This illuminating ethnography of the Menil Collection—the first such study of a major art museum—explores how the Collection embodies its founders’ desire to bind the sacred to the modern and how the Menils’ legacy is being perpetuated and contested beyond their lifetimes.
Renowned as one of the most significant museums built by private collectors, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, seeks to engage viewers in an acutely aesthetic, rather than pedagogical, experience of works of art. The Menil's emphasis on being moved by art, rather than being taught art history, comes from its founders' conviction that art offers a way to reintegrate the sacred and the secular worlds. Inspired by the French Catholic revivalism of the interwar years that recast Catholic tradition as the avant-garde, Dominique and John de Menil shared with other Catholic intellectuals a desire to reorder a world in crisis by imbuing modern cultural forms with religious faith, binding the sacred with the modern.
Sacred Modern explores how the Menil Collection gives expression to the religious and political convictions of its founders and how "the Menil way" is being both perpetuated and contested as the Museum makes the transition from operating under the personal direction of Dominique de Menil to the stewardship of career professionals. Taking an ethnographic approach, Pamela G. Smart analyzes the character of the Menil aesthetic, the processes by which it is produced, and the sensibilities that it is meant to generate in those who engage with the collection. She also offers insight into the extraordinary impact Dominique and John de Menil had on the emergence of Houston as a major cultural center.
- Chapter 1: Seven Layers of Blue
- Chapter 2: Faith
- Chapter 3: New World
- Chapter 4: Collecting as a Vocation
- Chapter 5: "Without Servitude to the Past, nor Recklessness"
- Chapter 6: Toward a Museum
- Chapter 7: Intimacies of Possession
- Chapter 8: Care
- Chapter 9: Institutionalization of an Aesthetic
- Chapter 10: For Aesthetics
- Reference List
The small windowless East Temporary Gallery was drenched in blue. Before an empty expanse of wall sat Dominique de Menil, framed by Paul Winkler, then the director of the Menil Collection, standing at one shoulder and Susan Davidson, then associate curator, at the other. A pair of preparators held Paul Klee's Blick der Stille (Gaze of Silence), adjusting it slightly, half an inch this way and that, repeatedly measuring the distance from the floor and the corners of the wall. Larry Young, the electrical technician, prepared lights, spots and floods of various wattages assembled on the bed of the hydraulic lift he deftly maneuvered amid artworks and people, assisted by a security guard.
The walls, painted a thoroughly saturated, intense blue matte, had now received their seventh coat, each a slightly different formulation of the same deep marine. But the painters continued to struggle with streaking and marking. The kind of saturated matte that Menil favored had become difficult to achieve. Increasingly strict regulations governing the toxicity of paint, Winkler explained to me, resulted in base formulas that do not give adequate stability to the pigment. They would proceed with the hanging and lighting of the show, then take the works down, leaving the fittings in place, in order to give the gallery one final coat to cover any marks made in the course of the installation.
The color was evidently Dominique de Menil's concern, as indeed were all of the details of the installation. Ready for her arrival, all the works had been brought into the single room in which the show was to be hung, where they were placed on pads leaning against the wall, ordered and spaced in accordance with an installation plan developed by the show's curator, Susan Davidson. Titled "A Piece of the Moon World: Paul Klee in Texas Collections," the exhibition of thirty-five works (five paintings and thirty works on paper) selected from among the sixty or so Klees collected in Texas, had initially been conceived by Dominique de Menil some years earlier and had now been revived and materialized by Davidson. Klee had only once before had a solo show in Texas, mounted some twenty years after his death by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in 1960. That show had been spearheaded by Dominique also, in the days when she and her late husband, John de Menil, were very actively engaged in the operations of that institution.
John and Dominique de Menil had begun collecting Klee's work in the mid-1950s, though the noted Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg had bought two paintings and a lithograph by Klee as early as the 1930s, works she subsequently gave to the MFAH. Twenty of the thirty-five works included in the show belong to the Menil Collection. Davidson describes the exhibition as "an investigation into how Klee was collected in Texas." Further, she writes, "the selection provides poignant and witty combinations and, it is hoped, establishes a cohesion which only an artist of Klee's intelligence and imagination could achieve." This interest in the generative potential of juxtaposition notwithstanding, the works were arranged in preparation for hanging in the largely chronological schema that has become the art historical convention for structuring single-artist exhibitions.
With Blick der Stille positioned to Dominique de Menil's satisfaction, it was hung, and Larry proceeded to light it, instructed by Dominique de Menil on the type and intensity of bulb as well as on how the light should fall on its surface. The lighting of the work was transformative, enriching the image and imbuing the space with depth and intimacy. Attention was then turned to the remaining works to be hung on that wall, their respective positions arrived at in relation to the central piece and the adjacent corner of the room. Dominique apparently did not feel bound to conform to the chronological ordering prescribed.
