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Interview with: Paul Winkler
Date: March 3, 1982
Archive Number: OH JL27
Mary Jo Chaflet
I: 00:02 …that is being done by two members from the Junior League of Houston, Linda Letrich and Mary Jo Chaflet. Good afternoon, Paul.
I: Thank you for being with us today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?
PW: Yes. I am a native of Dickinson, Texas, which is halfway between Houston and Galveston. I came to Houston to go to school at the University of St. Thomas in the art department, which was very strong at that point. And it was the department that was started by the de Menils, and they brought in Jerry MacAgy, who was a very influential person in the arts in the ‘50s in Houston. And then when I was a sophomore, they pulled out of St. Thomas—the de Menils, that is—and the art history department and the gallery were moved to Rice University, and so I’m one of the few students who sort of split. I stayed with the art history department, so I went half time to St. Thomas and half time to Rice. I received a bachelor’s degree in art history, and then I moved to Santa Fe, where I worked at the Museum of New Mexico, came back and worked with Mrs. de Menil on two major exhibits, one on the form and freedom of Northwest Coast American Indian Art and the second Art Nouveau, a major retrospective of that period, which she did at the Rice Museum. I moved back to New Mexico and for five years was assistant director at the Museum of International Folk Art, and we acquired the Alexander Girard folk art collection and expanded the museum during that period. And then one day I received a call from Mrs. de Menil saying that it looked like the museum project might finally fly and would I come down and help her with it. So I came down and actually believed that it really was going to happen this time. And so I moved back to help establish and get the museum built.
I: How long has this museum been in the planning stages?
PW: Easily 10 or 15 years, as far as a conceptual idea of forming the museum. When Mr. de Menil was still alive, it went so far as to actually engage Louis Kahn, the great architect, to do some preliminary sketches for the museum building. At that point, however, it was geared toward a storage museum, and there were primarily great storage spaces where the collection would be partially installed and then primarily just one or two exhibition spaces for the public. Both Mr. de Menil and Louis Kahn died shortly after that period, and the museum has sort of evolved, I believe, in Mrs. de Menil’s mind. And I’m not speaking for her; I’m just giving you my interpretation. During that period, there was a period of gestation that was probably very important, and the way the museum has evolved at this point is different than it was conceived, to a degree, at the earlier period. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad. I don’t know. The museum is based on three principles which were Mrs. de Menil’s which have been developed for the past 20, 30 years. It’s all part of her work. There’s nothing separate from the museum. It’s a natural evolution of the thought that she has given to the presentation of art, the gathering of the collection, its use and its function. So the three primary premises on which it was designed are, one, that you never show everything at one time, but what you show you show extremely well. That’s how you entice people, you excite people to love art, to enjoy it, to appeal to them visually, and then emotionally and intellectually it all falls into place. So that’s one concept: showing a few things well. The second concept has to do with making the collection actually available to students and scholars, which means a new type of storage system that is different from the way most museums store their collection, and that is visible storage rooms. For instance, it will be an area of paintings where there will be rooms and all the—I’ll just pick something from the collection; let’s say there’s 75 Max Ernst—all the Max Ernst will be hung on walls, much like a 19th century salon hanging in a European museum. These rooms would be dark, and that would be perfect in the sense of the climatic environment for the preservation of art. When one enters, they could open the window and you could have natural light or incandescent light and you could see all the work. They’re not stored in bins, they’re not stored in racks, they’re not in a basement; they’re simply in perfect rooms from the point of view of preservation, but they become alive and the collection really becomes accessible simply by walking in the room. That’s a new concept in museums as well. The third idea was to build a very unpretentious museum, a quote that Mrs. de Menil once stated once she made Renzo Piano the architect for the museum. She said she wanted a museum that was small on the outside and large on the inside, which expresses it all. We want to drop in a museum building in this neighborhood, preserve the neighborhood, and have the building be very unpretentious and have simply then the feel of the neighborhood itself, the attitude of the neighborhood, that it’s a very simple Houston neighborhood built in the ‘20s and ‘30s—small bungalows, cottages of no great importance architecturally, except as her interest in the neighborhood has developed and as the Menil interests have acquired properties, they’ve painted some of the houses gray, and this was done partially at the suggestion of Howard Barnstone, who gets full credit for that, actually. And they each became interesting in their own little eccentric way, and they became worth preserving, not in any sense that one preserves the great American homes or villages but in the sense of it’s a period of Houston life, a neighborhood environment with people living in the houses, and there’s a lot of human activity at a wonderful scale. And so the museum must not destroy this. It must fit in its environment. So those are the three premises that we have sort of worked on from the start for building this museum. The idea of not showing too much and showing it well is reinforced by the 20 years of fabulous installations of the exhibits that first started with Jerry MacAgy and that Mrs. de Menil took over when Jerry died. It’s a type of installation you very seldom see. It’s where great thought is given to displaying every work of art, and it’s based on the premise that you can enhance a work of art but you must not go overboard and get into window dressing, because then you destroy it. The art is the essential thing, but it can be shown to its best advantage if really thought out carefully.
