Houston Might Be the Most Exciting City for Art in the United States — Here's What to See

Coming in from a busy avenue to stand under the bright, spacious rotunda of the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on a March morning, I felt a sense of grace descend. Sunlight filtered through the cloud-inspired ceiling, and the harsh Texas glare softened into something like a beneficent aura.

Surrounding me were doorways leading to full-room installations by the likes of James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama, and Gyula Kosice. Beyond the circular, Guggenheimesque balconies above me, a maze of galleries contained, among other things, the country’s most important collection of Latin American modernist art.

The Kinder, which opened to the public in November, houses more than 1,200 works of modern and contemporary art, almost all of which were not previously on permanent display. These range from international treasures, like a pair of fireplace murals painted by Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger for Nelson Rockefeller, to masterworks by local legends Robert Rauschenberg, who was born in nearby Port Arthur, and Jesse Lott, who has lived in Houston since his childhood.

The story of how Houston became home to such wonders begins in the 1940s, when the French-born oil-industry aristocrats John and Dominique de Menil began spending most of their time in the city where they would eventually establish themselves as major art patrons. Friends from Paris and New York couldn’t understand how they could move to such a cultural desert. John responded with a biblical joke: “It’s in the desert that miracles happen.”

Seven decades later, I’m amazed to hear that some still think of Houston as part of “flyover country” when it has become one of the world’s great art cities. What would it take to wake people up to all that diverse, sophisticated Houston has to offer? The answer might be something like the Kinder.

Related: The Perfect Three-day Weekend in Houston

Hiram Butler, a longtime Houston art dealer who represents Lott, Turrell, and others, sees the Kinder’s unveiling as a defining moment for his city.

“Suddenly you’re walking into an encyclopedic museum that could only have been experienced in New York, Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s the great reveal.”

My hotel, the ZaZa Museum District, was just a couple of blocks away, and later that day I found myself walking past the Kinder again, this time after dark. In tribute to the Texas-size clouds over Houston, architect Steven Holl jacketed the exterior with rounded, incandescent ribs, giving the three-story building the soft, puffy feel of a cumulous white night-light. I began to think of the Kinder as a stellar nebula—the genesis, perhaps, of a new polestar for the U.S. art world.

The Kinder’s unveiling is not the first time that a new era for Houston has arrived in the form of a cloud. In 1900, a major hurricane destroyed nearby Galveston and left Houston, which is farther inland, as the primary seaport for the region. The next year brought another historic plume—of oil, this time, from a well 90 miles east at Spindletop. The discovery transformed this part of Texas into an economic powerhouse.

One of the first things you notice when exploring Houston’s art world is the importance of patronage that is both visionary and very rich. Thanks to the unquenchable market for oil and gas, Houston has rarely been short of benefactors eager to turn petrodollars into cultural treasures. Fortunately, they have often been tasteful and forward-thinking, with an eye for talent and an understanding of art history.

For that, much credit goes to the de Menils, whom the New York Times Magazine once described as “the Medici of modern art.” The couple played key roles in the development of both the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Several of the works they acquired are on view in the Kinder Building, including the 16-foot Alexander Calder mobile that dominates the rotunda.

But the best way to delve deep into their legacy is by visiting the Menil Collection, a charming 1987 Renzo Piano building in the Montrose neighborhood. (The mellow park alongside the museum is also the best spot in the city for a picnic. Grab lunch at the on-site Bistro Menil or one of Montrose’s many great restaurants, such as Eunice and One Fifth.)

The museum contains numerous objects of fascination, from the prehistoric to the up-to-the-minute, but what I love most is the way the curators have put works by European modernists in conversation with traditional and ceremonial art from Africa, the South Pacific, and Indigenous America. I was struck by the resonance between the Picassos, Mirós, Ernsts, and Magrittes and, for instance, the elegantly exaggerated human forms of the Dogon wood sculptures of West Africa. A visitor can see how Surrealists and Cubists of prewar Europe were inspired by anthropological art and artifacts to develop (and borrow) new languages of representation.

This idea of cross-cultural pollination is crucial to the imprint that the de Menils left on Houston. In 1959, after visiting a Menil-funded exhibition that stressed the value of Indigenous sculpture as high art—in Houston, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement—architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller dashed off an excited telegram to influential curator Jermayne MacAgy with a sentiment that I think still rings true today. “You bring honor to Houston,” Fuller wrote, as the first city leading the way in building a new world around the “fundamentality of art.”

In the 1950s, Houston was still highly segregated. Jesse Lott has spoken of how, in his Jim Crow Era youth, Black people were only allowed inside the MFAH one day per week.

The Kinder Building showcases how far the city and the museum have come. A playful papier-mâché-and-wire sculpture by Lott of a 1986 NBA Finals game between the Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics features prominently on the third floor. (Those who want to see more of Lott’s sculptures and line drawings can find a stunning survey of his career at the nearby Station Museum, on display until the end of the summer.)