The frame of one of the works to be hung in an ensemble of pieces clustered together was, in the view of Dominique de Menil, inappropriate. The framer, William Steen, was called for and asked to select from among the many accumulated frames at his disposal some suitable alternatives. Attention meanwhile was turned to hanging another wall. Before long, Dominique invited me to accompany her to the framing studio, just as she had invited me to observe the process of installation that day; the year was 1994, at the outset of my research at the museum, then only seven years old but already among the most distinguished donor-built museums in the United States. She very quickly decided upon an elderly wooden frame from among the several that Steen had selected, one that she had bought some years before, Steen believed, and was able to confirm right away by consulting his records corresponding to the registration number on the frame. Individuated like the artworks in the collection, many of the frames carried with them distinctive provenances that the framer was quick to recount. He proceeded to offer suggestions as to suitable mats. Dominique seemed a little less assured at making this selection until she was shown a piece of silk with a peach blush that she recognized immediately as the right one—indeed, it seemed obvious to all three of us. So Steen went off to buy more silk, agreeing to have the piece reframed and ready for hanging early in the afternoon.
As the installation proceeded, the initial arrangement was substantially disrupted. Dominique worked intuitively, by trial and error, and this was as it should be, she explained to me, since installation was all about how things looked in relation to one another and to the space they inhabited. Her method of trial and error notwithstanding, she demonstrated an extraordinary command of what would work and how to achieve it. I had heard over the years of the extent to which she maintained an active interest in the minutiae of museum activities and had imagined this to be the interfering of a somewhat overbearing patron. I had clearly been wrong. Dominique was herself a curator and clearly a very skilled one.
In 1959, Dominique and John de Menil established a program in art and art history at the University of St. Thomas, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Houston, Texas. They provided resources for an art library, an art collection for teaching purposes, and an exhibitions budget; most crucially, they supported the hiring of Jermayne MacAgy as the director of the program—indeed, the project was formulated specifically for her. MacAgy was recognized for her extraordinary facility in curating and installing exhibitions and for her formidable energy. Dominique de Menil describes herself as having become a student of MacAgy's, learning from her not so much the organizational details of mounting an exhibition as how to conceive of it spatially and visually. When MacAgy died suddenly in 1964, Dominique took over her position at St. Thomas: "That was when I was led to my career, the installation of shows" (Browning 1983, 198).
Throughout the installation, Dominique repeatedly stressed the importance of lighting, framing, and the specific juxtaposition of works. The works would "sing" only under appropriate circumstances. The point of the show was not to make some art historical argument, nor was it to convey a certain reading of Klee's work, but rather, I was told, to "make the paintings look good"—paintings of which Dominique was particularly fond.
The hanging proceeded, one wall at a time, as key pieces were put in place and others were positioned around them. In this way, too, the lighting was done. Once everything had been hung and the lighting completed, all the works were taken down and removed from the gallery so that the final layer of blue could be applied.
Labels were not attached to the walls. As a matter of policy, the Menil Collection uses spare labeling, typically giving only the title, date, and the name of the artist. It is said that Walter Hopps, the inaugural director of the Collection who subsequently served as the museum's consulting curator until his death, in 2004, would have preferred that the museum eschew labeling altogether, offering instead informational pamphlets for those who particularly wanted such material and relieving others of the distraction. And this is the procedure that Dominique proposed for this show when, as the completing touches were being made to the installation, she discovered that the card on which the labels had been printed did not exactly match the final shade of the wall. The suggestion that the card simply be painted was dismissed, since doing so would not allow for the laser printing of the text. Dominique instructed the Exhibitions Department to produce handheld texts that could be picked up in the gallery. Each work would be identified only by a number printed on a transparent adhesive label. This swift decision, which entailed the writing and printing of a brochure at the eleventh hour, was presented not merely as a necessary solution to the problem of the mismatched card stock, but also as something that was, in any event, preferable. Labels were distracting, and anyway, as Dominique declared with implicit reference to installations MacAgy and later she herself had put together at the University of St. Thomas, this was how it used to be done.
Formerly the private collection of Dominique and John de Menil, the Menil Collection has been open to the public since 1987 in the form of a purpose-built museum designed by Renzo Piano and located in Houston, Texas. Considered a very important collection of New York school paintings and among the most significant surrealist collections internationally, its holdings number something in excess of sixteen thousand objects, and include pieces from an array of cultural and historical traditions—antiquities, Byzantine icons, Oceanic and African art, colonial art from the New World, and the European moderns, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Paul Klee. From the outset, the Menil Collection was recognized by critics as a remarkable exemplar of a donor-built museum, in part because of the quality of the collection, but also because of its architectural form and exhibitionary effects. The notoriously acerbic art critic Robert Hughes wrote glowingly of the newly opened museum:
Between them, Dominique de Menil, Hopps and the architect Renzo Piano have got it exactly right: this building, and the thinking behind it, comes as close to the musée imaginaire of one's hopes as one has any right to expect in America today. As a privately funded museum it is free to avoid the cliches of its bigger brethren. No boutiques, no blockbusters, no sense of competition with other museums. No sense of the sealed-off art bunker, either, with overlighted objects caught like startled animals in the glare of spotlights. Above all, none of the grandiosity and architectural euphuism of the American "signature" museum (1987, 48).
In 1995, the Collection opened a freestanding gallery solely for the permanent exhibition of the work of Cy Twombly, and in 1997 construction was completed on a chapel built to house thirteenth-century frescoes that had been bought and restored by the Menil Foundation. While the Byzantine Fresco Chapel operates as a separate entity, with a board distinct from that of the Menil Foundation, which governs the Menil Collection, its location on the same campus as the museum gives the impression of continuity between them. Since November 1998, Richmond Hall has been open to the public; it houses three site-specific works by Dan Flavin, which were Dominique de Menil's final commissions before her death, at the close of 1997. Each of these initiatives furthers an intricate moral, political, religious, and aesthetic agenda that Dominique and John de Menil gave expression to early in their endeavors in their commissioning of the Rothko Chapel in 1964—the Philip Johnson—designed nondenominational chapel named for Mark Rothko, whose paintings they commissioned for it. Together, occupying several neighborhood blocks, visually cool and lush with lawns stretching out from under the shade of live oaks in Houston's relentless heat, each of these buildings participates in the production of the seamless aesthetic that characterizes Menil projects.
Alfred Gell, in his essay "The Technology of Enchantment," addresses the way in which art objects can participate in "securing the acquiescence of individuals in the network of intentionalities in which they are enmeshed" (1992, 43). Here he draws attention to art's agency. As Nicholas Thomas points out, Gell's project responds to the failure of the anthropology of art "to dissociate itself from projects of aesthetic appreciation that do for art what theology does for religion" (Thomas 2001, 2). This failure can be read overwhelmingly in the body of anthropological literature on indigenous art that takes the tone of connoisseurship. The familiar critical response to this kind of connoisseurship has been the sociological project of demystification, in which art is revealed as being really a sign of something else—most notably of distinction and of power. While attention to the ways in which art is called upon to serve the interests of power has offered important insights, this approach overlooks both the specificity of art objects and, as Thomas and Gell recognize, their particular efficacy. It has entailed a flattening of anthropology's analysis both of art and of the institutional and social processes with which it is entwined. Current work in the anthropology of art has, as Fred Myers points out, begun to respond to this, to consider the particular work done by art objects "as indices of agency and effective in mediating social relationships" (Myers 2004, 204).
Gell's frustration with anthropology's projects of aesthetic appreciation has led him, however, to eschew attention to aesthetics altogether, as if to take it seriously would be to succumb to its mystifications. My own project shares Gell's insistence on recognizing art as an agent in social processes, but it sees the production of aesthetic domains and all the density of experience that they afford as being central to art's efficacy. At the Menil Collection, the aesthetic that has been so attentively crafted is intended to produce an affecting engagement between persons and objects. This affect is not simply directed toward aesthetic appreciation, though the ability to discern aesthetic value is certainly considered a matter of considerable virtue at the Menil. Rather, the character of the engagement and its ongoing effects upon the viewer are central elements of Dominique de Menil's project of moral activism—of spiritual and political redemption in the pursuit of an alternative project of modernity.
In this light, the Menil Collection can be understood as the materialization of the collector's critique of much that has come to characterize the condition of modernity, broadly, what Max Weber terms its "disenchantments." Not only does the Collection operate as an expression of that critique, but it is also intended to serve as an agent of remediation. That their critique of modernity was pursued in concert with their progressivist enthusiasms, however, distinguishes their project from the kind of nostalgic antimodern tendencies that Georg Lukács described as "romantic anti-capitalism" (1962, 19). The de Menils, like Lukács's romantic anticapitalists, regretted the loss of the personal and immediate character of communally organized social relations. This was expressed, as we shall see, in their analyses of contemporary estrangement and alienation, which were informed by Jacques Maritain's "integral humanism" and Emmanuel Mounier's "personalism." They, like Maritain and Mounier, did not, however, long nostalgically for a return to a premodern society. Rather, they imagined modernism itself as a means of rehabilitating the modern.
Dominique's project, which she pursued in concert with her husband, John, until his untimely death in 1973, sought to recuperate sensibilities they attributed to the premodern while it was at the same time infused with an energetic commitment to the contemporary, to innovation and experimentation. Much of their activity was directed toward achieving some kind of rapprochement between these apparently divergent trajectories and, more fundamentally, between the sacred and the profane, the transcendental and the secular world.
The notion of art as a medium of redemption is of course not new, but recognition of that role, in itself, does not offer much analytically. As Weber points out, "Redemption attained a specific significance only where it expressed a systematic . . . 'image of the world' and represented a stand in the face of the world. For the meaning as well as the intended and actual psychological quality of redemption has depended upon such a world image and such a stand . . . 'From what' and 'for what' one wishes to be redeemed, and, let us not forget, 'could be' redeemed, depended on one's image of the world" (1958a, 280).
For John and Dominique, this redemptive imperative had its intellectual roots in the renouveau catholique, the French Catholic revivalism of the interwar years that, as Stephen Schloesser demonstrates, refused Pope Pius IX's explicit definition of Catholicism as being "over and against modernity" (2005, 4)—a view that had been widely held among clergy and laity alike—and recast Catholic tradition as the avant-garde.
While an eclipsing of the mythical and the sacred in favor of science, the exercise of reason over faith, and confidence in the idea of progress over tradition are widely considered to be defining features of the modern period, John and Dominique de Menil, like the French Catholic intellectuals in whose circles they began to move in Paris in the 1930s, sought to reclaim space for faith and for the mystical without turning their backs on science and innovation. In doing so, they resisted what Thomas Ferraro characterizes as the modern tendency to "quarantine the sacred" (1997, 9), to render it peripheral, irrelevant to the mainstream of social life, but they also positioned themselves against the Church hierarchy, insofar as it dedicated itself to convention, tradition, and an enduring past.
John and Dominique sought to recuperate spirituality while at the same time exercising a commitment to a social activism oriented to the future rather than the past, pursuing a critical project of modernity that would bind the sacred and the modern. Their specific challenge was to create conditions in which faith would have relevance, not as a regressive refusal of modernity, but as a source of meaning that was both resonant and absolute, that would sustain ongoing humanistic innovation across multiple fields and endeavors. This pursuit of a "sacred modern" resonates powerfully with Schloesser's compelling characterization of the "off-modern" commitments adopted by many French intellectuals in the interwar years: "anti-modernist in their adhesion to tradition and ultra-modernist in their embrace of time's forward motion" (2005, 14).5 The challenge for the Menil Collection now is to institutionalize the spirit of a project that cannot be pinned down, that is "fundamentally an ambivalent synthesis of past and present," as Schloesser characterizes "off-modern" projects (2005, 13).
In 2005, I received a letter from Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection since May 2004, asking me to participate, along with others, in the process of thinking about the future of the museum. This was followed by a call from the museum consultant who had been retained to assist the Menil Collection in producing a strategic plan. This is a task that she and other museum consultants commonly perform on behalf of museums seeking accreditation from the American Association of Museums (AAM): accreditation requires an institution to have a strategic plan that sets the terms against which performance can be evaluated. For Helfenstein, the imperative was not, however, to fulfill the requirements of the AAM, but to forge some kind of consensus that would guide the museum as it looked to the future under his direction. It was also therapeutic in its intent to draw back into the fold people who had come to feel estranged from the Menil over the years since Dominique de Menil's death.
I was flattered. In the early period of my fieldwork in and around the museum, my status had been, at best, awkward. Several things had occurred in the intervening years to effect a different kind of relationship with the Menil. First, my dissertation was completed, so I was no longer a graduate student. Moreover, my dissertation had, on the whole, resonated well with Menil personnel, and was now routinely given to new staff members as a means of familiarizing them with what the museum was about. It was also easier to conduct research at the museum: although I still needed to be escorted from one office to another, there was now an archive, where I had a desk to sit at and ready access to a wealth of documents; earlier, the archive had not been established, and Dominique de Menil, who had consented to my project only ambivalently, had elected not to make unpublished documents available to me. But the key difference was that Dominique was no longer alive. Nobody seemed to feel as intensely protective of the Menil and its representation as they had earlier, when every element of the institution seemed to resonate in deeply personalized terms. While people had been impressed, and surprised, that I had managed to gain consent to pursue my research, this hardly conferred immunity from suspicion and anxiety. It was rare for anyone to talk with me with anything less than guarded care. In part, this caution was an expression of loyalty to Dominique, but it was also an artifact of the economy of information that had prevailed at the Menil.
