This museum was founded by John de Menil and Dominique Schlumberger de Menil who immigrated to Houston from Paris during WWII. The Menil Collection is located in a quiet green inner-city area which has been described as a "neighborhood of art" because of the many museums and non-profit organizations in the vicinity. The Menils had bought entire blocks along the tree lined streets to turn into a permanent home for their art and today those homes have been converted into museums and art related buildings creating a "campus of art." The museum opened its doors in the present building in 1987; it was designed by prize winning architect Renzo Piano. The building was designed to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood; it has a façade of grey cypress, large glass panels and white painted steel. Inside there are dark stained pine wood floors, and the design allows for most of the art work to be viewed in natural light which pours in from specially designed paneled ceilings.
The Menils saw a spiritual and formal connection between contemporary art and ancient art and the collection reflects this. During the years when the couple amassed their collection they were in close contact with many of the leading artists of the time like Andy Warhol, Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Rene Magritte. In all their collection includes 16,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and rare books. The collection is divided into Antiquities; Byzantine/Medieval; African, Pacific Islands, Pacific Northwest Coast and Modern and Contemporary Art.
Isolated Mass/Circumflex by Michael Heizer Photo: spenceke/Flickr
Highlights of the Modern and Contemporary Collection include works by Pablo Picasso, Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Christian Berard. There is an impressive Surrealist collection with works by Giorgio Chirico, Salvador Dalia and Paul Klee among others. There is a room called the "Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision" where 200 items are displayed which captivated and inspired Surrealist artists. The items include ritual masks, exotic curios and surgical tools.
Within the same "campus" of art there is the Cy Twombly Gallery, the product of a collaboration between the Menil Collection, the Dia Foundation and Twombly. Here the work by the famed American artist is on display. The Dan Flavin Installation in Richmond Hall, is a site specific creation housed within a former grocery store which has been converted, like the other buildings in the "art neighborhood". Flavin designed three pieces for the site making use of fluorescent lights, white lamps and ultraviolet lamps.
The Menil Drawing Institute occupies another converted building on the campus; it is dedicated to the exhibition and study of drawings. Also on the campus are a Conservation department and a Research Resources Center.