22 June 2010 @ 04:49 pm
Visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston today with my mother, who is in town. I had been away from the museum for a long time after I worked there and I hadn't ever fully explored the new building. I'd gone to special exhibits but never taken the time just look at the permanent collection in its new digs. What a doofus.

Back when I worked there, the MFAH was a day trip. You could see everything on display within a day. The bulk of the museum's collection was in storage; one perk of being an employee in my position was that I had access to art storage and could go in and actually see the artwork so rarely, if ever, got hung in galleries. Today, we spent 6 hours looking and covered a fraction of the space. The art has room to breathe; you can walk around sculpture and you're not elbow-to-elbow with the person looking at the next piece. The experience is what I expect from a world-class art museum. Love the new building.

The current curator and curatorial assistant for the ancient collections (Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Etruscan, Assyrian, Mesopotamian, etc.) are doing an amazing job. The collections are...thin...but they've done an excellent job of including interesting information on the wall tags. A few short paragraphs gave a good feeling for each piece. They paired pieces nicely. For example, a bust of Caligula with a coin showing Caligula's profile. One thing I never liked about the coin displays at the Met was it was just a sea of ancient coins and I tended to glaze over looking at them. Pairing a coin with the bust encouraged me to really look at the coin. They might not have the best quality pieces or even breadth in the collections but they've done an excellent job of presenting everything they have. I cannot praise their work enough.

The museum's holding in European and American paintings from the early Renaissance through Remington are still quite good (the addition of two amazing Rembrandt paintings since I was there was a happy surprise) but the label text is still just as wretched as it was a decade ago. Coming from galleries with engaging wall text and use of little photos of the pieces rather than numbers, it's a huge let down to see tombstone labels on pieces that *I* know are iconic and important only because I worked at the museum. Very sad. Regardless of the lack of info, the pieces themselves are amazing and they are presented well within their various galleries.

We spent 5.5 of our hours in just those areas. We didn't even finish the European/American painting and sculpture. The last half hour, I took Mom to see the gorgeous Tiffany triptych window that the museum had acquired while I was still there. They've mounted it on a light box so the light comes through and it's perfect for showing it. I remember staring at the photography when it came over my desk and loving it. It's even more mind-blowing in person. Love that window. It's installed at the end of a hall of more modern art, Klines & Pollacks & to my great joy, the Oldenburg Giant Soft Fan (Ghost Version) is hung again. It was off display for years due to condition issues. I love the whimsy of the piece.

And, of course, I had to take Mom to see Turrell's light sculpture that is the tunnel between the old building and the new.

These are NOT my photos. I've scavenged them from the internet. I plan to go back with my camera and get some photos of my own. I couldn't find any photos of the ancient installations that so captured my imagination.

Claes Oldenburg, Giant Soft Fan (Ghost Version) - you can see a little bit of the Tiffany Window installation in the corner of the photo

Turrell's Light Sculpture in the MFAH tunnel between buildings.

On the downside, the gift shop is still as frustrating as ever. It's light and airy and so much nicer than it used to be but they still carry artsy items that don't really relate to what you've just seen in the galleries. Mom and I were looking, hoping to find something resembling some of the ancient vessels we'd seen upstairs and loved, but there was nothing. But that's a quibble. I have fallen in love with the new building and can't wait to go back.
Current Mood: impressed
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tejas[identity profile] tejas.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
I am embarrassed to say that I haven't seen the new building yet.

I really need to make the effort to do so.
Mish: Misc -- Quiet Solitude[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:03 pm (UTC)
Hey, I used to work there. I was part of the massive effort to gear up for the new building. I attended meeting after meeting after meeting about it. And I hadn't gone and seen it! I've gone to special exhibitions where I just go and see a few galleries but hadn't visited the lovely pieces I knew like old friends in their new home. I cannot praise enough the new galleries. I have a few quibbles here and there but overall they've done an amazing job and it seems churlish to complain about minor issues.

It's still often B-pieces by A-artists but they're making some real strides. The Rembrandt paintings are GORGEOUS. They have an excellent collection of Remingtons that is displayed to great effect. The Tiffany window is stunning in its new home. I had an excellent time and recommend it as a "OMG, it's wicked hot outside but I'm going stir-crazy at home" activity. I think you'll really enjoy yourself.
tejas[identity profile] tejas.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
I know I will. I've spent so many hours in the old museum and I loved it so much. maybe this is something my kid and I can do one day this summer.
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
There's so much to see. I love that it's no longer a day trip museum -- but I hate that, too, because I hated to leave after seeing so little of it! here were definitely other galleries that I so desperately wanted to tour.
tejas[identity profile] tejas.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
Looking forward to it.
[identity profile] stripedsockscat.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
As someone who works in a museum gift shop, I get the question a lot. "Why don't you have a reproduction of this thing that's on display." Mostly if we do exhibit related stuff its only for our permanent history galleries. The rotating exhibits..? Whew. It costs a LOT of money to reproduce and it requires large quantity orders. The shop has to pay for and cover our costs by ourselves. Where other departments receive a budget for the year based on projects, we have to actually make our budget money back.

So, producing 5 - 10,000 of something that's not on permanent exhibit leaves us with stuff we'll never sell. Its harder than one would think to find related items. We try to stock books/dvds related to current exhibits because we aren't stuck with the inventory when an exhibit closes.

If that helps explain the logic of a gift shop. Unless you're like the Met or the Smithsonian, its hard. :(
Mish: Misc -- Quiet Solitude[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
Oh definitely. What I was looking at, though, WAS the permanent collection. What I didn't mention was the fact that I used to license the use of images belonging to the museum. I begged the museum shop director to carry items that I licensed because I could often negotiate a contract for near full price (cutting slightly into my department's revenue) and get the company to throw in 500 freebies (pure profit for her department). She told me no. No calendars. No fridge magnets. No mousepads. I know those are kitsch-y but I couldn't get her to stock anything to do with the collections other than poorly done postcards and SLIDES.

The new store looks great and they had some pretty glassware. They had umbrellas with Monet's Waterlillies, but it was another museum's version of the iconic paintings. Somebody else is making money off that licensing. I know because I was approached for it and tried to work out a deal but couldn't ever get our retail folks to show any interest.

As a tourist who goes to museums preferentially for vacations, I want something that reminds me of what I've seen. I'll often buy a DVD or permanent collection catalog and either something functional (say, a pewter salt cellar or Christmas ornament) or a piece of statuary so that I have something to remind me of my visit. It doesn't have to be a replica of something I've seen; just something reminiscent of it. There was nothing like that, sadly.
[identity profile] stripedsockscat.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)
ahhh yeah that's a bit different.

We try to keep local artists and other independent artists from around the country we find through museum shop associations. Its a fine line. We have to keep things that are somehow educational yet those don't always sell and we have to pay ourselves. We also try to keep things that appeal to tourists but keep locals coming in. We do huge amounts of local business for holidays. That we take pride in. People purposefully come to us at Christmas and such because they can get quality gifts and support the foundation. We don't want to just be kitschy tourist stuff. You can get that anywhere in the Quarter.

My biggest issue is the question "is this made locally?" People want to buy it if its made here. But, it might be a local company that outsources because we're not exactly a factory town. But then when stuff is made locally and by hand it costs more and people get all OMG that's a lot for a magnet! Well...whatever people. We just can't satisfy everyone there.

Like on one hand we found these adorable beans n rice cards and buttons. So not a local company but a local theme.

In terms of licensing, we do luck out there. We own everything we exhibit and therefore everything we reproduce so we don't have to pay any fees.

I've heard some similar complaints about NoMa here. The gift shop is outdated. Same with the race track here which is over a hundred years old and has all this amazing history yet they sell gaudy handbags. I think its who is running the place and how long they've been there.

