Radical Patronage: The "Art and Activism" of John and Dominique de Menil

Art "is just like the air one breathes," Dominique de Menil told a lecture audience. "We become conscious of it when we lack it." There would be few such moments in her long life, during which she, along with her husband John, became two of the century's most committed and adventurous American cultural philanthropists. But, she told the group, her decision to support the arts was first born out of such a necessity. When she and John de Menil wanted something to look at in their adoptive city of Houston, a cultural backwater when they moved there in the early 1940s, they would they had to create it themselves. "I became conscious of art when we made our home in Houston," she said.

The pair arrived in the United States after John had taken a job at the Schlumberger oil company, the firm run by his wife's family that had moved its headquarters from Paris to Texas as tensions escalated in Europe. America was preparing to enter World War II, and while the upheaval had spurred a cultural renaissance in New York as fleeing European intellectuals and artists settled there, Houston was a different story.

"I wonder at the degree of absurdity to which our world has come that people like you are reduced to living in such circumstances, so far removed from all civilization," Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican friar who devoted his life to lobbying for bringing contemporary art into the life of the Catholic Church, wrote to his friends the de Menils after coming to visit them in Houston. But if Couturier's idea of civilization had been lacking in the city, it didn't remain that way for long, as the de Menils set out to transform the city's cultural and intellectual life, supporting promising artists, scholars, and politicians as they built a formidable and expansive art collection.

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The couple's ambitious and highly personal pursuit of philanthropy has now been charted in "Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil," a series of essays, many intimate and moving, written by friends, colleagues, and scholars that has been published by the Menil Collection, the museum that Dominique helped to found following her husband's death in 1973. Today the museum houses the more than 10,000 objects that they had collected, plus some 6,000 newer acquisitions, all dating from the prehistoric to the present day.

The de Menil's first serious foray into art collecting began on something of a whim, Menil Collection curator for collections Kristina Van Dyke recounts in her contribution to the tome. The two set aside money thinking that they would owe taxes to the U.S. government after the war, but when they found they were mistaken, John decided to use the funds to purchase works by Dufy, Soutine, and Cézanne on a trip to New York. "Those things arrived and very promptly Dominique showed her disapproval," he said later. The Dufy was traded for a Léger, and the Soutine for a Braque. The Cézanne stayed, but only at John's insistence. The de Menils' artistic collaboration had begun.

In following years, they would progress from early Modernism to Surrealism to pieces from ancient Rome and Greece. They bought Byzantine art, African masks, and artifacts and pottery from the Middle East, and came to embrace American contemporary art. They were, in a sense, an art dealer's dream, and between the 1940s and 1970s they purchased 350 pieces from the Greek-American art dealer Alexander Iolas alone. When the legendary (and legendarily eccentric) curator Walter Hopps joined the museum the 1981 as its founding director — another Menil acquisition of venturesome genius — he added troves of photography to its collections.

The de Menils lent their work frequently and commissioned work from contemporary artists like Dan Flavin and Mark Rothko, who created paintings for an ecumenical chapel that now bears his name. A selection of correspondence with artists, featured in the book, testifies to the loyalty the couple engendered. "Let's get on with our joyous work," Robert Rauschenberg wrote Dominique in 1996, in one such letter, after the Menils acquired one of his paintings. "We are needed as never before — again." (Lucas Samaras's 1968 card to John provides a humorous outlier: "I hated the exhibition and installation with the exception of the Mexican sculptures of the Madona [sic] and crucifixtions [sic].")
Intensely devoted to the thinking of Couturier, who found fecund spiritual value in contemporary art, the de Menils were also convinced that visual culture could have political and humanitarian efficacy. In 1960 they launched an initiative known as "The Image of the Black in Western Art," an attempt to create a complete archive and catalogue of the subject. (Harvard adopted the project in 2005 and its researchers are working to complete the exhaustive catalogue.) They purchased not only positive depictions of blacks, as in Sir Joshua Reynolds' ca. 1770 portrait "A Young Black" (a proto-Kehinde Wiley painting if ever there was one), but also pieces imbued with racism and marked by caricature. Their initiatives amounted — as anthropologist and art historian Pamela Smart puts it in her essay on the life and philosophy of the de Menils — to a "radical project of patronage."

On occasion, they were fiercely engaged political players. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the couple offered to acquire Barnett Newman's monumental "Broken Obelisk" (which inaugurated the Museum of Modern Art's atrium when the museum reopened in 2005) for Houston if it could be dedicated to the Civil Rights leader's memory. The city council balked, and the de Menils confronted the politicians directly. "We understand you want to know why we have asked for this dedication," de Menil told the council at one meeting. "We ask, 'Why not?'"

