Cheapskate's Guide to the Finer Things in Life

Who needs money? Five fun — and free — artsy things to do in Houston

Who needs money? Five fun — and free — artsy things to do in Houston

What’s a Houstonian with champagne tastes on a beer budget supposed to do in these economically uncertain times?

Houston has long been renowned as an affordable city, boasting a broad spectrum of world-class cultural fare. Newcomers have grown accustomed to indulging in considerably more cultural events than their budget could accommodate in, say, New York. Now, surveying an altered financial landscape, more than a few fine-arts addicts are worrying about how they’ll be able to feed their ravenous habit.

But fear not.

There’s no reason to visualize a vast cultural void in your foreseeable future. Look with fresh eyes on all the fine things that lie within your reach in this major metropolitan arts center at no cost. Here’s a starter:

1. Visit The Menil Collection

Thanks to the generosity of philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, visitors can enjoy thought-provoking art for free at the Menil Collection. Besides frequently indulging my fondness for the Surrealist gallery, I always investigate the new exhibitions. On a recent visit, I found myself utterly —and completely unexpectedly —captivated by “Leaps into the Void: Documents of Nouveau Realist Performance.”  The French artist Yves Klein is a hot topic in the art realm. Interest in Klein has been rising in parallel with expanding understanding of the innovative importance and influence of his panoramic range of work.

On a recent visit, I learned about Klein on the spot, thanks to a serendipitous encounter with French cultural attaché Dominique Chastres of the Consulate General of France in Houston. Among his many pioneering, ingenious art personas, Klein was a leader of the avant-garde art movement known as Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), founded in Paris in 1960.

The Menil exhibition highlighting Klein includes his brilliant, signature blue “Feux de Bengale – Tableau de feu bleu d’une minute” (1957); photos of his 1960 leap into space from a Paris rooftop; and pages from a newspaper published and widely distributed by the artist to celebrate his leap.

There’s also an assortment of whimsical, yet challenging, artwork by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle, including three motorized contraptions that go into motion every hour on the hour. You can hardly take your eyes away from “M.O.N.S.T.R.E” (1964), a gigantic, rusty dinosaur comprised of cast steel and iron, painted newsprint and fabric over wire, rubber and plastic toys, and other odds and ends that demand scrutiny and further thought.

2. Stroll through the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The elegantly designed Sculpture Garden presents an ideal setting for the contemplation of an arrangement of artistic masterpieces. Surprisingly, this walled garden refuge, located across the street from the museum’s main Law Building was sparsely populated on a recent picture-perfect day when the adjoining parking lot was packed.

Within this hidden treasure trove, you can admire an impressive array of artwork sculptured by world-famous artists, including Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s “Adam,” Auguste Rodin’s “The Walking Man” and “The Kiss,” Aristide Maillol’s “Flora, Nude,” and more recent works like Frank Stella’s “Decanter” and Bernar Venet’s “Vertical Arc.”

3. Check out Bernar Venet sculptures at Hermann Park

Speaking of Venet, as long as you’re wandering around outside, why not run over to Hermann Park and check out the extraordinary public art exhibition of Venet’s “monumental sculptures” now on view? Unveiled in January by the sponsoring Texan-French Alliance for the Arts, and sited by the artist and McClain Gallery,  the giant pieces in this exhibition will remain on view in various locations in the park through the end of September.

4. Attend a free concert at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music

On countless evenings, my pitch-sensitive ears have reveled in the sound of beautiful classical music performed in the tiny jewel box of perfect acoustics known as Duncan Recital Hall, located within Rice University’s Alice Pratt Brown Hall.

I’ve attended Duncan Hall concerts featuring young Shepherd students who surprised and delighted me with their advanced level of artistry. I’ve also enjoyed free faculty concerts featuring internationally acclaimed virtuosos like violinist Cho-Liang Lin. On a recent Saturday evening, after hearing works by Tchaikovsky and Bartok splendidly performed by the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra in Stude Concert Hall, I left feeling quite allegro.

5. Tour Gallery Row 

About once a month, early on a specified Saturday evening, art galleries lining Gallery Row on Colquitt and Lake Streets (near the Richmond-Kirby intersection) present opening receptions highlighting new exhibitions. Art lovers can meet the featured artist, learn something about new art trends, sip a glass of wine, and chat with like-minded guests as they view fascinating pictures and sculptures at Laura Rathe, Moody, McMurtrey, Thornwood and other fine galleries. The next round of receptions is set for 6 p.m. tonight. 

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Free: Yves Klein exhibition at The Menil Collection Photo by Harry Shunk
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Free: Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Free: Bernar Venet sculpture at Hermann Park Courtesy of McClain Gallery staff
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Free: Concerts at Rice University Shepherd School of Music Courtesy of Kirkegaard Associates
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Free: Tonight, Moody Galley hosts a reception for art duo Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, in their first major collaborative exhibition since their retrospective in 2004. Courtesy of Moody Gallery