While people routinely explained to me the attenuated mode in which information circulated within the organization, and recounted instances in which other staff members had not been made privy to information that they believed was needed to effectively carry out their responsibilities, my informants also harbored beliefs about their own exclusion. They worried that they specifically had been cut out of the loop, that they had been deemed unworthy of inclusion. But, in fact, there was no model by which plans, policies, and decisions should properly be disseminated through the organization. So people routinely operated with fragmentary knowledge, and in any particular instance it could have been due to oversight or design. One never knew for sure, no matter how much one agonized over it.
Complicity in this ran deep. Information one had been made privy to tended to be held very closely—not, apparently, simply because it was a scarce resource to be expended judiciously, but because one had to show oneself worthy, by virtue of one's discretion, of this honor of bestowal. In the absence of departmental budgets, or formal hierarchies of authority, stature was reckoned in no small measure in terms of inclusion in the dissemination of information, opportunities to travel on behalf of the Collection, and inclusion as guests at functions associated with the Collection or the foundation. What was at stake was not so much one's relative position in a hierarchy, though that was not entirely insignificant of course, but the halo of insider status.
The pervasive anxiety about exclusion, and position in an organization in which one's circumstances were contingent upon the patronage of the founder, was compounded by a closely guarded sense of privilege to be working for the Menil Collection, sharing in its reputation for excellence, and appreciating the pleasures and possibilities of working with such a fine collection and with a degree of flexibility unusual in other major museums. But there was something more, a sense that they were part of something special and important, and that afforded them domains of experience that could not be had elsewhere.
That I struggled with a lack of information was exacerbated by the character of my own positioning in relation to the Menil. I was studying an aesthetic project suffused with impeccable decorum and directed toward a rehabilitation of degraded sensibilities. I felt compelled, if I was to be taken seriously, to demonstrate that I too was in the possession of exquisitely calibrated sensibilities. But in truth, this motivation was not entirely pragmatic. I too wished to be considered worthy. Yes, but in the museum's thrall, it wasn't just recognition I sought: I wanted to be worthy.
While this was analytically less than ideal in some respects, it did have the virtue of emphatically posing the question of how to understand the Menil aesthetic, the techniques by which it was produced and operationalized, and the investment that many staff and members of its public clearly had in its perpetuation.
There have been a number of extremely rich analyses of museums over the past couple of decades. We have learned much about how museums as institutions have served projects of nation building, of identity formation, of surveillance and discipline, of distinction, of commoditization, of knowledge and power, and so on. While many art museums seem to have surprisingly little interest in aesthetics, their attention focused instead on art as history, there is nevertheless a striking absence of analytic attention to aesthetic registers of practice and experience. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, in their groundbreaking collection Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museums (1991), attempted to redress this oversight by drawing attention to poetic aspects of museums. But what came to the fore, and was exemplified in Steven Greenblatt's contribution to the volume, his now famous essay "Resonance and Wonder," was a sense of poetics belonging to some longed-for past, a lost possibility, a sense that museums had foresworn poetics in favor of instruction or entertainment. In this sense, these academic responses came very close to Dominique de Menil's own position, her own understanding of the general state of art museums, though in her analysis we see a more reflexive elaboration of this sense of loss and one that seeks to lay out a resolutely future-oriented remedy, and one that is informed by moral rather than merely sentimental commitments.
So when, a decade later, the museum consultant who had been retained by the Menil Collection asked me what I considered to be critical to the museum's mission, and whether new acquisitions to the collection ought to extend to work produced beyond the temporal purview of the founders, and what initiatives I thought the museum should pursue in the future, and so on, I was startled to find the extent to which my responses mirrored not the prospective orientation of Dominique de Menil but the nostalgic, preservationist turn of many of my interlocutors both within the museum and among its devotees beyond its employ. I knew my response to be wrongheaded in many ways, but there it was: sentimental, conservative, and absent critical reflection.
This was the provocation for what follows, which is, at its core, an exegesis on the problem of the Menil legacy and why it matters.
Unlike the founders of the Barnes Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or many other once-private collections, Dominique de Menil did not leave a restrictive set of directives for the future of the art collection and its management. Noted for her energetic engagement with the administration of the museum at every level and a high degree of certitude as to how things should be done, one might have expected the collector to stipulate a regime of practice that would continue after her passing. Instead, to the chagrin of many of her closest collaborators, she focused throughout the last decade of her long life on ensuring the financial viability of the Menil Foundation, and thereby of the Collection, at the expense, many feared, of the spirit of her project. This anxiety concerning the endurance of the Menil Collection's distinctive character, recognized especially in the founder's preoccupation with establishing an engagement with artworks that is acutely aesthetic rather than pedagogical in character, eschewing the usual rendering of art as history, was not unfounded.