I: 08:09 How was Piano selected? Did she have any other considerations?
PW: The selection of an architect was very difficult—again, this is my interpretation; I was with her part of the time when developing this—because we did not want a monumental building, and architects usually like to make statements—rightfully so. But this was to be a personal museum, and the private identity, the identity of the de Menils, is meant to be part of it. And after all, we have worked 25 years, know exactly how we want to install art, and know what we want the building to feel like. So trips were taken with various members of our staff. Thirty, 40 museums in this country and in Europe built in the last 10 or 15 years were visited. Architects were interviewed. Many people suggested names, some of her children, some of her advisors, people who have worked with her, other museum directors, but no one seemed right. There was no one who just sort of all of a sudden, “That’s the person. I know they can do the work, and I know they will listen to us and include our ideas into it.” And one day Pontus Hulten, who is director of the Centre Georges Pompidou until last year—now he’s at the new Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art—suggested to Mrs. de Menil that she should meet and talk with Renzo Piano. Renzo Piano was one of the two architects for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the other being Richard Rogers, the English architect. She met him, I met him not too long after that, and she was impressed by his sensitivity, his intelligence, and really felt that this is a person she could work with. Now, the Centre Georges Pompidou is almost the exact opposite type of building as we are building here, and that’s a great tribute to Renzo that he can do both sort of things. But his sensitivity towards the type of thing we’re talking about—this neighborhood environment, human scale, human activity—is reflected in the work he’s doing on the Island of Burano, which is the oldest part of Venice. They are renovating the oldest part of the city by getting the local craftsmen interested in restoring the buildings and introducing the craftsmen to new techniques of preservation, of structural techniques so that you have the best of both worlds. You have the craftsmen and you have the highest degree of technology, which is very useful to anything. And so that reflected a type of sensitivity that one may not see necessarily. But a building also has to be a building of its own times, and so this building will be a building of its time in certain technology innovations, especially the method of bringing in zenithal light, the type of natural light for illumination.
I: 11:35 Could you give us a description of the building and its planning stages as it is now?
PW: Sure. I also said that there’s a local architect, the firm of Richard Fitzgerald & Partners, who are working in conjunction with Mr. Piano. It’s a very international team. Renzo is Italian, his chief assistant on this project in his office is Japanese and is named Shunji Ishida. You’ll have to call when you transcribe that and I’ll give you the spelling. The structural engineer is a man named Peter Rice out of London working with Ove Arup & Partners, who is a brilliant structural engineer. His first major job was to solve how you build the fabulous roof on the Sydney Opera House. The architects presented and won the competition for that building but did not know how to build it. Tom Barker, and Englishman—Peter is Irish—Tom Barker, an Englishman is the head services engineer. There are a number of local engineers in association with the local architects. So it’s a real team that’s building this building.
