Art and Activism:
Projects of John and Dominique de Menil

The Menil Collection, 2010

Rachel Cook

Cover of Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (The Menil Collection, 2010); courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston

Given the recent furor over censorship in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition, as well as the wider current vogue for “activist” practices in the art world, one must ask what “activism” might mean in the title of the recent publication Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (The Menil Collection, 2010). The use of the term “activism” dates back to France and Germany in the early 1900s, specifically as part of Rudolf Eucken’s philosophical theory that truth is arrived at through action, or an active striving for spiritual life. Today, the word is popularly used to describe efforts, often extreme, to bring about political, environmental, economic or social change. The contemporary art world has made it a buzzword of late, marrying it to artmaking without a consistent or clear sense of purpose or consequences.

Dubbing the life’s work of two art patrons as “activism” would seem to follow this trend. But what can activism mean when applied to the sixty-year project history of the de Menils? The activism that the de Menils practiced, including a commitment to the civil rights movement and sustained advocacy for human rights, establishing, for example, the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation in 1986, is unique in time and character. The de Menil approach to art and activism can perhaps be best summarized by a memo circulated by Dominique on more than one occasion to foundation board members—one of several revealing facts offered by the book. Reminding her supporters of the ideas crucial to their efforts, she wrote: “We do what others don’t do. We face a world in chaos. The problem is both a moral failure and a failure of intelligence—morality and intelligence being two sides of the coin. It would be exhilarating if within the limited means of this foundation we would encourage ideas capable of making a breakthrough, works of a redeeming quality and far reaching consequences.”

Well known as wealthy art patrons who built a world-class art collection and housed it in a critically renowned building designed by Renzo Piano, the de Menils’ amazing commitment to acts that promoted discussion about art, education, race relations and justice is arguably under-recognized by today’s audiences. The history, however, is rich and nourishing. The de Menils presented one of the first racially integrated contemporary art exhibitions, The De Luxe Show, and then others to follow, in an old theater in Houston. They cultivated Texas Southern University graduate and later Texas State Representative Mickey Leland, who became a close friend and acted as advocate and liaison for the De Luxe exhibition between Houston’s Fifth Ward communities, the exhibiting artists and the Menil organization. They dedicated Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1963–76) to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and attempted to gift it to the City of Houston, though the offer was eventually turned down because of racial tensions. Moreover, the de Menils initiated an expansive research project, “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” that includes a visual archive at the Menil Collection and a four-volume publications project at Harvard University. Relating these and other actions, the editors of Art and Activism present a compelling, though meandering, case for the de Menils’ lives as advocates for human rights, individual artists, faith and leadership.

The book is arranged in eight sections, all with open-ended headings: “intentions,” “education,” “social and political action,” “collecting and commissions,” “architecture,” “chronology” and the too inclusive, if not redundant, “points of view.” Each section combines the personal voices of individuals close to the de Menils—former students, former and current employees, and their daughter, Christophe—with the scholarly writing of curators, architects, professors, conservators and art historians, some of whom were also close to the couple. Images of the de Menils, their friends and their collection are sprinkled throughout the book, with a special middle section featuring photographic reproductions of de Menil correspondence providing a touching view into the relationships they cultivated with artists, writers, intellectuals and architects. The book functions, in part, as a biography of the couple as a team and as individuals, while also delivering a regional history of the city they called home. Despite its large-scale format, the book manages to retain a sense of intimacy and nostalgia; it presents the de Menils as human rather than as an institution.

Among the contributions that speak most directly and effectively to ideas of “activism,” professor of art history at TSU and director/curator at the university’s art museum Alvia Wardlaw’s riveting firsthand account of the couple’s responses to the civil rights movement and their involvement with the Black Panthers in Houston creates not only a detailed narrative record but shows the effect of smaller gestures of commitment to a community by individuals. William Camfield, a scholar who taught art history at the University of St. Thomas, provides thoughtful analysis of the de Menils’ absorption with Houston’s universities and museums and raises the point of how much the city and its organizations matured from their passionate association. Artist Mel Chin’s humorous account of Dominique’s stubbornness about being consistently vigilant becomes deeply revealing about her stance on the type of activism that should be pursued.

What words define the Menil Collection’s projects today? How can institutions continue to take up “art and activism”? How will artists and institutions further shape the alliance of art and activism given impending social changes? We should all be grateful to the editors of Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil for producing a historical reference to remind us of efforts that have helped to bring about political, environmental, economic and social change in Houston and beyond. And for helping us remember that, beyond political rhetoric, “activism” can be a daily “active” practice that involves individuals and the collaboration of ideas.

A Houston native, Rachel Cook is currently an MA Candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.

« return to table of contents