On May 1, Menil Collection Director Rebecca Rabinow announced that the long-anticipated Menil Drawing Institute will finally open on November 3. To kick things off, the museum will be hanging a major retrospective, “The Condition of Being Here: The Drawings of Jasper Johns.” It will be a fitting inauguration, considering that the Menil recently undertook the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work, which it will publish at the same time as the opening.
Designed by Johnston Marklee, the 30,000-sf building, set in a landscape designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is low lying and discrete. In material and form it shows its connection to the Renzo Piano-designed main building, completed in 1987, and the early 20th-century bungalows that make up most of the museum’s campus, while staking out its own ground.
“We immersed ourselves in the history of the Menil family, their Philip Johnson-designed house, and the Piano building,” says Sharon Johnston, FAIA. “We understood this history, but envisioned it in a contemporary way for an institute for drawings.”
The Menil says that this will be the first stand-alone museum building dedicated solely to the acquisition, exhibition, study, conservation, and storage of modern and contemporary drawings. Works on paper are highly sensitive to light. Accordingly, the architecture strives to create a range of lighting conditions appropriate to the various program elements. “The galleries have five footcandles,” says Johnston. “Outside, on a typical Houston day, it’s 10,000 footcandles. So that’s a big change.” The architects worked with George Sexton Associates on the lighting design.
The Drawing Institute was initially scheduled to open on October 7, 2017. The delay gave rise to some idle speculation among certain Texas museum watchers as to whether incoming director Rabinow might be putting her own stamp on a project started by her predecessor, Josef Helfenstein, who left to direct the Kunstmuseum in Basel in 2015.
“It was delayed once, which was entirely my fault,” says Rabinow. “We could have opened sooner, but I didn’t want to. This is a building we want to use for the rest of the museum’s life. Everything needs to be perfect. If you’re opening an art building, especially one with works on paper, you need to live in it for a few months. It takes a while to get the humidity control to be perfect. It’s custom built, so if something wasn’t quite right, it had to go back and be refabricated. I felt it was well worth it to hold off. When it opens, we are all going to be so proud to show it off.”
The Drawing Institute is sited just southeast of the Cy Twombly Gallery at the southern extent of the Menil’s current buildout. But the building is at the center of the master plan completed by David Chipperfield Architects and approved by the museum’s board in 2009. The Menil’s 30-acre property spans all the way from West Alabama to Richmond. From the Drawing Institute’s porch, one can now see all the way from newly extended West Main Street to Richmond. The view sweeps unobstructed across two solid blocks of empty land, recently scraped clean with the demolition of an old apartment building. There on the right is Richmond Hall, home to a large Dan Flavin installation. It’s an exciting piece of terrain vague. Who knows what this vacant land might soon host? Or when the Menil will get around to delivering it?
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.