Visual Art

Sneak Peek: Menil Drawing Institute Opens This Weekend

It’s one of the only buildings in the U.S. dedicated entirely to drawings.

Ten years after it was founded, the Menil Drawing Institute will finally open the doors to its own freestanding building on Saturday, November 3.

Designed by Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee, the $40 million facility joins four other art buildings on the Menil campus. It’s one of the only buildings in the U.S. dedicated entirely to the acquisition, study, exhibition, conservation and storage of drawings.

“It’s very purpose built architecture,” Rebecca Rabinow, the Director of the Menil Collection, told Houston Public Media. “There are public spaces where we will show drawings and show how the definition of a drawing is changing over time.”

But Rabinow said there will also be spaces to teach classes, offer fellowships, train the “next generation of conservators,” and store drawings that aren’t on display.

The Menil Foundation was created in 1954 by Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil to foster a public appreciation of art and culture. One of the ways they supported artists they admired was by purchasing their drawings.

“More recently, acquiring drawings is something that the Menil has been doing very, very vigorously,” Rabinow said.  

The Menil Drawing Institute was established in 2008. Although it didn’t have its own space, the institute created exhibitions and catalogs that traveled around the world.

When its 30,000 square foot building opens this weekend, it will feature an exhibition that traces the career of American artist Jasper Johns through 41 of his drawings.

“Drawings in many ways are a very personal way for a viewer to connect with an artist, but they’re also an integral part of our experience as humans,” Rabinow said. “Drawing is very much a part of us and of many professions – choreographers, architects, scientists – we all draw and this is a building that celebrates that.”

The Intricacies of Protecting Paper

Designing a building to showcase drawings presented a unique challenge given the delicacy of paper.

“Paper is very fragile and sensitive to light, so all types of drawing curators will tell you that the room for the paper has to have a light level of 5 foot candles or less,” Mark Lee, one of the founders of architecture firm Johnston Marklee, said. “So the question is how do you bring the eye from a bright sun to a dark room and not feel this type of man-made effect?”

As such, the architects designed the entry into the institute to slowly acclimate the eyes, placing trees inside open-roof courtyards at the west and east entrances. “This whole procession of having a courtyard that is partially indoors and partially outdoors, working in concert with the trees, are ways to slowly help your eyes adjust as you come in finally to the gallery,” Lee said. “You don’t feel like you’re entering a dark room.”

The architects said that careful consideration was also given to how light enters the building itself. “Light from above, which is really the way light is delivered into these buildings, wasn’t an option, given the medium of drawing. And so we looked again to more domestic spaces, like salons or homes where light comes from the side,” Sharon Johnston, co-founder of Johnston Marklee said. “I think light really tells the story of the building.”

Access to the Menil is always free. View visiting information and hours, here.

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