metric? The institution is strong enough to put vision ahead of metrics. Honestly what aside from tradition is keeping them from tearing up the excel reports, changing the game, and trusting our city?

Vincent Fink August 9, 2018 - 16:21

Too much concrete is not fun, very hot, and also quite a flood hazard. When you think of it being the 2nd most funded art museum it does seem we could do better… but I am happy that at least something was done to expand. It seems we are trying but missing the mark often, like with our tiny cloud column. Ultimately, anything to improve the arts experience is good and I’d rather have a tiny cloud than no cloud.

Ricky Rodriguez August 16, 2018 - 19:37

You made excellent and valid bulleting points in this article, in my opinion, there was no need to build a school with such elegance, or such an extension of the museum, but I can see why the museum decided to construct the school that way. Maybe to attract more people and have students from outside Texas to attend that school? I think that half a billion dollars should be at least used to expand public art in Houston or distribute it as grants for artists to create art projects or events that would benefit Houston since the government cut art funding.

A. Lester Buck III August 18, 2018 - 14:39

What could the MFAH do to foster appreciation of the arts in the far reaches of our region? That’s easy, just correct this one problem:

“The Brown Auditorium is where super excellent art talks go to die.”

To make sure I hadn’t missed a new podcast from MFAH, I went and googled their site just now. There is their dead Mcast audio page from 2006-2010, that is so old and tired that the SSL certificate has expired and it gives a scary warning in Chrome:

And what is there? A bunch of anodyne chat by curators and little snippets from artists.
Nothing like the incredible programs that go on in the Brown Auditorium over the years. I once asked a museum coordinator for those talks why they never make it out to the general public, and they blew me off with some glib “reason” like copyrighted images. Yeah, sure. 95% of the value in many of those talks and performances is in the audio. Cost of an MFAH audio podcast? A rounding error on $450 million. Reach? Everyone within driving distance of MFAH. Everyone who can click “share” on Facebook.

Let’s take the most recent example of a lost opportunity, the talk by artist Joris Laarman at the opening of the current exhibit:

I had already read about the fantastic 3D printed bridge they are building:

but I hadn’t made the connection that *that* artist was giving a talk at the MFAH. The description of the talk was pretty generic, but it seemed interesting to a geek like me, and I went. The talk was fantastic! It was ten minutes in before I realized I was listening to the guy behind that incredible bridge. And then I got sad and pissed off that no one will ever see that talk again!

I helped start the Houston Argentine tango social dance scene in 1996, and when Robert Farris Thompson, Yale professor, came in 2005 to talk about his new book “Tango: The Art History of Love”, I managed to make his 1:30pm Friday (sic!) lecture in the Brown Auditorium. Yeah, me and another couple dozen people sat in that darkened theater and got one of the most exciting lectures I’ve ever attended.

From the get go, he started saying the most interesting things about tango, and mambo, and dance, and culture, and in the dark I was furiously taking notes on some scraps of paper. I filled three pages of notes from that performance/lecture. At his book signing, I urged him to do a PBS show or something to share that lecture. I searched many times for any recording of what he had just done, and … nothing. Maybe it is in the audio archives of the MFAH, dead to the world.

In 2011, the then Rice School of Architecture professor Lars Lerup published his “love letter to Houston”:

He gave a fantastic talk about Houston architecture, development, and growth in the Brown Auditorium. Afterward, I asked him if he was going to give that talk anywhere else. “No, I have no plans.” And somewhere another kitten died.

In 1987 I happened to be dating the MFAH head accountant, and I was told that Peter Marzio wanted to build attendance at the museum, so he priced the basic membership as a wash: basic members received essentially their entire membership fee back in the cost of providing services, parties, discounts, etc. Whoever is running the museum today has little interest in building attendance, or I would not have been screaming inside about the great Joris Laarman talk I was enjoying, but would never, ever be able to share with a single other friend.


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