After the quite interesting first day in Houston, I was excited to discover more attractions of the city. I started the day by putting on my proud dark-pink NASA t-shirt that I purchased the day before. I had to take the Amtrak train to Tucson at 6:55 PM, so I couldn’t be too lazy. After having a simple breakfast, I decided to head for the museum district that every guidebooks seemed to be praising.
According to its website, Houston museum district has 19 museums over the four walkable zones. I never thought of Houston as an art city like NY or Chicago. But looking back, it was obvious that Houston has such good art museums because it is usually the riches who are good art collectors, and Houston is not short of the riches, it seemed.
The first museum I headed to was the Menil Collection. Like Whitney Museum, Guggenheim, or J. P. Morgan Museum in NY, the founders of Menil Museum were the rich people, the late Mr+Mrs Menil. The main building of the museum that is so famous to have precious artworks from all over the world was under construction (until September 2018.) But I did not hesitate to go anyway because I really wanted to visit the Rothko Chapel, a project also commissioned by Menils, that is right beside the main building.
I took a bus (#82, day pass $3) to go to the Chapel. Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it a ‘chapel’ with a small ‘c.’ It is not intended to accommodate any particular religion. It is just a place to find something ‘spiritual,’ whatever that word means to an each visitor. Not like many museums in NY, it was free. I was grateful about the generosity of Menils.
Like many travelers visiting the US, I had this stereotype about the museums founded by the riches. A family gets or is rich that they have so much money to spend for something valuable. Buying something like a handbag wouldn’t work, because they would need to buy sooooo many of them to spend all the money. So they decide to buy art works, that are known to have so many digits on their price tags. After collecting considerable volume of collections, they build a museum as a goodwill to the society. Then I (the tourist) go, and enjoy them for a reasonable ticket price, right?
However, these Menils were a bit different. They didn’t stop at BUYING the artworks. They called the artists and asked them to do some project for THEIR museum. They would build a building for the projects, so fitted to the style of the artists. You know, like Medici family of Renaissance Italy used to do.
And there the Rothko Chapel was. The building so solemn and tranquile with the paintings of Mark Rothko covering every walls. Fourteen huge paintings were hung on the walls of the high ceiling chapel. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the walls were built for the paintings. I always adored Mark Rothko’s paintings, but being inside the building overwhelmed with his paintings was nothing like seeing one or two painting of him (with other artists’ paintings nearby.) It felt like being captured inside the artist’s mind. It was a bit depressing to learn that Rothko committed suicide not long after finishing the project and he didn’t get to see this beautiful chapel.
Anybody was allowed to stay in the chapel (as long as one doesn’t take a picture), so I stayed for a while and headed outside for a very secular activity, a lunch. On the neighborhood, there wasn’t many restaurants but the restaurant run by the Menil, Bistro Menil, was close by. The interior was beautiful and the food was casually tasteful (cheeseburger $16.)
After the lunch, I visited a few more museums also on the so called Menil Campus. Cy Twombly Gallery, Dan Flavin Installation, and Byzantine Fresco Chapel were all jaw dropping projects, all commissioned by Menils. Every museum was free, again, as long as you don’t take photos (they were very strict about this rule.)
At this point I finally looked up who these Menils are (yes, I had no clue who they were) and found out they got rich from the oil and finance industry. It was interesting that NY Times actually called them Medici of the modern society.
I had a few hours left before heading to the train station. There were so many interesting and small museums on museum district, but I decided to finish my journey in Houston by visiting the representatively large museum in the district, The Museum of Fine Arts. It was huge museum with well curated artworks (and of course, super strong A/C.) It curated whole range of artworks, from old time European to cutting edge contemporary 3D printer produced sculptures. Personally, I especially enjoyed the artworks by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse.
It was especially interesting to see another example of what the riches can do for artists. There were a huge artworks by Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, that Nelson Rockefeller commissioned for the fireplace in his Manhattan penthouse! Wow!!! How nice it would be to look at the empty wall of your new penthouse thinking ‘hmm… I should call that Matisse guy to paint it for me’ (I can do this thinking too, of course except the penthouse part, haha) and then REALLY order the artwork tailored for the space!
Thanks to the city and the riches, the Museum of Fine Arts was also free. On my way out, I visited the museum gift shop to buy a magnet to give my mom (=the magnet collector!) and colored pencils to use for my drawing practices, thinking ‘well, maybe it might be super cool to be super rich!’ Money surely cannot buy everything but it certainly CAN buy something, I learned in Houston.
I took a bus back to the hotel to collect luggages, called Lyft, and headed to the very tiny Houston Amtrak Station. Next destination would be Tucson, the city of cacti. 🌵