Renzo picked up immediately what our desires were. There was an entire building program built which defined the size and the types and the function of the spaces that we felt we needed for the museum. He was able to translate that program into a design that we immediately had a rapport with and that we felt good about. It’s primarily a one-story building with what we call the Treasure House being at the second level. It’s a smaller section of the building that floats above the other, and it’s the storage area. It’s where 10,000 items will be stored. From the Treasure Chest you draw things into the galleries, and so you rotate parts of the permanent collection in the permanent gallery areas, which is a nice concept for Houston as well, because two types of people go to museums—those people who live in the city and those that are visiting. For the people that live in the city, this museum will always be changing. There will always be a wonderful environment. Every two weeks you can come and you can see something new you weren’t aware was in the collection and presented in a nice way. We hope people just get in the routine of stopping by for 15 minutes or whatever, sitting down and enjoying the paintings. That sort of reinforces the concept of not showing everything at one time. Philosophically, you have the second story level that is the Treasure Chest where the art is stored. The ground level is the primary public area, and it consists of a permanent gallery area, which rather than having permanent installations will be an area dedicated to showing the permanent collection, but as I said, it would change in these areas. And on the other side of the building are the temporary galleries where we’ll do shows of a more temporary nature, similar to those done at the Rice Museum or at the old St. Thomas Gallery, where one would choose a theme or an artist or whatever and do a special exhibit and catalog for that work. The concept of entering the building is one that involves experiencing the neighborhood, the vegetation which is so lush in Houston and wonderful. Everyone always says Houston is a town where no one walks, but that’s not true. People love walking in Houston. We all love getting out and walking, and the weather is really not that bad, no matter what anyone says. It’s fabulous. It’s simply getting out of your car and doing it. So the idea is that one comes, and since a car is the main transportation in Houston, we have to decide what to do with cars. We weren’t going to be one of those buildings in Houston that didn’t think of parking and so it’s a mess all the time. (recorder turns off – no audio) 15:50 to 16:00 There were two problems. One is that we did not want all that gasoline underneath the building, the cars and the fire hazard, which one can handle, but it’s always in the back of your mind. Secondly, and more importantly, is that we did not want the first experience at the museum, which is a place where one has an aesthetic experience, to be a dark underground parking garage. No matter how finely you design them, they’re horrible. No one likes them. So we decided next that we would build parking pockets on the property. Fortunately, the museum is to be situated on a central block bordered by Mandell, Branard, Mulberry, and Sul Ross. The property around this area is also owned by the Menil interests, so there is what we call zoning by ownership, since Houston has no zoning at this point in history, so that we can control part of the neighborhood. We decided to put parking pockets at various points in the neighborhood. We call them parking gardens. They’re really gardens for cars. They’re going to be nicely paved, probably in brick or something, and extremely well planted and not over-efficient in the number of cars you can put in but aesthetically pleasing. What that means, then, is that everyone must get out of their car and walk to the front door, which is actually in the center of the building. It’s there. Does that pick up my voice?
I: 17:42 It should. You might raise your voice slightly.
PW: Okay. The daily traffic will be handled by parking pockets along Mandell, which is a major thoroughfare. Keeping the cars out of the neighborhood is another idea, so we’re using the major thoroughfares—West Alabama to the north, Mandell to the west, and Richmond is to the south. The daily traffic will be taken care of in this corner pocket, so people will park, get out, and there’s a covered walkway all the way around this building 12 feet deep, open on the side.
I: What will the exposure be as they walk along? It will be roof above. Will there be glass to look in the museum there or will it be solid wall?
PW: The museum façade is highly articulated. As they’re walking along, you will see that some of the wall of the museum, sometimes it’ll be a glazed wall, sometimes it will be a garden, other times it will be glass into a gallery and we will entice you with that. But the materials themselves also reflect the environment. The structural element is steel, and the siding is actually cypress which will be bleached a natural gray. So it’s basically wood planking and white steel—extremely elegant. I know everyone is going to want to build like this after this. A lot of people say, “Why are you bothering with wood?” That’s sort of the heritage of the environment, and it’s such a nice material. Cypress is very impervious to insects and to dry rot, so we feel that the longevity will be there and it’s a worthwhile treatment. But again, it’s nothing pretentious, a very simple and natural building.
I: How many square feet will be involved in the museum?
PW: There are 106,000 gross square feet and about 80,000 net square feet that will be used for museum purposes.
I: How would you describe Mrs. de Menil’s collection?
PW: Her collection is one with a personal identity. It reflects the de Menils’ interests over the past 25 years. It’s been gathered over a period of about 25 to 30 years. It’s a collection that’s diverse and has certain strengths. It starts with Paleolithic pieces. The early part of the collection is involved in her personal interest in how civilization and man developed, and this is reflected in the objects they made, many of which are art objects. So it’s a strong holding of material from the Neolithic through the Middle Ages and the Byzantine Period which shows the development of civilization. This will be a very unique part of this museum. You don’t see this material in very many museums, and it’s going to be wonderful to have that in Houston. So starting with, as I said, the Paleolithic pieces, Neolithic, then into the cultures such as the Syrian and Neo-Babylonian, that whole period, and into Egyptian and then the Mediterranean world and to Western Europe and the Middle Ages and the Byzantine world. That is one strength. There are some wonderful pieces. There are some Celtic heads that are just extraordinary that any museum in the world would be proud to have. There’s some great Cycladic pieces. But each one has that sensitivity of expression that only a private collector can sort of demand, in a way. It’s collected for beauty, for human understanding, and it’s not collected necessarily just to be an encyclopedic representation of the development of art. The personal interest is very involved in this and in the way things are selected. Another great strength, the cubist painters—Picasso, Braque, Leger, Gris—are all represented with a fine body of work. And then that moves into the modern period and the great strength of surrealist art and then into especially Max Ernst and Rene Magritte, probably the best collections of that material in existence. And then great paintings, both European and American, of the last four decades—painting and sculpture. Other strengths include a great African art collection and substantial holdings in Pacific Oceanic art and art of the Americas. What else am I forgetting? Those are the main strengths, and there are other areas that are represented as well. What can I say? I think it’s great.
I: 23:27 Is Mrs. de Menil constantly adding to her collection?
PW: The collection grows yearly. She’s still the person who makes most of the selections for the collection. There are other advisors of hers who suggest pieces, and sometimes they’re acquired, sometimes they’re not.
I: Will there be an endowment for—
PW: I should tell you now about how the museum came into existence, because Mrs. de Menil always said she needed community support to do this, and it’s true. She has many other projects, her foundation has limited resources, and besides that there are other people who have really sought this collection, including France, and they’re still seeking the collection, in fact. Other museums have wanted certain segments of it or the entire thing. But this is her home, she feels, and she wants to leave it to Houston, but it required some help. So what happened is during the period when Fred Hofheinz was mayor, he and the de Menils—Mr. de Menil was still alive—had discussions about the possibility of building a museum in the city for the collection, but for some reason that never got very far. But I guess two and a half to three years ago, a few close friends of Mrs. de Menil and leaders in the community from a cultural point of view were concerned about what indeed was going to happen to the collection. And some way or another, Fred got involved with that. As a group they approached Mrs. de Menil. The people were Fred Hofheinz, Alice Brown, Nina Cullinan, Carolyn Law, Isaac Arnold, Harris Masterson, and Sandy McCormick. They were what we call the core Houston group, because they were the people who approached her and said, “Okay, what can we do to get the collection here?” It’s at that point that I came back to Houston and became involved in the project, so I cannot give you a lot of information about the early contacts there. But since then or very soon after that period, we determined what was required for the museum. One was $10 million to build the building, and the second was $20 million for an endowment fund to meet our annual operating and maintenance costs. It was also decided that we never wanted to be in the position of an annual fundraising drive. This is sort of boring material, but it’s—
I: 26:18 It’s helpful. I think it’s very informative.
PW: It’s historical. There are enough of those in Houston now—the museum, the ballet, the symphony, the opera—and they’re all great projects that need to be supported, but we just felt it was impossible to add another one to this. And so we’d rather set something up well at the beginning and then let it ride from then on. The Menil Foundation will continue in existence to help annually on special projects and things like that. Frankly, we wanted to try to raise the funds very quietly by going to a few major foundations and individuals to see if they would give major grants. Immediately, the Brown and Cullen Foundation both pledged $5 million each. Upon that basis, Mrs. de Menil was encouraged to go ahead with plans for the building, which we did, and we are now shifting into what is called the construction document phase, having gone through schematic and design development, the drawings that the buildings will be built from. We are anticipating to begin construction August the 1st. But there’s sort of a little race going on here because we now must get pledges for the additional funds that are required, which very simply, $30 million was our goal. The Menil Foundation agreed to match all funds contributed until the goal was met on a 1 to 4 basis. Therefore, out of the $30 million, $6 million comes from the Menil Foundation in addition to they gave the site and the collection and a lot of other things. So that left the community bill at $24 million. Twelve million has been raised to date, and we are quietly trying to raise the other $12 million now. So it is a community effort, but that’s the way it should be. The beauty of it is that it’s very seldom that you can start from nothing and all of a sudden have almost a complete museum with great strengths and great exhibit programs and great collections and a staff. That’s a nice thing.
I: 28:48 What curatorial help will you have? The ones she has now with additional?
PW: That’s correct. The existing staff will remain and will shift over to the museum, and there will be certain other staff members added.
I: What will your title be?
PW: I am the assistant director. Mr. Walter Hopps has been appointed the director, and Mrs. de Menil is the real director. Everyone insists, and correctly so, that her presence be dominant in the endeavor.
I: When you referred to the Menil Foundation, is that mainly Mrs. de Menil and certain advisors, or is that an actual committee?
PW: The Menil Foundation is a private operating foundation that John de Menil started.
I: Do you know the date?
PW: It was either in ’56 or ’65. I can look it up if you want. Anyway, certain projects of the de Menils have been funded by the Menil Foundation. It will be an ongoing foundation that supports the museum as well as other projects, including the Image of the Black in Western Art Project, which will have a Houston archive office. It’s a series of publications and research done for 20 years on the image of the black in the western world. The Rothko Chapel is associated loosely with the Menil Foundation. There are all sorts of projects.
I: And the Institute for the Arts? Is that still—?
PW: That has received certain support from the Menil Foundation.
I: But on a project-to-project basis?
