The Museum Heads are coming

On Museum Day, Houston's museum minds turn to the city's cultural conference coup

On Museum Day, Houston's museum minds turn to the city's cultural conference coup

Today is International Museum Day — which isn't necessarily momentous in a city boasting a plethora of free-admission museums, as well as its own comprehensive Museum District Day in the fall. (Granted, the compelling Museum of Fine Arts, Houston "Light of the Sufis" exhibition will be long gone by then.)

The real buzz in the Houston museum intelligentsia is directed towards May 2011, when the American Association of Museums will be holding its annual conference here. Between 5,000 to 6,000 museum professionals will descend upon the city, bringing together the brightest minds from museums around the world to exchange ideas and expertise, showcase museum programs and address the future needs and trends in museums.

"We see this as a huge opportunity for the city to embrace the cultural landscape," boasts local conference coordinator Monica Rhodes. "It's not just for museum professionals. We've got our sights set on how we really incorporate and include the community."

To prepare for the conference, an elite Local Host Committee has been cherry-picked from the Houston museum community and its patrons. Leading the pack will be MFAH director Peter Marzio, accompanied by Menil trustee Courtney Sarofim as cochair. A handful of specialized subcommittees will work out the details.

It's all a pairing of museum professionals and society movers and shakers. Handling events will be Contemporary Arts Museum's new director Bill Arning working hand in hand with Gulf Coast Entertainment proprietor and CAMH trustee Susie Criner; Christine West of Lawndale Art Center will take on the conference's hospitality needs with co-chair Elyse Lanier; the Children's Museum of Houston's headmistress Tammie Kahn will direct development with fundraising savant Phoebe Tudor.

While international museum luminaries will be on hand, Houston organizers are differentiating the 2011 conference with a spirit of uniquely Houston inclusivity.Between 500 and 600 volunteers will be cobbled together to promote the conference and coordinate the multitudinous associated events.

Rhodes and her colleagues are currently brainstorming innovative methods of commingling conference attendees with everyday citizens, such as public art at Discovery Green and group tours of the Museum District. Emphasizing the outreach initiative, Houston planners have added an innovative public art and programming committee, headed by the Blaffer Art Museum's director and chief curator, Claudia Schmuckli.

Houston's a museum giant

"The Museum of Tomorrow" will serve as the conference's theme — with the moniker announced this week. It sounds a tad Disney World sci-fi, yet also fitting considering Houston's Space City identity, diversity and projected future growth.

"I see Houston's conference spotlighting the rising issues of communications that have become so vital to bringing museums to the people," predicts Menil Collection communications director Vance Muse. "I'm looking forward to examining topics such as social networking, IT, virtual tours on museum Web site and the like."

Elaborates Marzio: "The media isn't as strong in Houston as it is in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It is a city without a voice. Hopefully when people leave here, they'll get a sense of the incredible diversity of Houston and how the museums address all of that. It's a fairly dynamic museum community here that doesn't get as much press as many other places."

Collaborating institutions are asking that the MFAH to remain discreet, but Marzio promises the city's showcase museums will hosts a "blockbuster show."

Beyond communication, Marzio anticipates seminars exploring how to empower smaller "start-up" museums to forge relationships with solidly entrenched institutions, "creating a culture of collaboration rather than animosity." This would involve bringing the museum freshmen — think Buffalo Soldiers Museum, Asia Society House, the Weather Museum, Czech Museum — to the forefront public awareness.

AAM is the world's largest museum professionals organization, and its 2011 conference will attract connoisseurs from over 40 nations to Houston. Taking place between May 22 and 25, 2011, the conference will maintain headquarters at the George R. Brown Convention Center, but take advantage of cultural landmarks citywide.

"We have more than 130 museums in the greater Houston region," Rhodes says. "What's so unusual about this achievement is how museums all over the metropolitan area collaborated with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor's Bureau to court the AAM since 2007."

"We emphasized that Houston has the largest museum district in the United States," adds Marzio.

As a monumental international event, the AAM conference presents an opportunity for the city to reexamine infrastructure. "We've had plans to do better with our signage, crosswalks and street furniture," explains Marzio. "We have some federal funding and private funds to allow the district to look more coherent and unified."

"My wish is for the city to repave and roll out the red carpet down Montrose Blvd.," Muse says. "It's the axis that links the northern and southern points of the Museum District. Houston is capable of having an equivalent to LA's Wilshire Blvd. and New York's Museum Mile." Along with approximately 30 other Houstonians, Muse will be attending the 2010 AAM conference in LA next week.

As it now stands, the intersection of Richmond Ave. and Montrose remains unsightly.

But don't expect Houston to deny its inherent grit.

Marzio intends for the city to host a landmark celebration at Discovery Green, showcasing the city's spunk with art cars and other signature aesthetic standards. As the museum director explains, "The idea of museums is to make your life better — we want to convey a little bit of the naughty spirit that makes Houston so enlivening."

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Places-A&E-Holocaust Museum Houston-facade-1
Holocaust Museum of Houston
Places-A&E-Children's Museum of Houston-exterior-1
Children's Museum of Houston Photo courtesy of Children's Museum of Houston
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Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau