With a major renovation and a new drawing institute, Houston’s renowned Menil Collection is newly showcasing the eclectic tastes and social activism of its founders, Dominique and John de Menil. Both French by birth, the de Menils began collecting in the 1930s, acquiring a series of surrealist works when they were newlyweds and still living in Europe. During World War II, they moved to Houston – along with Dominique’s family’s oil company, Schlumberger Ltd.
Not only did they become famed art collectors – earning the moniker “the Medici of Modern Art” – once confronted with the racism of the segregated South, the de Menils became human- and civil-rights activists. The de Menils believed that their position came with responsibility. “What we do with our power—our overwhelming power—is…very important indeed,” John wrote to a friend in 1964.
Their activism took many forms: John gave financial support to African-American political candidates and to progressive school board candidates who worked toward the elimination of segregation. In 1967, he paid the legal fees of the TSU Five—a group of African-American students from Texas Southern University who were falsely accused of starting a riot. The de Menils helped launch the political career of Mickey Leland, a black activist who eventually became a six-term congressman. (“I really loved him,” Leland once said of John. “He was a feisty guy, he didn’t give a damn for the establishment.”)
Their worldview was reflected in their private art collection. In 1960, they initiated a still-ongoing project titled The Image of the Black in Western Art, and nearly 25 percent of the Menil’s permanent holdings now consists of African works and works depicting black figures.
Founded by Dominique in the 1980s, the Menil Collection museum showcased this dedication within the broader de Menil collection, and the museum’s new stewards are now proudly displaying the collection’s historical works – along with new commissions. Read more in this WSJ Magazine exclusive on the Menil’s fascinating history and ambitious plans for the future.