In line with their lifelong mission to support the arts, the de Menils were passionate about inspiring others to do the same.
Middleton points to an early observation of John’s, that “Houstonians would think nothing of spending $100,000 for a prize bull, but they would not pay $1,000 for a work of art.” Beginning in the ’50s, he tried to get locals interested in collecting art, if only for the investment value. He started Art Investments, for example, a partnership among 12 local business people who went in on artworks and shared them, rotating the works so they could be hung for a period of time in each of the 12 members’ homes.
For her part, Dominique started groups such as the Pompidou Foundation (an American patronage group of France’s Centre Pompidou
) through which she organized trips to Europe, to bring Americans to museums, artist studios, and collectors’ homes. “Dominique didn’t try to teach, she just put people in front of great art, in a very personal way,” Middleton said. “In that way, she inspired quite a few Texans to become collectors.”
Their impressive Houston home—designed by Philip Johnson and furnished by designer Charles James—and the local exhibitions they organized also served to inspire fellow Houstonians. Their first show, a 1951
exhibition held at the small Contemporary Arts Museum
in downtown Houston, included loans from private collections and museums around the world (including the Met
and the MoMA
). “It was the most important cultural manifestation ever seen in the state of Texas,” Middleton said, noting that 14,000 people visited over the course of three weeks.
They also fostered younger generations of art scholars, curators, and collectors, inviting students of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, for example, to their home for dinners and gatherings. Some went on to carve out art collections and careers of their own, like art historian Helen Winkler, who co-founded the Dia Art Foundation
in 1947 (with the de Menils’s daughter, Philippa and her husband, art dealer Heiner Friedrich). “That was an essential part of what the de Menils did,” Middleton said. “They brought people along.”