The Kinder also does a laudable job of contextualizing other key Houston artists within the broader art world. The muralist John Biggers, whose epic subject was Black life and struggle, is displayed next to Diego Rivera, and a painting from a Vincent Valdez series depicting lynchings of Mexican Americans shows up next to a print by Kara Walker.

Houston is the most racially diverse city in the U.S., a fact that has received significant media attention in recent years, including from Anthony Bourdain, who explored the intersecting global food cultures here in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown. As I explored Houston’s contemporary art scene, it became clear that the contributions of people of color are likewise absolutely central. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Project Row Houses (PRH), an artists’ residency and exhibition space in the historically Black Third Ward.

Conceived by MacArthur fellow Rick Lowe—in collaboration with Lott, Biggers, painter Bert Long, and others—PRH began with the 1993 purchase of 22 shotgun-style homes. Since then, those houses have played host to 50 biannual rounds, in which artists are invited to respond to a theme (such as, recently, “Race, Health, and Motherhood”) and fill a house with a short-term installation that becomes part of a block-wide show.

For visitors, the PRH experience means going from row house to row house and absorbing a different artist’s vision inside each one. Sometimes, the artists will even be at work inside, ready to discuss their installations. Often, projects spill out beyond the row houses themselves and into some form of broader engagement with the local community, like an artist-run late-night hot dog stand with board games at a Chevron station. PRH works can be moving, inspiring, and often biting in their interventions and critiques of social problems.

Because of the pandemic, PRH was closed to visitors, but I dropped by to talk to multimedia artist Rabéa Ballin and photographer Brian Ellison in their private studio space. They spoke about the importance of PRH as an incubator of young talent, rattling off an impressive list of artists who had worked in the same studio before them, including Robert L. Hodge, who also curates buzzy exhibitions in empty retail spaces, and Robert Pruitt, the mastermind of the hot-dog-stand project. Pruitt’s portraits have been credited by the musician Solange Knowles—sister of pop megastar Beyoncé and, like her, a daughter of the Third Ward—for inspiring her Afrofuturist aesthetic.

Ballin had photographs up at an exhibition at the CAMH celebrating the life and work of the iconic local hip-hop artist DJ Screw, who died in 2000. Ellison credits CAMH, which is across the street from MFAH, for a growing local interest in reaching beyond the race and class guardrails of highbrow culture. “There were people there who probably never would have gone to a museum,” Ellison said of the show’s opening.

CAMH has a long-term partnership with DJ Screw’s Southside store, Screwed Up Records & Tapes, a site of pilgrimage for hip-hop fans. Screw’s impact on Houston’s creative culture can’t be overstated. His slowed-down, sonically altered style speaks to the willfully unhurried rhythm of life in the humid metropolis, Janice Bond, CAMH’s deputy director, told me. “What he represents is a tone and texture of the city—a culture, a way of being, a way of experiencing sound and art.”

Halfway through my visit, I moved to the Post Oak Hotel. Owned by billionaire mogul Tilman Fertitta (who also owns the Landry’s restaurant chain and the Houston Rockets), it features an impressive private art collection. As I admired the seven-figure Frank Stella sculpture in the lobby, then walked a few yards down the hall to the on-site Rolls-Royce dealership, I mused on the great wealth and power at play in Houston and how the value we ascribe to art is so often tied to investments and displays of status.

In search of a different vision, I drove across town to the other end of the art world’s economic spectrum: the grassroots Harrisburg Art Museum (HAM) in the city’s historically Mexican American East End. The museum is actually a large warehouse that graffiti artist Daniel Anguilu and collaborators have repurposed as a rotating showcase for street artists—one painter per loading-dock door.

“I come from the culture of having spaces for people to express themselves, without having marketing behind them,” said Anguilu, who is also a driver on Houston’s Green Line metro rail, which runs nearby. “HAM is one of the last ones that is still truly free.”

Active in the local graffiti scene since he moved from Mexico City as a teenager, Anguilu often references his Indigenous heritage in his work. He has shown at more traditional museums in the past but feels most comfortable in DIY environments, both legal and illegal, he told me. I noticed worry in his voice as he told me that HAM has lately come under threat as Amazon has begun to use the surrounding parking lot.

What does it feel like to stand inside a miracle? It’s a vital question raised by great immersive works of art, the sort that rearrange our perception and make us aware of the wonder that can be found in the everyday. Houston seems to me to specialize in this type of artwork.

Walking underground between the Kinder and the adjoining MFAH buildings, I passed through two playful tunnels featuring light installations by Carlos Cruz-Diez and Olafur Eliasson. Inspired by an older tunnel in the museum by James Turrell, they changed the way my eyes experience color—a ritual cleansing of vision as I moved from building to building. “No one can enter the Kinder without being transformed in one way or another,” MFAH director Gary Tinterow later told me, noting that, at the two street-level entrances, sculptures that reflect the sky have a similar effect.

