Contemporary Arts Museum

By: Sally Johnson

Type: General Entry

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: November 15, 2016

The Contemporary Arts Museum, in Houston, is one of the oldest institutions of its kind. Since 1948, when its founders, Walter I. Farmer, Robert Preusser, Alvin Romansky, Karl F. Kamrath, Edward M. Schiwetz, and Robert D. Straus, first chartered the Contemporary Arts Association, it has presented the Houston public with aesthetic ideas and works of art. The association began as an alliance among artists, art patrons, architects, and business people who wanted to sponsor the exhibition of contemporary arts as a supplement to the traditional programming of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The original charter established the association as a nonprofit organization to be supported by membership dues and run by volunteers. In October 1948 the first exhibition, This Is Contemporary Art, opened in two galleries lent by the Museum of Fine Arts. One of the most important exhibits of the museum's earlier years was a presentation of paintings and drawings by Van Gogh in 1951. At that time, comprehensive showings of his works had been limited to New York and Chicago. In addition, the Houston exhibit included four pieces that had never before been exhibited in the United States.

As a result of the enthusiastic response, the association became a museum with its own building in 1949 and, in 1955, hired its first professional director, Jermayne MacAgy. Under her the museum began to organize series of thematic exhibitions in which contemporary arts were presented in a historical context. During her tenure was presented one of the most memorable exhibitions ever shown in Houston, Totems Not Taboo: An Exhibition of Primitive Art (1959), which included over 200 rare examples of primitive art from all over the world. Despite the fact that under MacAgy's leadership the museum enjoyed an improved reputation, inner association conflicts and budgetary problems led to her dismissal in 1959. In the early 1960s a series of directors, Robert C. Morriss, Donald Barthelme, and Wilson Burdett, ran the museum, which increasingly emphasized the performing arts and film. Southwestern art was emphasized in the early 1970s, including such exhibits as 12/Texas, a 1974 exhibition of twelve Texas artists, many of whom gained national recognition as a result.

The museum quickly outgrew its first home. The building itself had already been moved in 1954, when the original property it stood on was sold. In 1970 a drive was begun to build a new facility by Sebastian J. Adler, who had been appointed director in 1966. The present building, a distinctive parallelogram structure of stainless steel designed by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, opened in 1972. The inaugural exhibition of ten commissioned artists included a forty-eight-foot-long pipe sculpture by Robert Grosvenor, Newton Harrison's Portable Farm (Survival Piece No. 6), which consisted of planted herbs, fruits, and vegetables, and Ellen Van Fleet's tiered collection of urban animals entitled New York City Animal Levels. Adler expanded the staff of the growing museum and hired its first curator, Jay Belloli. In June 1976 a storm flooded the lower level of the museum, damaging many irreplaceable records and several pieces from the exhibitions then on display. Houston citizens responded immediately with donations and a special fund-raising drive that enabled the museum to reopen in March 1977.

The Contemporary Arts Museum is a noncollecting museum, unique among institutions of its size in the number of major, documented exhibitions mounted each year. The exhibition policy is to examine recent trends in contemporary arts and their precedents through both thematic shows and retrospectives of work by seminal figures. The 11,107-square-foot upper gallery is devoted to these exhibitions, and the lower-level, 2,000-square-foot Perspectives gallery focuses on medium-sized shows of new developments in the arts. Exhibitions have included a series first begun in 1981 entitled "The Americas," which examined traditional topics in contemporary art, and has featured such artists as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Frank Freed, and Melissa Miller. Catalogues with essays, bibliography, biography, and reproductions accompany each exhibition.

The museum has several education programs with emphasis on promoting art appreciation through classes for children and adults as well as an extension program that teaches children art after school. In addition the Visiting Artists Lecture Series supplements exhibitions by bringing exhibiting artists to the museum to discuss their work. The museum also offers lectures by visiting curators, critics, and scholars, as well as films and symposia. The museum shop offers books and catalogues.

Since 1979 the museum has expanded its programs. By 1982 a circulating exhibitions program was increasing the museum's audiences as museum-originated shows traveled to other cities in the United States and abroad. Additionally, a publication distribution project through national and international library exchange and retail outlets had strengthened awareness of the museum. In the early 1990s the museum had a professional staff of twelve and approximately 55,000 visitors annually.

Cheryl A. Brutvan, Marti Mayo, and Linda L. Cathcart, In Our Time: Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1982). Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston), Annual Report. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Art Museums
  • Visual Arts
  • Education

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II


  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sally Johnson, “Contemporary Arts Museum,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 03, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

June 1, 1995
November 15, 2016

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: