Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

By: Kendall Curlee

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 26, 2017

The Museum of Fine Arts, in the Montrose area of Houston, is the oldest art museum in Texas. It has its roots in the Public School Art League, formed in 1900 by a group of five women led by Emma Richardson Cherry, who proposed "the encouragement of art and culture in the public school system" through the installation of fine-art reproductions in classrooms. League members also offered art classes, lectures on art appreciation, and exhibitions in the Scanlan Building downtown. In 1913 the organization's name was changed to Houston Art League to reflect its broader focus. During this period the league began acquiring art objects and determined to establish a public museum. A plot of land at South Main and Montrose was donated by the trustees of the Hermann estate with financial assistance from Joseph S. Cullinan, and the site was dedicated on April 12, 1917. World War I quelled fund-raising efforts until the Armistice, at which time league president Florence Fall revived the effort to establish a museum. With support from William C. Hogg, the central unit of the neoclassical museum building, designed by Houston architect William Ward Watkin, opened to the public on April 12, 1924. The Houston Art League subsequently amended its state charter and formally changed its name to Museum of Fine Arts of Houston in 1929. The museum's name was shortened to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, by its trustees in the early 1960s.

The museum's founding director, James Chillman, Jr., developed a modest exhibition program that consisted primarily of locally organized shows, notably the Houston Artists Annual Exhibition, and annual circuit exhibitions organized by the Southern States Art League. The donation in 1919 of twenty-five paintings and a few works in other media by George M. Dickson and his sister Belle formed the core of the museum's permanent collection, which was augmented in the 1930s by Annette Finnigan's donations of a collection of fine lace and antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and Spain. During this period Ima Hogg bequeathed important collections of works on paper, Indian artifacts, and paintings and sculpture by Frederic Remington to the museum. The 1944 donation of the Edith A. and Percy S. Straus collection formed the nucleus of the museum's collection of Renaissance art; a series of gifts from the Blaffer family and a 1961 gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation further fleshed out the museum's European holdings. The lack of endowment funds, a problem that persisted until the late 1960s, prohibited a methodical development of the museum's permanent collection.

Two wings were added to the original museum facility in 1926. Funds were not available to complete the interior of the east wing, which proved to be an ideal site for the museum school begun in 1927. Classes in painting, sculpture, and other media were taught by a series of outstanding teachers, many of whom were practicing artists. Ruth Pershing Uhler, hired in 1937 as an instructor and later curator of education for many years, was an influential force in the museum's development until her death in 1967. In 1954 Chillman was succeeded by Lee Malone, the Museum of Fine Arts's first full-time director. Under Malone's leadership the museum entered a more professional era, organizing exhibitions drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States and abroad and bringing in noteworthy traveling exhibitions. The museum received one of the largest and most important gifts in its history in 1957, when Ima Hogg donated her twenty-eight-room home, Bayou Bend, and her collection of American paintings and decorative arts, which ranged in date from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Bayou Bend, located on Buffalo Bayou five miles from the museum, was designed by the Houston architect John F. Staub in 1927 and opened to the public in 1966. The Robert Lee Blaffer Memorial Wing and the Frank Prior Sterling Galleries were completed in 1953. In 1958 another gallery was added, older parts of the building were remodeled and air-conditioned, and Cullinan Hall, a gift from Nina J. Cullinan in memory of her parents, opened. Designed by internationally acclaimed modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Cullinan Hall features a 10,000-square-foot, fan-shaped exhibition gallery with a dramatic glass curtain-wall.

Malone left the Museum of Fine Arts in 1959, and James Chillman served as interim director until 1961, when the museum announced the appointment of James Johnson Sweeney as its new director. Sweeney, a well-known critic and former director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, ushered in a new era of aesthetic sophistication during his six-year term. Undaunted by Cullinan Hall's vast exhibition space, Sweeney excelled at dramatic installations. For the exhibition Three Spaniards: Picasso, Miró, Chillida (1961), for example, he built a pool outdoors to serve as a backdrop for Picasso's six bronze Bathers and inside Cullinan Hall installed just five large works, focusing the viewers' attention on their interrelationships. Among the exhibitions organized by Sweeney that garnered national attention were Derain: Before 1915 (1961), The Olmec Tradition (1963), and The Heroic Years: Paris 1908–1914 (1965). In the belief that Houston artists would profit from a wider pool of competition, Sweeney discontinued the annual competitive exhibition of local artists, instituting in its place a juried regional competition. He further supported local artists by purchasing their work for the museum and by organizing a series of solo exhibitions for museum-school faculty members. Under Sweeney the museum's holdings of modern and non-European art were significantly expanded through purchase and especially through the gifts of Alice Nicholson Hanszen, who donated approximately 200 pre-Columbian objects, and Dominique and John de Menil, who donated many fine examples of contemporary African and Oceanic art. Sweeney's taste was perceived as too narrow by certain sectors of the community; this, together with mounting financial pressures, prompted the board to terminate his contract as full-time director in 1967. He was succeeded by interim director Mary Hancock Buxton.

Guy Philippe de Montebello, director of the museum from 1969 to 1974, provided much-needed structure for museum operations. He reorganized the museum staff, hiring curators to head separate departments and expanding the museum's educational staff. Montebello improved the museum's financial status by encouraging endowments and by launching a $15 million fund drive to expand the museum facility, fund endowments, and contribute to operating costs. Under his leadership the board of directors determined that the museum should collect and exhibit art from all areas and time periods. The staff began work on a handbook that would highlight the strengths of the collection and gaps that needed to be filled. Money provided by a bequest from the estate of Laurence H. Favrot and an endowment fund established in honor of Agnes Cullen Arnold enabled Montebello to acquire major examples of Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance works. During this period the museum's early modern holdings were strengthened by the donation of John A. and Audrey Jones Beck's important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.

A 1970 gift from the Brown Foundation enabled the museum to complete Mies van der Rohe's master plan for the museum facility, and on January 14, 1974, the Brown Pavilion opened to the public. The pavilion more than doubled the museum's gallery space, to a total of 75,331 square feet, and, like Cullinan Hall, was dominated by an upper gallery encased on three sides with glass panels. Shortly after the opening of the new addition Montebello left to take a position as assistant director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He was succeeded by William Agee, whose interest in the then relatively unknown American abstract painters of the 1920s and 1930s led him to organize two nationally acclaimed exhibitions, Modern American Painting, 1910–1940: Toward a New Perspective (1977) and Patrick Henry Bruce: American Modernist (1979). The museum organized several successful traveling exhibitions during Agee's eight-year tenure, including Gustave Caillebotte: a Retrospective Exhibition (1976) and Winslow Homer Graphics (1976).

In 1976 Target Stores made a substantial donation with annual supplements that enabled the Museum of Fine Arts to develop a collection focused on twentieth-century American and European photography. The following year the Brown Foundation announced a ten-year challenge grant for museum operations and acquisitions, enabling Agee to acquire important art objects from a variety of periods, with emphasis placed on twentieth-century American paintings. The museum's physical plant grew as well. In 1977 the museum acquired the property north of its building and constructed a 41,000-square-foot glass and concrete building for the museum school. Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., provided funds for the new facility, and the school was renamed in his honor. A gift from the Cullen Foundation funded the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, located between the museum and Glassell School. Designed by California sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, the garden was completed in 1986, and features sculptures by such nineteenth and twentieth-century masters as Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, and Alexander Calder. Shortly before he left the museum in 1982 Agee oversaw the publication of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: A Guide to the Collection (1981).

Peter Marzio became director in 1982. During the 1980s the museum exhibited support for local and regional artists, neglected by the museum since Sweeney left, by purchasing their works and organizing such exhibitions as Fresh Paint: the Houston School (1985), The Texas Landscape, 1900–1986 (1986), and Tradition and Innovation: A Museum Celebration of Texas Art (1990). Marzio supplemented these regional exhibitions by organizing shows featuring artwork in a variety of media from many cultures and time periods. The museum also mounted blockbuster exhibitions organized by major institutions in the United States and abroad, such as Rediscovering Pompeii (1990), which attracted more than 350,000 visitors. In order to emphasize the strengths of the museum's permanent collection, Marzio installed 450 works tracing the development of western art in the upper gallery of the Brown Pavilion, an area previously reserved for traveling exhibitions.

By the end of the 1980s the Museum of Fine Arts had built a permanent collection of more than 20,000 works of art, with exceptional depth exhibited in the areas of early American decorative arts and twentieth-century European and American art. Under Marzio the museum developed new strengths in the areas of photography, costumes, and English decorative arts. In 1991 the museum employed 382 people and was governed by an eighty-seven-member board of trustees. The museum operated on a $14.5 million budget, with financial support provided primarily by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, and other governmental agencies; private foundations and corporations; membership fees; and annual fund drives and benefits. In addition to mounting exhibitions, the museum organizes public tours, lectures, gallery talks, and film series. The Museum Guild, organized in 1939, and the Junior League Docent program, organized in 1943, provide volunteer support for the museum's education program. Also of service to scholars in the region is the 74,000-volume library endowed by Winifred and Maurice Hirsch and an archive of the museum's history. The museum archive also maintains more than 700 reels of microfilm on art in Texas and the surrounding states assembled by the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.

In 1989 the museum hired urban planner Denise Scott Brown to prepare a long-range expansion plan for options such as linking the museum facility, the Glassell School of Art, and the Cullen Sculpture Garden. In 1992 Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, who had designed national museums in Spain, was picked to design a $50 million complex to be built east of the institution's main building. Museum officials hoped to break ground by 1995 and open in 1999. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is affiliated with the American Association of Museums, the Texas Association of Museums, the American Federation of Arts, the American Arts Alliance, and the American Association of Museum Directors.

In March 2000, in conjunction with its 100th anniversary, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened the Audrey Jones Beck Building. Named for the gracious collector of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, the Beck Building houses the encyclopedic permanent collection of American and European art which includes the 2004 acquisition Portrait of a Young Woman by the Dutch master Rembrandt.

A number of groundbreaking special exhibitions have originated at the MFAH since 2000. In 2002 the museum launched the Quilts of Gee's Bend, a show that brought the little-known African-American community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, to the public's attention. Four generations of quilters' bold, dynamic pieces went on view in Houston before traveling the United States. The newly-formed Latin American art department introduced twentieth-century avant-garde art with the remarkable Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. The 2004 exhibition showcased the broad vision of artists from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Contemporary African artists received national regard in 2005 when highlights from the Jean Pigozzi Collection went on view in the Caroline Wiess Law Building. Thirty-three artists were included in this spectacular array of contemporary art from fifteen different African nations.

Many important gifts to the museum have entered the collection in recent years. Careful collecting and mindful purchases have allowed the photography and antiquities departments to flourish with the acquisition of 3,760 images from the Manfred Heiting Collection of Photography and the Hellenistic Greek Head of Poseidon. The 2003 death of benefactress and life trustee Caroline Wiess Law brought a substantial grouping of modern and contemporary works of art to the collection, including two important Picassos and works by Franz Kline, Hans Hoffman, and Andy Warhol. Latin American art holdings have steadily increased thanks to the International Center for Art in the Americas purchase of works of art from important twentieth-century artists such as Xul Solar, Joaquin Torres Garcia, Francisco Matto, Antonio Berni, and Gego.

Toni Ramona Beauchamp, James Johnson Sweeney and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 1961–1967 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1983). Jerry Bywaters, Texas Painting and Sculpture: 20th Century (Dallas: Broadax Printing, 1971). Janet Landay, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Visitor Guide (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2000). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: An Architectural History, 1924–1986, Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, N.S. 15 (April 1992). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: A Guide to the Collection (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1981). Houston Museum of Fine Arts, A Permanent Legacy: 150 Works from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1989). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (, accessed August 25, 2005. Mimi Swartz, "Going Public," Houston City, January 1982. David B. Warren, Bayou Bend: American Furniture, Paintings and Silver from the Bayou Bend Collection (Boston: New York Graphic Society for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1975).

  • Architecture
  • Other Structures
  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Art Museums
  • Visual Arts
  • Education
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • 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.

Kendall Curlee, “Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022,

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May 26, 2017

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