Saturday, September 12, 2009

Rice University Should Have an Art Museum

Rice University is my alma mater (classes of 1992 and 2008). Any old owl who gets repeated dunned by the university knows that Rice has been in a construction orgy. Seriously, just in the past couple of years, Rice has built two new colleges (Duncan and McMurtry--this new class is the largest freshman class in Rice history), a new gym, a new student hangout place, the "Collaborative Research Center" and I don't know what else. And more stuff is on the drawing board. I don't know what the endowment is now post-crash, but in 2007 it was $4.67 billion. And yet they keep asking alums like me for money, and like a sucker I give it to them. (I feel like I am giving charity to rich people whenever I do.) They should spend some of this money on a museum.

(Actually, Rice should first spend its money on many more need-based scholarships and living allowances, as well as spending a big sum on outreach to working class and poor students in the Houston region through mentoring and tutoring, including the construction and operation of K-12 charter schools in HISD and Aldine ISD. But once Rice has done all of those things, it should build an art museum.)

Now Rice has its gallery, where they put up lots of cool installations (like the Wayne White installation that is there now). Some of you may recall that there used to be an institution called the Rice Museum. It was in one of the two metal buildings at the corner of Stockton and University. The story I heard was that when the Menils had a falling out with the University of St. Thomas, they essentially funded Rice's art and art history department, bringing a bunch of professors over, and building these two buildings, one for media (film and photography when I was an undergrad), and one a museum. It was at the Rice Museum that Ed Kienholz had his show on campus, and that's where I met him. Apparently it held some of the Menil's collection, but this was just a holding action until they could build their own museum. Now the old Rice Museum is the Martel Center for Continuing Studies.

Rice's museum should not be the whim of some rich person. It needs to be something with the university itself as the prime mover. (Which is not to say that rich alums can't be involved.) It could be built between the Baker Institute and the Shepherd School, closing off that awkward space into a neat quadrangle (where the new James Turrell piece is going). But there are other places on campus where it could reside.

What kind of museum should it be? My first impulse is that it should not be devoted to contemporary art. Not because I have anything against contemporary art (obviously), but Houston already has a lot of venues for contemporary art (CAMH, Lawndale, Diverse Works, the Station Museum, Project Row Houses, Box 13, many commercial galleries, etc.). That said, none of these institutions is collecting contemporary art. So perhaps that could be the function of the Rice Museum. (I assume that the MFAH is collecting some contemporary art as well, but obviously that is not its primary function.) Or it could pick some very specific art--regional art, art from a particular period or in a particular style or of a particular type of artist. Like a museum of Texas art. A museum of 19th century American art. A museum of naive or "outsider" art. A museum of comics art (obviously this one would appeal to me a lot). Whatever Rice chooses, it should be something that isn't well-covered by already existing Houston museums and institutions.

Any thoughts out there about a Rice Museum?

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