Rice University Controversy

Too radical for Rice? University's plan to demolish the historic Art Barn alarms artists and preservationists alike

Too radical for Rice? Plan to tear down the historic Art Barn alarms

Art Barn Menil Rice University Media Center Museum
Reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Monument to the Third International in the courtyard of the Art Barn during the 1969 exhibit, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” Courtesy of The Menil Collection

If all goes according to plan on Monday, Rice University will begin leveling its legendary "Art Barn" — the quirky former gallery space that helped to solidify Houston as a major hub for both American and international art.

In its place will be a simple grassy lawn, university officials tell CultureMap.

Known as the Martel Center since becoming part of Rice's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies in 1987, the fabled metal-clad building and the adjacent Rice Media Center, which will not be demolished, marked a key turning point in the city's art scene during the late 1960s.

"The Art Barn has become such an important marker of the Menils' influence." 

After years of bolstering the art department at the University of St. Thomas, John and Dominique de Menil faced increased tension from the school's more traditional clergy members. The couple eventually turned their attention to Rice in 1969, asking Rothko Chapel architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry to create two temporary buildings for the university's art departments as well as for the couple's Institute for the Arts, a precursor to the Menil Collection.

The "Art Barn," as it soon would be known, was hosting its first exhibits within months thanks to a modular scheme involving wood and pre-fab sheets of galvanized steel. The simple designs would serve as an architectural starting point for Houston's so-called Tin House movement in the decades to come.

Tens of thousands of visitors passed through the Art Barn for its inaugural exhibition, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, which recently finished a run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Andy Warhol’s now-famous Raid the Icebox show would follow, leaving the Barn with a live oak that the artist himself planted in front of the building. The de Menil family held court at the site before opening their namesake Montrose museum in the late 1980s.

Inspiring symbol

"The Art Barn has become such an important marker of the Menils' influence not only at Rice, but throughout Houston," says photography professor Geoff Winningham, who arrived at Rice when the Institute for the Arts first launched. "It was a glorious building in its original state.

"At the time, there was a huge uproar in the neighborhood about its rather radical design. I suspect that same perspective is behind the effort to tear it down."

Winningham says news of the demolition caught faculty off guard as students scramble for much-needed studio space. He notes that Rice's forthcoming $30-million art building, meanwhile, won't be ready until fall 2016.

"The building is just sitting there beckoning us when we're so desperately in need of studios." 

"Even if it stood a few more years, the Art Barn would be an enormous boon to our department," he explains. "The building is just sitting there beckoning us when we're so desperately in need of studios. Why tear it down now when it would allow us to continue to grow and flourish?"

In an email to CultureMap, Rice visual arts professor John Sparagana calls the Art Barn and Media Center "inspiring symbols" of the university's respected art programs.

He says that, together, the two structures create an intimate courtyard that has emerged as an important gathering place for art students currently spread across campus in three different classroom buildings. In late February, students and faculty used the outdoor space to mount a send-off party for the Barn.

Although Rice spokesperson B.J. Almond confirms that the Warhol tree will be spared, university officials say the aging structure will be too costly to move or restore. Other than planting grass over the site, no further plans have been announced. A safety fence has since been placed around the building, as the university awaits demolition approval from the city.