You should see some of the Grandma inventory we're still trying to dump. Like those plastic notepads with pencils for next to the phone! OMG. Meanwhile, we do have awesome stuff from locals. Like frames made from salvaged wood of blighted properties. Ceramic miniature tombs. Jewelry etc.
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
Back when I worked there, the shop director supported her friends. We carried the ultra-expensive jewelry her friend made but weren't really open to jewelry made by other locals. She wouldn't take free stock to sell. She DID have limited space at the time so I could see being selective but the postcards she had made I would have rejected in the proof stage from licensees because the colors were WAY off. Today the postcards were just as wretched.

It must be a fine line to walk between affordable and original. Houston is a little easier because we aren't a tourist center; you're unlikely to find cheap tourist stuff anywhere near the museum. The new museum shop IS a gorgeous retail space and they had some clever items. I spend too much money whenever I'm in the Met store and I spent quite a bit at the J.P. Morgan Library and the Art Institute of Chicago. Nothing I bought in those stores was a replica of anything I saw but they were in the style of items I saw and enjoyed. I assume they must sell enough to continue stocking those items so maybe I'm the odd shopper? It wouldn't be the first time.
[identity profile] hils.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:05 pm (UTC)
If I ever come to visit you I want to go here. Just so you know ;)
Mish: D/C -- By Your Side[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
I would definitely take you. I'm happy to say we finally have a museum that I'm proud to take guests to see.
immlass[personal profile] immlass on June 22nd, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
I haven't been through the European collection in more than passing since I came back to Texas (I think last week was the second time we've been there and we spent most of our time on the rotating exhibits), but I remember going through the European collection on a trip down from NYC and thinking how nice and quiet it was compared to the Met. I love the Met, don't get me wrong, but there are some lovely pieces in the MFAH collection, and it's nice to go in and not have 9 million people looking at something. The only places you'd ever get that in the Met, IME, was the ass-end of the Asian arts on the top floor.
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
Exactly. It was painful to see one tiny section of an Assyrian panels rather than the Met's whole room of them but the upside was the European painting galleries. I loved how few people were there at museum's opening this morning. It was like having the galleries to ourselves. Classes of kids started filtering in this afternoon but the morning was a lovely dead spot. Mom and I were discussing things without having to whisper or worry about disturbing other visitors.
[identity profile] shadownyc.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
It sounds like the museum has really been maintained as a beautiful state-of-the-art facility. Maybe I'll get to see it someday.
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 22nd, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
The building is only 10 years old and, iirc, more than tripled the exhibition space. I was an employee there when the building was being planned and built but foolishly never went back to see it when it was completed. I'm kicking myself.

I hope that you get a chance to see it. The collections are somewhat uneven (some are deep and amazing, others are sparse) but the building is world-class and a lot of the new accessions are, too.
[identity profile] drelmo.livejournal.com on June 23rd, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)
I've seen the Rembrandt "young girl" but as I recall the other one was off exhibit -- which is it?
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 23rd, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
I don't know the title. Now I feel stupid. The tags in there were barren so I didn't even bother to read the wall tag.

It was a painting of a slightly older gentleman; he's hanging on the opposite side of the doorway as the girl. I found the girl to be a far more interesting painting but my eye is not developed ("I know what I like" is my motto) so probably he's a more important painting in the art world. I'm going back sometime soon when Amy's free so I'll look and report back with the title if you haven't already gone to see it.
Mish[identity profile] hsapiens.livejournal.com on June 23rd, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Then one I saw was the first, Portrait of a Man. I didn't see the Minerva portrait. It wasn't hung with the other two but I didn't get to finish the European paintings galleries, either. It was just too much to see in my one visit. Annoying -- but exciting because I'm thrilled we finally have a multi-day museum in our own city. 'Course, we've had it for a decade and I was just too ridiculous to notice. But I know now and am very happy for this.