The task of creating a space where "poetry would be allowed to prevail over pedagogy" and where visitors could engage with artworks not as an act of admiration, nor of the passive consumption of high culture, but as interlocutors actively participating with the artwork in what she called a process of "mutual interrogation" had been pursued through every detail of the museum's conceptualization and realization. In the architecture of the museum, through the installation of exhibitions, and throughout the organizational structure and institutional practices of the museum, the Menil Collection has sought to produce an affecting engagement between the museum's visitors and its artworks that would create the conditions of possibility for a personal, resonant encounter that would rehabilitate our sensibilities, a resolutely aesthetic experience that would overcome the flattening and distancing of the experience of modernity.
Among museums, this flattening can be observed in the cumulative effects of conformity to institutionalized professional codes, submission to criteria of funding agencies, routinized procedures for showing art, and bureaucratized management practices. In short, conformity to "best practices," which are codified institutionally by such organizations as the American Association of Museums, diminishes the differentiation across the field of museums. In consequence, each museum comes to feel like every other one, and indeed like the experience of many other public institutions, in a general flattening of the experiential terrain. "Distancing," refers here, in relation to museums, to the kind of relationship between viewers and artworks that museums tend to foster; whether experts assimilating artworks to their knowledge of art history, or "outsiders" looking upon artworks in admiration or bafflement, there is a notable sense of estrangement between the museum's public and its artworks, absent the active "mutual interrogation" that Dominique de Menil sought to recuperate.
Failure to sustain all that had gone into the attentive crafting of what has come to be known as the "Menil aesthetic" would, it was feared, seriously compromise its affective promise. Or rather, since no one seriously worried that this would happen as long as the museum continued to be imbued with Dominique's charismatic authority, the real source of concern was that Dominique's own efforts to ensure the financial viability of the museum might be taken up by others after her passing in a manner that would surely entail the dissolution of the aesthetic that made the Menil Collection so distinctive. There continues to be, more than a decade after Dominique's death, considerable anxiety concerning the maintenance of past practices, articulated as an index of the extent to which the legacy of the founder and patron is being honored.
There is, however, another element of the legacy of Dominique de Menil that is perhaps not quite so evident within the cool elegance of the Menil Collection: a spirit of experimentalism, namely, an experimentalism oriented toward the future and not defined by nostalgia for the past. In refraining from imposing a set of covenants that would constrain the Menil Foundation, under whose aegis the Menil Collection is funded and managed, to preserve the museum as the fulfillment of her project, Dominique instead created a context for ongoing experimentation, entrusting the legatees to interpret her sacred modern vision anew. Indeed, this discomfort with the strictures of the past characterized the radical project of patronage that Dominique and John embarked upon together soon after they and their children left Europe in 1941, taking up residence in Houston.
When occupying forces entered France, John was in Romania on business for Schlumberger, the oil-services company founded by Dominique de Menil's father, Conrad Schlumberger, and uncle, Marcel Schlumberger, who together developed the oil detection technology, the electrical resistance log, that had been key to making drilling for oil profitable. In Romania, John contributed to the efforts of the resistance, disrupting oil shipments from Romania to the occupying forces, before making his way to the United States, where Schlumberger had begun to establish a base of operations unconstrained by the exigencies of occupation. His wife and their two small children, Christophe and Adelaide, fled to southern France, where she gave birth to their third child, Georges, before making their way via Spain to the New World, where they and John de Menil were reunited. In Houston, John initially served as the head of Schlumberger operations in South America, and was centrally involved in the restructuring of Schlumberger, whose headquarters had been in Paris. By 1969, when he retired, he was president of Schlumberger Overseas and chairman of the board of Schlumberger, Ltd.; he is widely held to have been a major force in the emergence of Schlumberger in the 1970s as one of the world's largest corporations.
Some find it difficult to reconcile the politically leftist convictions of John and Dominique de Menil and their efforts on behalf of these convictions, with the source of the wealth that underwrote them. The oil industry is inevitably tainted with the international politics of oil extraction and commerce, but during the decades when John worked so assiduously to further Schlumberger's reach (from the 1940s to his retirement at the close of the 1960s), John was able to share his father-in-law's sincere belief that Schlumberger's ability to help others find oil was a natural extension of his political commitments. Georges de Menil, who is an economist, characterized his father's view this way: "You were bringing to human frontiers technology that helped people. . . . During the war it contributed something crucial to the war effort. After the war, it contributed something crucial to the growth of the world economy" (quoted in Auletta 1983a, 69). The stories that are recounted of Schlumberger and the wealth it generated are characteristic of the narratives that tend to be told of first-generation oil-industry ventures. They tell of the spirit and character of its founders, of their commitment to invention and discovery, and, by omission, distance themselves from the operations of the industry itself. Schlumberger is distinctive in this regard, perhaps, only insofar as its protagonists, at least through the second and third generations, self-consciously sought to do things differently, to sustain a pioneering spirit of experimentation and innovation that was not vested in the standard hierarchies of authority and reward (Auletta 1983a, 1983b; Bowker 1994).
