World Class Cultural Arts

Twenty-first Century Houston is a thriving art nexus, the home of world-class museums, acclaimed art galleries and a huge community of talented artists. At the heart of it all: the Houston Museum District, whose 18 museums and 50-acre zoological park-all within walking distance of one another and accessible by METRORail-form one of the largest cultural districts in the country, with more than half a million square feet of exhibition space. It's also one of the most vital in the nation, drawing six million visitors annually. Where to begin your tour? Follow our guide through these must-see art spaces that help define Houston.

Start your art trek at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), pivotally sited at Bissonnet and Main Street. Founded in 1900, the MFAH is the oldest museum in Texas as well as the most prominent. With the opening of the $83 million Audrey Jones Beck Building in March 2000, the MFAH is now the largest museum in the Southwest. Its dramatic expansion has made possible an increasing number of blockbusters, including major exhibitions featuring works from both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
 
In terms of its permanent collection, the museum's photo holdings, thanks to a major 2002 acquisition, now exceed 20,000 images, propelling it to one of the top ten photographic departments in the world. In 2001, MFAH founded a Latin American department, one of a handful of U.S. museums to begin collecting in this field, and produced the first large-scale exhibition devoted to the emergence and development of avant-garde Latin American art. In 2004, the museum acquired its first piece by Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Woman, one of two Rembrandt paintings in Texas. Also noteworthy: one of the most beguiling pieces of public art anywhere, James Turrell's ethereal light tunnel, The Light Inside, connects the Beck and Law Buildings.
 
Diagonally across from the MFAH, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) is the next stop. You can't miss its gleaming metal structure or neighboring palm tree sprouting from a pyramid (actually a sculpture by internationally noted Houston-born protagonist Mel Chin). Celebrating more than 50 years of exhibiting cutting edge contemporary art, the CAMH boasts stimulating programming, bringing to Texas top tier visual all-stars. Famous art world icons who've shown within its walls include Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Gehry and Cindy Sherman (the CAMH was the first museum in the world to exhibit her famed Film Stills).
 
A jewel among Houston's museums is The Menil Collection, a five-minute drive from the MFAH and CAMH. Considered to be one of the most important private art collections in the world, the perpetually graceful Menil sits at the heart of a 23-acre green oasis in the Montrose area. Besides its sublimely simple two story wooden structure, designed by Pritzker Prize-anointed Renzo Piano, the campus encompasses the Rothko Chapel, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum, the Cy Twombly Gallery (also designed by Piano) and Richmond Hall, site of a candy-colored rainbow of light sculptures by the late Dan Flavin. The 15,000-piece collection, assiduously assembled by the late John and Dominique de Menil, is housed in Piano's serenely understated, light-infused design. It offers an inspiring selection of art that spans the centuries. Tribal, ancient, Byzantine and modern (including amazing Surrealist masterpieces) are brought together in a compelling mix that reveals that great art transcends the boundaries of time and space.
 
Along the Main Street Corridor, the stunning Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCC) celebrates the red-hot medium of contemporary craft. HCCC opened to much fanfare in fall 2001 (with an inaugural show from New York's venerable American Craft Museum) and has been a significant stop on the Houston art circuit ever since. Its 11,000-square-foot space features lively programming mixing regional and national talents, including such big guns as Dale Chihuly, Wendell Castle and William Morris. Expect lush original creations in wood, glass, metal, fiber and clay. Artists-in-residence are also on site to share a "hands-on" studio experience.
 
Steps from the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, in a handsome 1930s Art Deco structure on Main Street, is one of the most dynamic nonprofit art spaces in Texas-Lawndale Art Center. Lawndale's mission is to discover and showcase emerging Texas talent. The center has monthly rotating exhibitions in its four galleries that present an avant-garde mix of visualists and a variety of media. The vitality of this art center testifies to Houston's national position as a nexus for contemporary artists. The city's celebrated duo, The Art Guys, debuted at Lawndale during the early 1980s before the pair (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) catapulted to international fame.
 
The Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH) is one of the largest and most important institutions in the country dedicated to remembering the significance of the Holocaust. HMH features the poignant permanent exhibition Bearing Witness: A Community Remembers focusing on stories of Holocaust survivors living in the Houston area. Side by side changing exhibits cull art and photography, all reflecting upon aspects of this horrific 20th century event. The museum's newest addition to the permanent exhibit is a 1942 World War II railcar of the type used to carry millions of Jews to their deaths. The railcar was formally dedicated and opened to the public during HMH's 10th anniversary ceremony on March 5, 2006.
 
