The Menil Collection in Houston displays the vast art collection of its founders, Dominique and John de Menil. The museum, which opened to the public on June 7, 1987, also hosts special exhibits, which include works on loan from other collections. Dominique Schlumberger de Menil was born in France in 1908, daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, one of the founders of Schlumberger, an oil-drilling equipment company. She and her husband John began to amass their uniquely personal art collection in Europe in 1931, shortly after they were married. They were introduced to the world of contemporary art by Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier, the force behind the innovative collaboration between the Catholic Church and modern masters such as Matisse, Picasso, Leger, and Le Corbusier in the chapels at Assy, Ronchamp, and Vence in France. The Menil family left France when it was occupied by the Germans in World War II. They moved to Houston in 1941; John de Menil was head of Schlumberger's Houston office. In the late 1940s they commissioned Philip Johnson to design the River Oaks house in which Mrs. Menil still resided until her death. The Menils quickly became a force in the local artistic community, serving as patrons to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum, and the art departments of the University of St. Thomas and Rice University. They were involved in projects as diverse as the Black Art Center in the Fifth Ward, the "Art Barn" and Media Center at Rice, and the Rothko Chapel, their first independent project. Together they formed the innovative Art Investments, Ltd., which involved twelve local business people as limited partners in the purchase and rotation of modern art works among the homes of the participants. During this time, they continued to collect on their own, backed by the profits from a device invented by Mrs. Menil's father that could identify minerals and fluids based on their degree of resistance to electrical current. This device was marketed throughout the world beginning in 1927 by the Schlumberger companies and provided the basis for Dominique de Menil's personal fortune, which was estimated in 1989 at over $100 million. By 1973, when John de Menil died, the pair had amassed over 10,000 works of art and had been considering the disposition of this immense legacy. They had agreed to keep the collection together rather than donating it piecemeal to various existing institutions. After her husband's death, Mrs. Menil continued to pursue their goal of preserving what she characterized as "the intimacy I had enjoyed with works of art." Encompassing a broad spectrum from the art of antiquity to that of tribal cultures and present-day Western art, the collection's overall theme, as she described it, is a spiritual one: the ephemeral nature of the human condition and man's continuing quest for transcendent meaning in that context. While the collection itself comprises almost exclusively art assembled by the Menils, the museum project was funded by a combination of major gifts from the Brown Foundation, the Cullen Foundation, the Hobby Foundation, Houston Endowment, and private contributions, in addition to the Menil Foundation's substantial support. Legal ownership of the building and the collection is vested in the Menil Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation, whose board of directors was headed by Dominique de Menil. She died in 1997. The museum was not initially given an operating and acquisition endowment. In 1989 this and the abrupt resignation of the museum's director caused temporary financial problems, which were solved by raising a $35 million endowment, $17.5 million donated by Mrs. Menil.
The Menil Collection contains works of art in four major areas. The art of antiquity is represented primarily by Cycladic and Celtic artifacts. Byzantine and Medieval icons dominate in the area of premodern Western religious art. The art of tribal cultures emphasizes African art but also includes superb examples of work from Oceania and the Pacific Northwest. The collection of twentieth century art focuses on Cubism, neoplastic abstraction, and surrealism. Over 1,000 examples of Max Ernst's oeuvre and some of Rene Magritte's most highly regarded paintings form an especially prominent part of this category. Recent American art from the 1950s to the 1970s is also represented. Throughout, the Menils' dedication to spirituality and humanism and an extraordinary eye for quality is in evidence. No more than 5 percent of the collection is on view at any one time, and it was one of Dominique de Menil's primary goals to rotate the works of art continually so that the public's experience in the museum would always be fresh. Selected exhibitions from the permanent collection include Near-Eastern and Mediterranean antiquities, Byzantine and medieval art, art of tribal cultures, European painting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and twentieth-century European and American painting. Among the special exhibits in the main building in 1988 were John Chamberlain: Sculpture 1970s and 1980s, Andy Warhol Death and Disasters, Winslow Homer's Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years, and Byzantine Icons from the Menil Collection. Richmond Hall, an alternative space located three blocks south of the collection, hosts performance art and site-specific works, such as Richard Jackson Installations 1970–1988. From 1989 to 1993 exhibits included works from Francisco Goya, Michael Tracy, Jacques Callot, John Chamberlain, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Exhibitions in 1994 included Rolywholyover: A Circus and African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia.
The main museum building is on a tract of nine city blocks purchased by the Menils in the Montrose section of Houston. In accord with Mrs. Menil's desire for a building that was "small on the outside and big on the inside," the architectural firms of Renzo Piano of Genoa, Italy, and Houston-based Richard Fitzgerald and Partners produced an unassuming structure that blends well in style and exterior design with the gray bungalows that surround it. At forty feet by 142 feet and a maximum height of forty-five feet, the building dominates the neighborhood without overwhelming it, due in large part to its grey wood siding, white trim, and black canvas awnings. As befits the rationale of individually experienced art in a nonhierarchical setting, both exhibits and support facilities place heavy emphasis on a combination of sparseness and accessibility. The conservation department is on the first floor, and the storage facilities on the second floor are open by appointment. The bookstore and director's office are in bungalows nearby. Renzo Piano, perhaps best known for his high-tech Pompidou Center project in Paris, produced an equally innovative if less visually startling technical miracle for the Menil Collection. Working with engineer Peter Rice he achieved an interior illuminated by natural light that passes through glass and is deflected by a series of 300 ferro-cement "leaves," thus protecting the works of art from direct sunlight. A series of glass-enclosed interior gardens enhances the natural ambiance of the galleries. While the primary purpose of the Menil Collection is to provide personal access to its works of art, it also participates in the international art community by providing works on loan and exchange and contributes to the advancement of worldwide understanding among peoples of various cultures by supporting publications on art.
The Cy Twombly Gallery, also designed by Renzo Piano, opened in 1995 on the thirty-acre campus that surrounds the main building. In 1996 Dominique de Menil commissioned the Dan Flavin Installation in Richmond Hall; this work opened in 1998. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel, designed by son François de Menil to house restored Byzantine frescos for a term of twelve years, opened on the campus in 1997. The Menil Drawing Institute was created in 2008, and in 2009 the Menil developed a master site plan that included a new entrance, expanded landscaping, a new parking lot, bookstore, and other new structures. A restaurant, Bistro Menil, opened in 2014. Groundbreaking for the Menil Drawing Institute occurred on March 27, 2015. Construction was ongoing in 2017.