In the end, the de Menils purchased it themselves and installed it outside the Rothko Chapel. Newman was elated. "I am very moved by what you have done and I feel with you, I am sure, a very special sense of happiness," he wrote John and Dominique. "After all it is not every day that we can stand up to the Philistines and win." He added, "I hope that my sculpture goes beyond only memorial implications. It is concerned with life and I hope that I have transformed its tragic content into a glimpse of the sublime."

While chronicling such noble actions, the book manages to avoid lapsing into blind hagiography, despite the fact that the fact that it is published by the Menil. As various writers note, not every project they undertook succeeded. For instance, though the de Menils helped to fund and organize one of contemporary art's first racially integrated exhibitions, "The De Luxe Show" at the abandoned De Luxe Theatre in Houston's poor and heavily African American Fifth Ward in 1971 — art critic Clement Greenberg applauded the initiative, insisting that it "shouldn't be permitted to be a one-time thing" — only a handful of further exhibitions in the space ensued. Disagreements between the foundation and the local leaders led to the de Menils leaving the project. The exhibition space closed.

On a more positive note, "The De Luxe Show" cemented the de Menils' relationship with of one of its organizers, Mickey Leland, whom they would later support in his successful run for Congress, where he would become a powerful force in supporting poverty-reduction programs. Leland is quoted on the subject of John de Menil: "He took me, a militant who hated all white people, and made me into a humanitarian." Indeed, the de Menils' wide-ranging interests included the support of politicians and political programs (human rights was an enduring emphasis) and academic, including scholarships, and professorships at the University of St. Thomas and Rice University.

The de Menil legacy remains somewhat of an anomaly in American museum culture. Far from attempting to assemble an encyclopedic collection or deep holdings in only a single area, the couple explored a variety of what would appear to be dramatically disparate fields in great depths. Hopps, who died of cancer before being able to write an essay for the book, wrote in an exhibition introduction from the 1980s, included here, that the Menil Collection "brings together, under one roof, idiosyncratic and disjunctive bodies of material not usually found together in either a single exhibition or collection." He added, "The variety of connective elements across temporal and cultural boundaries is strongly seen and intensely felt." In its rich variety, there is no museum quite like it in the United States.
But beyond their purchases, the de Menils may be best remembered for the care they brought to their relationships, and the environment that they fostered in the architecture they commissioned, exemplified by the sun-lit and distinctly relaxed museum's home. Many areas of the museum are visible from the street, and the conservation and framing departments can be viewed from the museum's interior. Dominique was reportedly instrumental in conceptualizing the design, leading its architect, Renzo Piano, to opine, perhaps only half-jokingly, that "she was actually the most stubborn lady I ever met in my life!" Even at their Houston home, designed in 1948 by Philip Johnson, the couple used architecture to represent their egalitarian convictions, asking Johnson to have the main entrance open onto San Felipe, the street from which minority service workers typically entered neighboring homes.

The de Menils' brand of patronage proved especially inspirational for their daughter Philippa, who, with her husband, Cologne art dealer Heiner Friedrich, and art historian Helen Winkler, founded the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which funded projects by a small coterie of Minimal and Conceptual artists with unprecedented generosity and an almost unimaginable lack of restrictions. Their projects almost collapsed when Schlumberger stock declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and New York magazine labeled them "Medicis for a Moment." Dia recovered, and the sunlit biscuit-box factory that the foundation converted into a temple of that Minimal and Conceptual Art in 2003, Dia:Beacon, shares the Menils' airy, humble splendor.

However, Dia is a unique and rare example. Today, unprecedented amounts of wealth in the United States and abroad are being plowed into contemporary art, and collectors at the upper echelon of the market are rushing to build personal, private museums. As Jeffrey Kastner noted in "New Foundations," a treatise on the proliferation of such institutions in Artforum's 2010 summer issue, these wealthy collectors can derive tremendous financial "benefits... from the tax-exempt-foundation model that most choose for their museums," while at the same time maintaining largely unfettered control of their collections. In many cases, the public's access to these museums is severely limited: advance appointments are required and viewing hours are rare.

These restrictions run in direct and marked contrast to the open and egalitarian ethos espoused by the Menil Collection, which keeps the humane hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week, is free to all visitors. Moreover, it is charged with a mission statement free of the draconian rules attached to many privately founded museums, Smart notes, citing in contrast the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and (perhaps most notorious possible example) the Barnes Collection. "The Foundation must be kept alive and non-conformist," John de Menil wrote.

Describing the philosophy of Father Marie-Alain Couturier, which was at the core of the de Menils' life project, art historian Robert Schwartzwald has written that it was "resolutely democratic on issues of access to the means of artistic creation and especially art appreciation" but "aristocratic when it came to hierarchy of artistic quality." Many enterprising contemporary-art collectors have been quick to embrace that latter conviction. It remains to be seen if they will embrace the former with similar zeal.

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