This is by far the best and biggest public art museum in Texas. It's a wonderful testament to what a lot of oil money can do, and the manner in which it evolved tells something about the development of the city's sense of aesthetics. The original museum, built in the 1920s, was pure neoclassical -- the attitude was that if Houston was to have a museum, it was to look like a museum. In the '50s, Mies van der Rohe, grand architect of the International Style, was hired to build an addition. In the '70s, that addition received an addition, also designed by Mies. Both of these were bold statements of modern architecture -- lots of glass and steel forming a light and airy space -- but, unfortunately, not the kind of space that lends itself well for much of the museum's collection.
In the '90s, the museum's directors hired Spanish architect Rafael Moneo to design a building that would be a return to traditional galleries. It, the Audrey Jones Beck Building, is across South Main Street from the main building. (A tunnel connects the two; make a point of visiting it.) The new building aims at reconciling the boldness of modernism with the staid character of traditional design. Constructed with rich materials and designed on grand proportions, the building feels monumental. All the galleries on the second floor take advantage of interesting "roof lanterns," which allow Houston's plentiful natural light to enter in regulated amounts. The Beck building doubles MFAH's gallery space and allows the directors to attract first-rate traveling exhibitions. The museum's collection of more than 40,000 pieces is varied, but it is perhaps strongest in the area of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, baroque and Renaissance art, and 19th- and 20th-century American art. There is also a fine collection of African tribal art, as well as ancient artwork from several civilizations.
Aside from the two gallery buildings, there is a large sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi located across Bissonnet from the main building, and the Glassell School of Art, which can be seen just to the north of the sculpture garden. Look for a building made of a strangely reflective glass brick (another architectural pun). The museum also owns two collections of the decorative arts that are displayed in two mansions in the River Oaks area; see Bayou Bend and Rienzi.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Very Highly Recommended 2010