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Saying goodbye to the Byzantine frescoes: Menil examines how to use the chapel left behind

Saying goodbye to the Byzantine frescoes: Menil examines how to use the chapel left behind

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Restored fresco Photo by © Paul Warchol
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Josef Helfenstein Photo by George Hixson
News_Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum
Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum Photo by Argos'Dad
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News_Josef Helfenstein
News_Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum

As the clock winds down for the Byzantine frescoes, The Menil Collection is examining the manner in which the intersection of spirituality and contemporary art has informed the museum campus since the opening of the Rothko Chapel in 1971.

On Sunday, Menil director Josef Helfenstein will lead a panel of specialists in art history, theology and anthropology to discuss the museum's unique approach to collecting and displaying art, and how this perspective can guide future use of the soon-to-be-vacant fresco building.

"The closing of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel provides a perfect occasion to examine and explore the long relationship between art and spirituality here at the Menil," Helfenstein wrote in an email, noting that the panel discussion will attempt to unravel the complicated place of religious faith in secular societies.

Pamela Smart — an art historian and anthropologist at University of Binghamton who will join Helfenstein at Sunday's event — spoke with CultureMap to offer a glimpse into how these spiritual considerations will still lead the museum, even after the deaths of founders John and Dominique de Menil.

"Re-purposing this special building, adapting it to a new role, is a major decision and will mark a major moment here  at the Menil," noted museum director Josef Helfenstein.

"There's this assumption that museums are simply ways for a collector to try to distinguish him or herself," she said. "But with the Menil, it's different.

"The Menil offers a counter-model to how the robber baron's created their museums," Smart continued, pointing to many of the big name art collections created by American industrialists throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Sacred Modern, her 2010 examination of the de Menil's collecting practices, Smart writes that John and Dominique de Menil sought contemporary works that forged spiritual and emotional connections with their audience.

As a museum, she contends, the Menil Collection doesn't direct its operations towards increasing attendance but rather seeks to maintain these same highly personal relationships between the art and its viewers. And, architecturally, the museum campus follows suit.

Helfenstein said that the Menil is devoting itself to a patient and thorough study of how the Byzantine Fresco Chapel might be used in the future, speaking with experts in a range of fields as well as the building's original architect Francois de Menil.

"Re-purposing this special building, adapting it to a new role, is a major decision and will mark a major moment here at the Menil," he noted, saying that future use also will be considered with relation to the museum campus' long-term master plan devised by renowned designer David Chipperfield.

The panel discussion will be held Sunday at 7 p.m. in the foyer of The Menil Collection. In addition to Smart, Helfenstein will be joined by Annemarie Weyl Carr, curator of the the Menil's current Imprinting the Divine exhibit, and William Vendley, secretary general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.