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Museum District Gets New Contemporary Arts Space

MFAH is getting ready to show off its contemporary arts collection. Will that affect the Contemporary Arts Museum?

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has a major campus redesign underway and at the heart of it they’re adding a building to house their contemporary arts collection.

But it’s going up directly across the street from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. They don’t call it the Museum District for nothing, but does Houston really need another contemporary arts space?

According to Julie Farr, the executive director of the Houston Museum District Association, the two museums have different missions.

“Each museum adds to the other to create this whole experience. Each of the museums has their own personality,” she said.

Look at it this way: It’s like a brand new Starbucks is opening right next to a neighborhood coffee shop. But according to some art world observers, the two museums have really different coffee.

“Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, their motto is always fresh, always free,” Farr said. “And their shows can be a little fresh and a little controversial once in a while and that’s a good thing.”

Rainey Knudson, the founder of Glasstire, an online visual arts magazine based in Houston, also pointed out that the two museums operate differently. She said, “There is an important distinction, which is that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a collecting institution and the Contemporary Arts Museum is not. The Contemporary Arts Museum is what we call a kunsthalle, a non-profit exhibiting arts space that does not have a collection.”

Knudson said it makes sense for CAMH to have temporary exhibits. “The problem with collecting contemporary art is that it doesn’t stay contemporary very long,” she said.

Knudson said comparing the two museums isn’t that useful. She said, “An artist recently pointed out to me that the CAMH has never grown since the current building was built and their footprint has not changed.”

Meanwhile, MFAH has grown by adding property, collections and new buildings. Knudson said, “It dwarfs the CAMH, and certainly their budget.”

Gary Tinterow, the director of MFAH, commented from Switzerland, where he’s attending Art Basel. He said that the two museums don’t have much in common except a location. “It’s like a brother and a sister who have opposite personalities,” he said.

His team is raising a staggering $450 million to completely reimagine the campus. They’re building a new Glassell School of Art, a center for art conservation, gardens, a theater, and the new contemporary arts building.

Houstonians already have a lot of contemporary arts options. There’s the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection and the Lawndale Art Center. But Tinterow said the new building, plus some badly-needed underground parking, will be a magnet for visitors.

“And once they’ve parked, they have good reason to walk across the street to the Contemporary Arts Museum or to the Jung Center,” he said. “We’re only a 10 minute walk from the Menil.”

In a statement, Bill Arning, the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, echoed Tinterow. He said, “As neighbors, our institutions complement one another and I am thrilled at the prospect of our continued dialogue deepening with this expansion.”

Tinterow said the new building means that Houstonians can finally see what their museum has in storage. “In North America the most important collection of South American art is at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, yet none of it is on view right now,” he said.

There are definitely people who want to see what’s in the vault, like Mariana Copello, a Venezuelan artist living in Houston. She’s thrilled that Houston is getting more art space.  

“I’m very excited about the new expansion of the museum,” she said. “I think it’s going to be, you know, a permanent collection of contemporary art. And also I’m from Latin America so I’m looking forward to see a more permanent Latin American body of work.”

Houston Arts Alliance chairman Philamena Baird said Houstonians will benefit from both spaces. “I think that trying to create a competition between them really would not be the perspective that I would want to explore because my experience is that’s not so. They do complement each other. In fact, many of the board members serve on both boards,” she said.

Rainey Knudson agreed that both spaces can thrive. “As long as there’s support for the CAMH, it will just continue as it is,” she said.

By 2019, the expansion will be completed. But is the Museum of Fine Arts convinced that its audiences are expanding, too? “Our attendance has never been greater,” Tinterow said. “So I would say yes.”

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