The California-born Turrell’s presence looms large in Houston, a city that offers the light and space his works require. His Skyspaces have open-roofed portals through which viewers can watch the dusk or dawn sky change color, usually accentuated by a subtle light program around the edges of the aperture. During my stay, I visited four of his creations, including Twilight Epiphany, a magnificent Skyspace on the Rice University campus, where music students often play concerts at sunset (though not during the pandemic).

My favorite Turrell was the elegant One Accord, completed in 2001 and set in the ceiling of a Quaker meeting hall on the edge of Houston’s Heights neighborhood. I found great peace sitting there quietly through the sunset, watching the sky turn from blue to deep indigo as the interior’s slowly intensifying white light gave the sense of a ghostly community gathering. One may not think of ever-booming, traffic-laden Houston as a place to seek out restorative, meditative experiences, but Turrell’s works offer just that—especially for an art tourist like myself, who needed his senses refreshed after long days of looking.

The Menil also operates a few satellite spaces, including buildings dedicated to installations by Cy Twombly and Dan Flavin. My favorite of these, by far, is the oldest: the Rothko Chapel. Completed in 1971, the building is home to 14 enormous black paintings Mark Rothko created just before his suicide in 1970. It’s also an ecumenical religious space, open to followers of all traditions, and an institution that supports peace activists worldwide.

The Rothko Chapel recently unveiled a new visitors’ center, as well as a skylight that addresses the challenge of lighting the main room naturally while protecting the canvases from sun damage. In a space devoted to darkness, mourning, and what lies behind the blackness of the paint, the sun’s light should be diffuse, not glaring.

In some of the Rothko Chapel canvases, the blackness washes downward in watery forms, while in others it is more solid, contained by dark purple borders and giving onto unsounded depths. Sitting for my allotted half-hour with the paintings, I was quickly and unexpectedly moved to tears. The space gave context to a grief that I suppose I have carried with me, as we all have, through the pandemic. For those of us who connect as much or more to art than to organized religion, the chapel can feel like a long-sought venue to make peace with buried feelings.

As I left the chapel, I realized that I was, in a sense, back at the beginning of my Houston journey. Once again, I felt brushed by an uncanny grace, though more somberly than during my visit to the Kinder. The clear connection between these two transformative buildings, opened 50 years apart, speaks to what makes the city such an unmissable art destination. Both are born of a bold yet sensitive vision of Houston as a place where miracles can happen.

Art Lover’s Houston

Where to Stay

Hotel ZaZa Museum District: Located footsteps from the MFAH, this 315-room property boasts a pool area with Neoclassical charm. Doubles from $249.

Post Oak Hotel at Uptown Houston: Restaurateur Tilman Fertitta built the Post Oak as a global luxe life mecca and showcase for his own art collection. Doubles from $477.

Where to Eat

Bludorn: Chef Aaron Bludorn arrives via Manhattan’s Michelin starred Café Boulud. Each dish is a work of art. Entrées $30–$50.

Eunice: This restaurant is named for chef Drake Leonards’s Louisiana hometown, from where he still sources his specialty: crawfish. Don’t miss out on the corn bread and rawbar, either. Entrées $18–$35.

Nancy’s Hustle: The coolest spot in the gentrifying East Downtown area is home to the famous Nancy cakes—Southern-style corn-based blini with cultured butter and smoked trout roe. Entrées $14–$26.

One Fifth Southern Comfort: This innovative culinary project, a five year series of five new restaurants in the same Montrose space, won’t be around for long—the lease is up in September. Try the oxtail ragoût over crispy gnocchi before it’s all gone. Entrées $18–$32.

Xin Chao: At this Vietnamese Texan fusion joint, budget-minded gourmands can sample co-chef Christine Ha’s braised pork and crispy rice with pickled greens and egg, a Master Chef–winning dish, for just $18. Entrées $11–$35.

What to See

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston: This shimmering building doesn’t house a permanent collection, but has hosted exhibitions of major artists since the 1950s.

Harrisburg Art Museum: Rotating works of graffiti art are showcased on the exterior of a warehouse space in the East End neighborhood.

Menil Collection: A world-class private collection that blends smoothly into the Montrose neighborhood. Related buildings nearby include the Rothko Chapel, Cy Twombly and DanFlavin installations, and the sparkling Menil Drawing Institute.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston: The city’s encyclopedic museum features major exhibitions and three stories of modern and contemporary art in the new destination Kinder Building.

Project Row Houses: These Third Ward shotgun shacks have been incubating Houston artists of color for nearly three decades.

Station Museum of Contemporary Art: Art and activism mix at this museum in the Third Ward. Through the end of summer, catch a magnificent survey of sculptor Jesse Lott and Texas and Louisiana photographer Travis Whitfield.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Bigger Canvas.

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