Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts spent five years getting to know three blue-collar ethnic communities, according to this Wallace-commissioned feature article. The intensive outreach led to the museum’s “A Place for All People” exhibitions, where residents themselves created works of art that reflected their lives in response to pieces from the museum's collections.

 

In the past, large, encyclopedic art museums assumed they had a monopoly on high art, good taste and aesthetic standards. They treated art like a powerful but bad-tasting medicine that the public should be forced to drink. 'We know what is good for you,' could have been engraved on the facades of most of our buildings.
- Peter C. Marzio, Director, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

 

 

  
Participants working on the S.H.A.P.E. mural project.

On any particular day at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH), there's no shortage of ready visitors, many of whom come for something modest and leave with something grander in mind. This is a place that knows its visitors very, very well, and whose staff and board members are involved in their museum experience. They won't be satisfied until every single inhabitant of their metropolis, and many others from farther away, walk through those doors and then return again and again and again. The MFAH is especially adept at finding new customers in parts of its hometown that other cultural institutions overlook. This is its story.

Like the city it serves, the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston enjoyed a remarkable run in the 20th century. It blossomed from provincial roots into one of the nation's largest and most popular art museums, drawing a million visitors a year to view stunning collections from pre-Columbian art and African gold to sculpture and paintings by masters from Botticelli and Brancusi to Remington and Calder. It jumpstarted its second century by opening a new building designed by architect Rafael Monteo, the Spanish master of light and space.

The Audrey Jones Beck Building (see The Houston Chronicle's online section, the Beck Building Guide) doubled the MFAH's gallery space, and the addition came none too soon. Under the hand of Peter C. Marzio, director since 1982, the museum collections are bulging with 40,000 works of art, its staff has grown rapidly and the endowment is approaching half a billion dollars, a twenty-fold increase.

The MFAH is resting on neither its oars nor laurels — but then it never has.From its founding at the dawn of the twentieth century by civic-minded women bent on bringing art reproductions to the schools of a small city on the Buffalo Bayou that had been a capital of the Republic of Texas in the late 1830s, the MFAH has exhibited a passion and a knack for reaching out to the Houston community and bringing art to people where they live. "There is," as education director Beth Schneider noted, "something of the missionary in people who work at museums."

It's not just the crowd-pleasing exhibitions, from the collection of 70 Impressionist paintings that John and Audrey Beck assembled after World War II (and now housed in the eponymous Audrey Beck Building) or the Glassell Collection of African Gold or such traveling shows as Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. The MFAH stages a myriad of festivals, concerts and cultural events year round with wide appeal to Houston's young, polyglot population. It began thinking outside the box of its four walls long ago and has always been on the lookout for innovative ways to bring art to Houston's schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community settings. (See A Legacy of Reaching Out)

Every museum stages festivals and special events. What distinguishes the MFAH is the length it will go to find an audience and meet people on their own terms. Two examples make the point:

  • A Place For All People. With the help of a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the MFAH staff spent five years getting to know three blue-collar, ethnically different communities. This intensive outreach effort led to A Place for All People exhibitions, where residents created their own works of art in response to pieces from the museum's collections that spoke to their lives. The groundbreaking partnership is still paying dividends. (View a clip from the Call and Response exhibit.)
  • Art in the Parks: The Summer Mural Project. With the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the museum in 1996 commissioned local artists to help children paint outdoor murals on themes of their own choosing. Bringing Art to the Parks has been a roaring success, bringing eye-catching scenes to almost half the city's parks, with five new murals added each summer.

Houston is a famously (or infamously) spread-out city, with highway loops that form concrete barriers between neighborhoods. Surrounding Harris County is one and one-half times the size of Rhode Island and nearly as large as Delaware. Almost nobody walks to the museum; they arrive by car or bus. "In Houston, 'walking distance' means: How far do you have to walk from where you parked your car?" said Schneider, the education director. Commuters who come downtown only to work may spend the rest of their lives 30 to 40 miles away. It takes a special effort to get someone to repeat that journey on a day off.

And for low-income families, transportation and cultural barriers pose even greater barriers, which is why the museum and the Houston Independent School District split the cost of school buses to bring people to the museum's Family Day celebrations each month."With Family Days, there's a high comfort level because the children come with their parents and neighbors, whoever wants to come. They are bringing their own support group, not walking in by themselves and thinking, 'I don't fit in,'" said Schneider. (See An Education Director's Education)

Although the Museum of Fine Arts charges five dollars admission, it cuts the fee in half for seniors and students, admits students with a library card free on weekends, and everyone free on Thursdays. Those fees cover barely two percent of the museum's $34-million operating budget. And it receives even less direct government funding.

"It's a private museum that functions like a public museum," said Janet Landay, curator of exhibitions and author of the museum's 543-page Visitor Guide. She believes this openness can be traced directly back to its founding in 1900.

Houston had just 44,600 residents then, the year before the Spindletop oil discovery that eventually would turn Houston into an energy capital. Last year, census takers counted 1,953,631 Houstonians. And the MFAH's attendance has kept pace with Houston's growth.

"When those visionary ladies got together, this was not much more than a pioneer town," said Landay. "We've grown incredibly since then - both the city and the museum - but there is still very much of an encompassing, inclusionary impulse to bring more and more people from the city into the museum."

So that is the story of the MFAH, a private institution that operates like a public trust and that is passionately committed to bringing the people of Houston to its galleries, and bringing art directly into people's lives in their homes and neighborhoods. It has transformed itself over an entire century into just what the banner billowing outside its granite walls proclaims: A Place for All People.

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