Blocks from the Holocaust Museum Houston, the art of nature takes center stage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, whose family friendly programming attracts all ages. Traveling exhibitions are insightful and intriguing, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Gunther von Hagens' BODY WORLDS: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. Exciting permanent features such as the Wortham IMAX Theatre, Burke Baker Planetarium, Cockrell Butterfly Center and the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals (the top gemological collection in the world) make this the third most attended museum in the U.S.
 
Within easy walking distance, the Children's Museum of Houston (CMH) is a hands-on educational and entertaining family-oriented destination. Adults and kids alike will go crazy about the playful building (designed by renowned architect Robert Venturi) and wondrous and ever changing exhibits of CMH. Ranked among the top two children's museums in the country by Child magazine and No. 1 by MSN.com, this joyous venue with its whimsical garden has been cited by Texas Monthly as the best cultural attraction for kids in Texas (December 2001).
 
On the next block, the whole family can learn about health, wellness and the marvels of the human anatomy at The Health Museum, the most visited health museum in the country. Stroll through Jim Hickox Amazing Body Pavilion, a 7,400-square foot gargantuanly-scaled model of the human body that lets you discover the need-to-know inner workings of your insides.
 
The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum preserves and promotes the history, tradition and outstanding contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers. During the 1860s, soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry were nicknamed "Buffalo Soldiers" for their fierce fighting ability and bravery. The museum displays historical artifacts, documents, videos, prints and other historical memorabilia which detail the history of these brave men.
 
The Jung Center of Houston, a nonprofit education institution, houses one of the Southwest's finest collections of work in psychology, spirituality and comparative mythology. Founded in 1958, the Jung Center offers more than 100 courses, programs and conferences every year that address the critical social and spiritual issues of our time, as well as the need for personal growth and development.
 
Another educational organization, the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) deepens the understanding of the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications and educational programming, the center supports emerging and mid-career artists and their audiences. The center provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and promotes the study of photography, both as a medium of expression and as a tool of cultural investigation.
 
The Czech Center Museum Houston celebrates the culture of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Silesia with events and exhibitions. The center features language classes, a museum, archives, genealogy resources, event facilities, library and an ecumenical chapel. Exhibits include Czech crystal, glass, porcelain, pottery, antique furniture, jewelry, folk costumes and fine art.
 
An exciting live animal adventure set in a 55-acre tropical landscape, the Houston Zoo adds adventure and animal magnetism to the Museum District. A popular feature, the Wildlife Carousel, has 64 hand-carved animals representing endangered species. Make sure to visit Natural Encounters, the highly anticipated $4 million renovation of the Zoo's small mammals building, which reopened in February 2005. Natural Encounters features meerkats, otters and until recently the long awaited return of the Zoo's vampire bats.
 
Two other unique venues, the Art Car Museum and The Station are sited respectively near the Houston Heights and in the midtown corridor (between the Museum District and downtown). These lively, privately funded museums showcase the adventuresome and the avant-garde. The Art Car Museum is dedicated to the fun, funky and outrageously exuberant Art Car movement (Houston's spring parade is the oldest and largest in the country). It's also the only museum in the country where you'll find vehicular attractions such as Rex the Rabbit or Swamp Mutha. Art Car's sister space, The Station, highlights Texas, national and international artists whose art tackles tough political issues.
 
A shining example of urban renewal, Project Row Houses is located in the heart of Houston's historic Third Ward, minutes from the Museum District. Its restored, turn-of-the century shotgun-style houses occupy a once blighted inner-city neighborhood. No more. Twice yearly they're transformed into art installations as internationally prominent artists join with Texas and Houston-based talents to create site-specific works that challenge traditional notions about art being confined to elite cultural institutions. The award-winning Project Row Houses has been profiled by The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and CBS Radio and is now a model for similar programs around the nation. In addition, four Project Row Houses artists were featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
 
After you've ventured to all of the above, you can't leave Houston without visiting one of the most fabulous-and famed-folk art environments in America. The Orange Show Monument is a Houston postman's creation that extols the virtues of his favorite fruit. The outdoor 3,000-square-foot monument is maze-like in design and includes an oasis, a wishing well, a pond, a stage, a museum, a gift shop and several upper decks.

Written by: A.J. Mistretta

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