Why I love living here: The Menil Collection senior curator on what she loves about Houston’s art scene

The Menil Collection
The Menil Collection (Kevin Keim)

Michelle White is the senior curator at The Menil Collection. This is an essay she wrote as part of our series Why I Love Living Here, a weekly feature where locals share why they love living in Houston. If you want to submit your story, send a column to click2houston@kprc.com.

Michelle White (Courtesy The Menil Collection)

Houston is a city that believes in art. I love raising my family in a city that cares so deeply about fostering a community where artists and arts organizations can thrive. I am the senior curator at the Menil Collection, where I work with artists, organize exhibitions, and oversee our collection of Modern and Contemporary works of art. One of the greatest joys in my professional life is working with objects and being surrounded by art, and for so many of us this time has been particularly challenging as we face losing connection to the things we love. As a result, I have been reawakened to the fact that art not just confined in a museum, it is everywhere in this city! This has certainly been even more evident to me during the pandemic. One of my favorite socially-distanced activities to do with my 5-year-old son is visit the street murals around St. Emanuel and Leeland Street on the eastside. The work that has been done to promote and protect this vibrant cultural form, such as the recent publication of an interactive map to navigate the art and more than 500 murals, is inspiring. The Houston Mural Map, sponsored by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, speaks volumes about a civic commitment to making art accessible in a way that benefits all of us.

I also enjoy the hidden and unexpected works of art you can find in outdoor spaces that require a bit of an adventure—and sometimes a picnic lunch—to discover: Bill Davenport’s hilarious giant seven foot hand-painted concrete head of cabbage tucked into the Heights Boulevard jogging trail; Dean Ruck’s Big Bubble, a work that releases an impressive burp of air in the middle of Buffalo Bayou after you push a mysterious red button on the Preston Street Bridge; and Marta Chilindrón’s luminous sculpture Mobius Houston on the campus of the University of Houston, displayed among the many other exceptional works of art that are in the university’s public art collection that are fun to explore when classes are not in session. Let’s not forget the treasures on the Menil campus: our newest outdoor sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly called Menil Curve, and the Michael Heizer’s recently relocated land sculptures, are among the numerous outdoor artworks on view.

This spirit is matched by the fact that Houston has historically been a welcoming place for artists to live and sustain their practices. The Glassell School of Art’s Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has brought in international artists since the early 1980s, many have ended up falling in love with this community and making it their home. Just down the street, Lawndale Art Center and Project Row Houses have important residency programs that have helped foster and grow so many artist’s careers during formative stages through financial resources and space to work. We have a significant group of artists producing art at the caliber of artists working in New York and Los Angeles. They show internationally with highest regard within the arts world. Do you know that Houston artists are regularly featured in exhibitions that showcase the most important contemporary art in the world; from The Whitney Biennial in New York to the Venice Biennale in Italy? Their work is being supported by this city, where studio rent has always been more attainable and an ecosystem is flourishing that promotes the work of our local artists through a diverse network of patrons, civic funding, Texas-based art journals, commercial galleries, and nonprofit art spaces that are deeply committed to working together and supporting each other’s various roles to sustain this delicate balance, and to showcase the work being done here, not as distinct, but vitally alongside some of the best work around the world.

In this moment, the economic vitality of this city and its patrons, which has made it possible in the past for so many artists to thrive and have the space to work here, is at risk. It is paramount to see our support of the work by so many artists who make our city special. Subsidized studio space is essential. In these exceedingly confusing and difficult times, now, more than ever, is the time to let artists, and their vison and belief in finding the possibility in these moments, lead the way. Houston was built by individuals with deep generosity and a philanthropic spirit, it’s on us to continue this support of our thriving local arts scene.