Houston’s Museum District

Giddyup, pardner! It’s time to head over to the big H, that’s Houston for you non-Texans. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bayou City has more to offer than meets the eye. The setting of such movie legends as ‘Urban Cowboy’ and ‘JasonÃ?­s Lyric’ has actually grown up, and the cow town now sports a veneer of sophistication which gives it props for world class, big city fare. This ain’t your daddy’s Texas town. In fact, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, but as locals would tell you, it’s numero uno in the country in terms of big city life, with welcome, small town sensibilities. For the biggest culture buffs among you, the inner loop, referred to as such because it is surrounded by Houston’s 610 loop, a wrap-around freeway encircling the city, offers the most for serious art aficionados. Let’s go ahead and start filling up our canvas, shall we?

Head up Montrose Boulevard. That Ã?­s where you’ll find some of the finest art museums this side of the Mississippi. Really. Artists such as Annie Leibowitz, Laurie Anderson and Ansel Adams have shown their work here, in the area locals refer to as the ‘Museum District.’ The Houston Museum of Fine Arts has its fixed exhibits, with black and white photography on the lower level. Be sure to also check out the theatre on the lower level. They tend to show avante garde and progressive film here, the likes you won’t see much of anywhere in the south. Aside from the museum’s fixed exhibit, there are many, world class artists who show here on a rotating basis.

Speaking of world class, you only have to cross the street to check out world famous sculpture at the Glassell School of Art Sculpture Museum. Best thing of all? It’s free! You could even have a picnic on the grounds; if you can stand that Texas heat, that is. If you can’t, then cross the street again, because catty corner to the Sculpture Museum is the Contemporary Arts Museum. Here you’ll find the cutting edge of mixed media artists. Laurie Anderson has shown here, as has Rauschenberg and many other, contemporary artists.

If high art isn’t your calling, you can still get a lot out of the museum district. Try your luck at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This museum boasts an IMAX, a planetarium, and great, interactive exhibits for the kid in all of us. The museum also houses a butterfly and insect atrium, known as The Cockrell Butterfly Center. This three story, glass cone enclosure is home to almost 60 different species of the world’s largest and most colorful butterflies.

There are also many fine galleries in this area. You don’t have to drive too far. In fact, you can even walk, (they still do that here) and bump into a gallery which houses the kind of art you like to see. Heck, you just might end up buying something if you’re not careful! So saddle up your art critic and head down Bissonet. Bissonet fronts the Museum of Fine Art, so it’s easy to find. Go ahead, check it out; you won’t be sorry. And while you’re at it, check out the collection of museums on the University of Saint Thomas campus. Here you’ll find the world famous Rothko Chapel. John and Dominique de Menil founded this Chapel in 1971 for people of every belief to find refuge and meaning. It is referred to as a ‘modern meditative’ environment. Housed within this small museum/chapel are some of Rothko’s latest works, fourteen paintings in all. These dark canvases represent some of his darkest pieces, and many have found solace meditating in their midst.

More collections of the De Menil’s are in the area, including the De Menil Museum, itself, more commonly referred to as The Menil Collection. It houses one of the largest, privately owned art collections in the country, with work from the Paleolithic era to the present day. There are four areas that define the collections: Antiquity, Byzantine and Medieval, Tribal, and Twentieth-Century Art. Well known artists such as Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol are represented in the collection, with Cy Twombly having an entire wing, the ‘Cy Twombly Gallery,’ dedicated to his own work.

Most recently, Ms. Catherine De Menil has added the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to her art museum portfolio. Following her husband’s death in 1973, Ms. De Menil’s interests turned more spiritual, and Ms. De Menil collected many religious works from the Mediterranean world, Asia Minor and Russia. Works of note include a fourth or fifth century silver ‘Paten,’ a liturgical alter object which is rare in terms of itÃ?­s significance, meaning and quality. For those most interested in Christian saints, you’ll find the ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ Russian icon, depicting one of the most popular saints of all Christendom.

For the true adventure lover in you, and to get a real sense of the old time Houston, drive west to Bayou Bend, former home of oil magnate Will Hogg, whose wife, Ima Hogg, moved within the tight circles of the movers and shakers, debutantes and intelligentsia of her day. Not to be outdone by her genteel peers, Ms. Hogg developed an estate of both environmental and artistic excellence. Originally quoted as describing the grounds as ‘nothing but a dense thicket,’ Ms. Hogg planted with both the wild and refined in mind, taking advantage of modern horticulture, she also left a great deal of the indigenous vegetation in place, creating a synergy between the manicured and natural, and a sense of harmony with modernity and antiquity. The house itself combines the best of eighteenth-century English Georgian architecture and shows subtle influences of Spanish Creole architecture form New Orleans.

Whether you’re a dyed in the wool Texan, or just a soon to be Naturalized Texan, there is plenty for the art buff in this most eclectic, Bayou city. Yeehaw, Pardner! Look below for addresses to some of the more well-known exhibits.

Addresses:

Houston Museum of Fine Arts: 1001 Bissonnet

Contemporary Arts Museum: 5216 Montrose Boulevard

The Houston Museum of Natural Science: One Herman Circle Drive

Rothko Chapel: 1409 Sul Ross

The Menil Collection: 1515 Sul Ross

Byzantine Fresco Chapel: 4011 Yupon

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