There is no doubt that John's noted acumen in the oil industry and, of course, the couple's Frenchness and their glamour lent weight to their projects among Houston society, who might otherwise have dismissed them as mere mavericks.
As I have observed, much of the critical scholarship on museums over the past decade or two has focused on the various ways in which the interests of power and distinction are served by these "high" cultural forms. This kind of approach has meant to demystify museums, to reveal the otherwise veiled or simply unrecognized dimensions of their privilege and symbolic authority, which are effaced in the familiar rhetorics of cultural enrichment, aesthetic autonomy, and taste. Much of this interpretive labor has been directed toward the particular narratives that have been contrived within the exhibitionary spaces of the museum and, more broadly, toward museums as sites of exclusion or, perhaps, as public institutions working to forge a citizenry appropriately deferential to civic authority.
This form of analytical engagement with museums, characterized by what Paul Ricoeur (1970) referred to as a hermeneutics of suspicion, has done much to alert us to how deeply these institutions and the representational practices they pursue are implicated in the maintenance of extant hierarchies of value in relation both to objects and to persons. The hermeneuticist of suspicion, however, convinced that "high" cultural domains, and the elites whose aspirations and resources underwrite them, fundamentally serve bourgeois class interests, is inclined, indeed obliged, to regard actors' own characterizations of their intentions as merely justifications or rationalizations for the exercise of what are, in reality, very different commitments. As James Faubion has observed, with reference to an elite interlocutor's explanation of the obligation of "service" that is the ethical rationale for his Portuguese nobility: "The hermeneuticist of suspicion is likely—and has every right—to read such a justification of standing as a rationalization or méprisement, a witting or unwitting apologia for privilege and advantage alike. The hermeneuticist of suspicion is, however, free and even compelled to read any ethical self-justification in precisely the same terms, thus offering an interpretation that may well be true (or not), but of no sociologically discriminatory power" (Faubion n.d., 188; italics added).
Faubion alerts us to the key issue: for all that the hermeneutics of suspicion has done to draw our attention to the operation of power in hitherto thoroughly mystified domains, its great shortcoming lies in its inability to observe meaningful differences among the many and varied projects taken up by elites and their institutional proxies, since they are all rendered equally and seamlessly self-serving. In the case of museums, analyses of particular institutions have foregrounded processes and representations that maintain existing power relations and further the interests of domination, but at the expense of observing that museums might also be understood as sites of creativity and critical experimentation.
This is far from the only account that recognizes the critical, future-oriented experimentation with which many museums are engaged. Some have addressed efforts to change the narrative content of exhibitions (Sherman 2007), others focus on attempts to effect more collaborative relationships with local communities (Clifford 1997), while yet others have acknowledged the propensity for some museums to host within their walls performative interventions by artists critical of the museum's own collecting and curatorial practices or of the complicity of the museum in compromising political economies (Welchman 2006). There are more comprehensive studies that have focused on museums that are centrally directed toward a reconsideration of the very form and function of the museum itself. Sharon MacDonald's account (2002) of the Science Museum, London, is a close-grained study of the conceptualization and mounting of a "permanent" exhibition in the context of a fundamental reorientation of the museum that was meant, among other things, to establish it as a vital presence in contemporary public culture. Others have addressed institutional and representational experimentation at museums that have more profoundly called into question the character of the museum as a social form and its potential as an agent in contemporary politics. Steven Dubin's investigation (2006) of the transformation of museums in postapartheid South Africa, Kylie Message's attention (2007) to the energetically self-reflexive character of many contemporary museums, and Andrea Witcomb's analysis (2003) of a range of self-consciously future-oriented institutions, along with the compendium of studies brought together in Ivan Karp, Corinne Kratz, Lynn Szwaja, and Tomás Ybarra-Fausto's collected volume (2006), together evidence the validity of the kind of careful, empirically informed analysis of museums that had been all but eclipsed under the sway of the hermeneutics of suspicion. These kinds of studies are marked by their attention to the complex and often crosscutting exigencies in which museums are enmeshed, both internally and in relation to external imperatives, in contrast to what has been a tendency to render them as monolithic both in intent and in effect. They are also distinctive in their focus on museums not solely as representational economies but as institutions populated by people who are themselves engaged in critical analysis of their own practices, procedures, and institutional trajectories.
