AMERICA’S NEXT ART CAPITAL
September 15 is Museum District Day, proving art may be Houston’s claim to fame.
With 19 museums within a 1.5-mile radius measured from the Mecom Fountain in Hermann Park, Houston’s Museum District is chock-full of stuff to see. “No other major city that I could find has so many museums in one area. Most have eight or nine,” says Laurette Canizares, Executive Director at the Museum District Association.
There are museums for everything from the human body to tornadoes. New to the scene is the Museum of African American Culture. Opened last February, it has a fresh approach, according to Canizares. “The Executive Director wants to pay homage to the black community that founded Houston, but his vision is also about the contemporary side of it: the music, the new style of artwork…,” she explains.
The area’s location is strategic. Nestled between Hermann Park, The Medical Center and Rice University (The Stanford of the South, as Canizares puts it), the Museum District is in proximity to culture and a range of services. “It’s a very walkable district,” says Canizares. “Businesses are going in, real estate is booming, people see the value of living and playing here. And this area has always been a safe, nice area to live in.”
Money talks. The city allocates 19.3% of the state-mandated Hotel Occupancy Tax it collects to the arts. “Out of all the major cities, Houston gives the most back to the arts through that Hotel Tax,” claims Canizares. “A lot of other cities use it for hotel development, convention centers and conference venues, and I think that speaks to how diverse and culturally open Houston is,” she says.
The Big Day
The main draw at Museum District Day is the free admission. But Canizares is quick to point out that museum going is always affordable. “Twelve of the museums are free every single day of the year,” she says. “And the rest of them all have dedicated free days,” she adds. Still, the one-day event attracts big crowds. “Through the years, visitation has ranged between 18,000 to 30,000,” she tells 002houston.
Participating venues host an array of activities. “All of the museums are really good at organizing something special and unique,” says Canizares. At Menil Collection, Musicircus is an event imagined by American composer and artist John Cage (1912–1992). First staged in 1967 at the University of Illinois, the event includes performers and musicians in a wide range of musical styles, performance genres, levels of experience and ensemble sizes. The groups perform simultaneously, but who plays what, when and where is decided by throwing dice or tossing coins. There’s a lot to see and do, so pacing is everything. “It can be a bit overwhelming, so we recommend visiting about three museums throughout the day,” suggests Canizares.
Organizers this year have chucked the usual shuttle buses in favor of more earth-friendly pedicabs. “Even though the museums are within walking distance, we want to accommodate the elderly, those with disabilities and families,” explains Canizares. Also this year is a significant increase in grub. “Some of the museums now have food trucks,” she adds.
“People don’t realize that the Zoo is part of us,” says Canizares. Also included are The Children’s Museum and The Health Museum. “The Lawndale Art Center is absolutely amazing because they give local artists a place to showcase their work,” she says. The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is also worth checking out. “They offer a wonderful residency program. Artists get about three to six months in a workshop in the back to specialize in their medium,” she explains. In exchange, artists must dedicate some time to speak to the public, based on a schedule posted on their office door.
Other standouts include The Menil. “It has the largest private collection in the United States and it is set on a beautiful campus,” says Canizares. “Right next to them is the Houston Center for Photography. They offer classes to the community.”
The Weather Museum is unique in its kind in the United States. “They have a staff of meteorologists who love their craft so much they wanted to have their own museum. They work with the National Weather Channel, which gets a lot of its information from these guys. Also, the big oil and gas rigs that are offshore receive all their information from the Weather Museum,” reveals Canizares.
When London’s esteemed Kenwood House needed a place to house their impressive art collection while remodeling, they didn’t send it to some fancy Paris museum. Instead, they chose Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, turning it into an exhibit (through September 3). “Dr. Peter Marzio (former director of MFAH who passed away in 2010) – I think he established an empire there. That’s kind of an insider’s perspective,” she adds.
For information on schedules and activities, visit www.houstonmuseumdistrict.org
By Nadia Michel Photography by Hugh Hargrave/Greater Houston Convention & Visitor Bureau