1987: The year that changed Houston
Silver anniversary memories

Menil magic: Exclusive photos from the opening of Houston's magnificent museum 25 years ago

Twenty-five years ago today, Dominique de Menil opened the Menil Collection and a new era of museum-going in Houston was born. "Houston, this is your museum," de Menil told the audience at the ribbon-cutting. But it soon became the world's treasure as well, drawing visitors — both famous and unknown — from across the globe.

In these exclusive photos from the Menil Archives, we take a look back at how de Menil put the museum together, the glittery gala on June 3, 1987, and the ribbon cutting on June 4. (The museum opened to the public on June 7.)


Dominique de Menil receives bouquets of flowers from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren at the dedication of the museum.

For months before the opening, de Menil worked closely with her staff (Deborah Velders, shown here) to make sure that every object from the collection was meticulously placed. Menil told the New York Times that she did not like to be labeled a collector. ''I find it pretentious,'' she said. Yet, over a 40-year period, she and her husband, John, assembled 10,000 art objects that became the basis for the museum.

In the early 1970s, Dominique and John consulted architect Louis Kahn about designing a museum before the idea was tabled upon John's death in 1973 and Kahn's death in 1974. Ten years later, Dominique returned to the idea and hired Italian architect Renzo Piano, who had co-designed the Pompidou Center in Paris but had never designed a building in the United States.

She asked Piano to design a museum that was “small on the outside, but big as possible inside,” a place where works of art could breathe, where the visitor “would never know museum fatigue.” The low-slung gray, factory-looking building with a louvered ceiling to control natural lighting has become one of most admired buildings in the nation by architects and the general public alike.


Workers lay out carpets in the light-filled Menil lobby.

"The building works beautifully,'' de Menil told the New York Times during a tour. ''The space is fabulous; I'm glad that I pushed to have the ceilings raised another foot. And the roof gives light in the gentlest possible way.'' 


De Menil, on hands and knees, examines the large tribal art painting, "Dance Curtain" (Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Canada, West Vancouver Island, Nitinat Lake, ca. 1880–1895), that dominates one hallway.

De Menil looks intently as Paul Winkler and Gary Parham assemble a totem in the area of the museum devoted to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Pacific Northwest Coast.

'I wanted a place that gives the viewer time and space to look at art,'' she told the Times. ''Most museums are overloaded with works that compete for the viewer's eye, and there's a limit to the attention span. After an hour, you're tired and you don't see paintings any more.''

De Menil examines some ancient artifacts in an area of the museum that includes several hundred works from Paleolithic to other pre-Christian eras, primarily from Europe and the Near East. The Times called the Menil collection, which ranges from antiquities to Surrealist paintings, "a wonderful melange of personal tastes, a far cry from the encyclopedic survey of a standard art historical museum."

Under the watchful eye of de Menil, James Hou and Gary Parham finish placing artifacts in one room.

Before the opening, de Menil spends some time in the 20th Century Galleries, amid important works by Picasso, Leger, de Chirico, Magritte, Matta, Victor Brauner and Max Ernst.

For a gala party on June 3, 1987, a large tent was erected on the Menil lawn. Invited guests previewed the museum and then strolled across the street to the party tent for dining (with a 30-station buffet catered by Jackson Hicks) and dancing.

Among the notables attending were Danielle Mitterand, wife of French president Francois Mitterand, Jacqueline Pompidou, wife of former French president Georges Pompidou, architects I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson, artist Robert Rauschenberg, Princess Michael of Greece, the Stanley Marcuses of Dallas, Evelyn Lauder, and Texas Gov. Bill Clements and wife Rita.

Among the arrivals, from left, Judy Gerry, Robert Gerry and Lynn Wyatt.

Houston Chronicle arts critic Ann Holmes, center, arrived with David Whitney and Philip Johnson.

I.M. Pei talks with guests.

Houston congressman Mickey Leland and Dominique de Menil deep in conversation. The Menils were big supporters of Leland throughout his career. 

From left, Robert Rauschenberg, Dennis Hopper, Richard Landry

Dominique de Menil, left and Danielle Mitterand

An excited Dominique de Menil, with son Georges de Menil and unidentifed person, exhults at the gala.

Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and William Steen were among those who hit the dance floor.

Strawberries were among the delicacies that proved irresistible to the Menil grandchildren.

The next day, Dominique de Menil officially opened the Menil, telling the crowd, "I have been asked many times whether this building corresponded to my dreams. It does. Actually it surpasses my dreams."

She deferred praise, saying the museum is justified "only by the work of the artists."

"Artists are economically useless, and yet they are indispensable. A political regime where artists are persecuted is stifling, unbearable. Man cannot live by bread alone. We need painters, poets, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, dancers and saints.

"The gifted artists are the great benefactors of the world. Life flows from their souls, from their hearts, from their fingers. They invite us to celebrate life and to meditate on the mystery of the world, on the mystery of God. Artists constantly open new horizons and challenge our way of looking at things. They bring us back to the essential."


Menil is interviewd by Channel 13's Melanie Lawson, left.

Nabila Drooby, left, and Mayor Kathy Whitmire

De Menil was surrounded by reporters and photographers at the opening.

Architect Renzo Piano, left, and the Menil's Walter Hopps

De Menil, center, tours the museum with her son, Francois, right, and his wife, Susan.

De Menil, shown here at the opening, continued to take an active interest in the museum until her death on Dec. 31, 1997.  She was often seen in the museum and on the grounds, attending to great works of art as well as tending to budding oleanders.