Among these examples, the museums under scrutiny range in their purviews from science and technology to ethnography and history. That there has been little work of this sort on art museums might seem odd, given that critical experimentation has hardly been absent in their precincts. And, moreover, in the case of contemporary art museums, their orientation to the future is inevitably a matter of ongoing critical reflection. The pervasive perception of art museums as being closely identified with elite interests, however, is such that anything short of profound skepticism on the part of analysts appears simply as bad politics. The recently published collection of essays (Cuno 2003) by current and former directors of a number of major art museums (Glenn Lowry, Museum of Modern Art; Neil MacGregor, British Museum; Philippe de Montebello, Metropolitan Museum of Art; John Walsh, Jr., J. Paul Getty Museum; and James Wood, Art Institute of Chicago) seems only to intensify this suspicion. While not all of its contributors equally subscribe to this view, the volume conveys a fundamental commitment to the idea of the art museum as a place of respite that should be preserved in all its patrician dignity.
Given this deep conservatism that is attributed to art museums, and that some museums evidently claim for themselves, along with the recent oppositional dominance of a hermeneutics of suspicion, an ethnographic analysis such as that offered here, which is concerned with understanding the museum from the perspectives of its founders, personnel, and those members of the public to which the museum presents itself, may seem disconcertingly sympathetic, precisely because it takes seriously the aspirations and investments of its protagonists on their own terms. And this effect is intensified by the fact that the de Menils' projects were inseparable from a modern tradition of critical experimentation, with which they were thoroughly preoccupied. I recount their efforts to formulate and redefine their projects in relation to a series of critical activist agendas, including the civil rights movement in Houston, Texas, and the ecumenical commitments of Vatican II, not because I wish to show them in a flattering light, but because examination of their projects can illuminate a modality of modernity that otherwise is obscured. In other words, the context in which this ethnography unfolds is itself a critical field in which cultural authority is being contested. That said, the de Menils and their interlocutors were, as I will show, never reticent about asserting their convictions in a manner that was itself fully imbued with a cultural authority that they scrupulously cultivated.
In characterizing the Menil Collection and its protagonists as engaged in a complex critical project, I do so not out of admiration, naïve about the problematic political economy that underwrites high cultural forms, but rather in order to be able to make analytic distinctions that a hermeneutics of suspicion cannot make, to show that the authority of the museum can be mobilized in the service of diverse interests, seeking to foster moral and political sensibilities in their publics that cannot properly be reduced to the subjection of audiences to dominant hierarchies of value and social propriety.
In what follows, I offer an account of the Menil Collection that regards the museum as a countermodel to the contemporary orthodoxies of museums as institutions. It has explicitly refused much that has come to characterize the professional and representational practices of contemporary museums. It doesn't, for example, direct its operations toward increasing its audience, and its exhibitions do not purport either to educate or to entertain. Yet, at the same time, perhaps the most significant project with which museums have been engaged throughout their modern history, the definition and elaboration of contemporary relationships between subjects and objects, is self-consciously at the forefront of the Menil Collection's program. In this sense, the Menil should not be seen as an eccentric case that is therefore of limited analytic value, but rather as an exemplar of imperatives that are pervasive, but elsewhere often misidentified.
While the literature on private (as opposed to institutional) collecting overwhelmingly focuses on the collection as an agent in the collector's practices of self-formation, there has been little or no attention paid to the ways in which a formerly private collection opened to the public might, intentionally or not, become engaged in the constitution of other selves—of those who care for the collection and those who come to constitute its public. At the Menil Collection, this has always been a central preoccupation that has informed every aspect of the museum.
Attention to this crafting of relations between artworks, those who are entrusted with their care, and their publics has, in turn, provoked an analysis that recognizes the critical commitments that the Menil Collection is called upon to advance and the manner in which they are pursued across the presentational, operational, and performative domains that constitute the museum. The elegance and refinement that the Menil Collection exudes belie its radical character, which is underpinned by imperatives that in important ways run counter to dominant interests, albeit pursued in a manner that reinvests privileged high cultural forms with suasive force.
The defining register in which the museum pursues its critical project is aesthetic, the very modality that we have become inclined to associate with a defense of the status quo. It is the character of this aesthetic, the processes by which it has been created and materialized, the sensibilities that it is meant to generate, and the way it operates as an agent in broader domains of social and political life that are the central concerns of this ethnographic study. My analysis examines the ways in which throughout the architecture, exhibitions, and managerial structure, and, indeed, in all aspects of its operation, "the Menil aesthetic," as it has come to be known, has been actively crafted.
What follows then, is not an ethnography of the Menil Collection as a place or of Dominique de Menil as a collector, but of an aesthetic—specifically, of the processes by which an aesthetic is created, is materialized, and participates in broader domains of practice.