PW: 30:39 Right. Mrs. de Menil also supports that privately.
I: What is her association now with St. Thomas and Rice University?
PW: You really will have to ask her. She’s still devoted to both. She still is heavily involved with Rice. The Institute for the Arts is basically her organization, and that runs the Rice Museum. The art history department to a large degree—even though there was a core art history department at Rice before they moved from St. Thomas, but with the move from St. Thomas there was a great increase in that department, and she’s very supportive of the new graduate program. They’ve started now graduate degrees in their art history department there. That will simply continue. Exactly what the role of the institute will be no one is sure yet, but there will be some role.
I: What is the completion date for the Menil Museum now? (recorder turns off – no audio) 31:51 to 32:01
PW: Actually, we hope to open very late 1984, so completion is mid to late— I guess, actually, completion of the building is early ’84, and there is an eight-month period to move in and install the collection. And hopefully, we will open in October or November of ’84. But no one can hold us to that. I will say we’re right on schedule. For the last two and a half years we’ve been on schedule.
I: And August 1st construction begins.
I: How long is the building period?
PW: It’s an 18-month building period.
I: Are there any plans for a particular type of opening, like a benefit for the museum?
PW: No. There are no plans. (chuckles)
I: That you know of.
PW: We’re one step at a time here.
I: 32:57 Mrs. de Minel probably has them.
PW: We’re starting to talk about the initial exhibits, and they will be strong in showing the collection. We hope to maybe have some of her children involved. They’re all involved in various segments of the art world themselves, and it would be nice if they become interested in this museum.
I: Could you tell us their names and what they’re doing?
PW: Adelaide de Menil lives in New York, and her interests are many. She’s a great photographer. She’s published a number of books, one on the Northwest Coast. She is a great collector of ethnographic materials, particularly Eskimo, Northwest Coast American Indian, and Oceanic art.
I: Are any of her things going to be installed in the museum?
PW: We don’t know. It’s being built for the John and Dominique de Menil Collection. What happens after that, no one knows. Christophe de Menil lives in New York. She’s involved in promoting avant-garde projects, both performance and art projects. She works with some very contemporary architects as well. Georges de Menil lives in Paris and I think this year is in Connecticut and New York and teaches economics. Francois de Menil collects certain things, primarily great pieces of American art of the last 40 years, and is a film producer and a filmmaker. And Philippa de Menil has what’s called the Dia Art Foundation, which is a foundation that supports artists in realizing major projects. And they’ve been responsible for some great, great pieces such as The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria in New Mexico and certain works by Dan Flavin around the city of New York, including some on train platforms—mostly modern, contemporary projects.
I: Could you possibly look ahead 20, 25 years and predict what might be ahead of the Menil Foundation?
PW: No. (chuckles)
I: It started, you think, about 25 years ago?
PW: 35:35 Oh, it’s been in existence maybe 15 years.
I: Fifteen years. And they’ve done such great things these last 15 years, it’s hard to predict what might—
PW: Right. The wonderful thing, as I said, is the personal identity. One can never guarantee that that will remain. Mrs. de Menil is an extremely unique individual with extraordinary interests and a great sensitivity. And all of those that work with her just admire her tremendously. She’s opened up a segment of life, of human existence, for all of us. This past year we had the events at the Rothko Chapel, the Islamic colloquium, human rights awards, sacred music, both contemporary and then the great master raga singer from India. That’s just one segment of the extraordinary exhibit of the selection from her print collection which was sort of the tip of the iceberg of that part of the collection but showed you the way great installation can make a show exciting. It’s not really exciting to look at 200 prints on the wall unless there’s something that brings it together and makes it magical and wonderful. And that’s what happened there. You were interested in the art—not necessarily the name of the artist, but you were interested in what it was portraying, what it meant in terms of conveying knowledge and interest of a period or whatever. And then now the Yves Klein retrospective, a great five-, six-year project culminating in this extraordinary exhibit, the work of Yves Klein, who was a French painter, conceptual artist—whatever one wants to call him. He was certainly way ahead of his time and in a short period of seven years produced an extraordinary body of work which has been very influential. And then all the other projects she’s had. Just in this one year there’s been great variety and intensity. The part we’re getting back to is that that only comes from an individual. I can only say one thing, and that is we’re going to try very hard never to let this museum become institutional, to always stress the individual, to let the artists have a certain say in the museum and the way their work is shown, possibly, and to keep it on a domestic scale.
I: This has been a fascinating interview. I hope you’ll let us come again if we have more questions.
I: Thank you so much, Paul.
PW: Thank you.
[tape ends] 38:25