Visual Art

How the Menil Collection Preserves Its Artwork

Plus, six exhibits to enrich your mind and soul.

By Morgan Kinney August 26, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dodson examines a damaged piece at the Menil.

In some ways, working at the Menil has ruined museums for Kari Dodson. As part of the team responsible for maintaining and preserving the museum’s precious holdings, the associate objects conservator now finds herself as preoccupied with the way art is installed as the work itself. “What is the best way to display or store the object? Is it sensitive to light? Will it fade? What’s the sensitivity of the material to moisture? I’m just asking myself a million questions along the way,” Dodson explains.

Conservation is a funny business, requiring tools both mundane (brushes and cameras) and seemingly straight out of science fiction (vacuums “that look like R2-D2,” scanning electron microscopy). Sometimes improvisation is in order, as with the zero-oxygen capsule the conservator designed to rid wooden sculptures of insect eggs and larvae. Dodson, who trained as a physical anthropologist, loves the challenge of working with new materials and determining the best way to approach a problem.

There’s also the satisfaction of preserving the physical legacy of pieces ranging from ancient African woodwork to contemporary plastic sculpture—each of which, she assures us, is equally susceptible to the elements. “Everything is slowly deteriorating—that’s not even a question,” Dodson says. “Our job is to make sure the objects in the collection are kept in the right condition to be preserved into the future.”

Season Standouts

Mapa Wiya: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Fondation OpaleThe Menil Collection | Sept. 13-Feb. 2

With a title that translates as “Your Map’s Not Needed,” this sprawling exhibition counters centuries of colonial influence with paintings, sculptures, and objects from contemporary Aboriginal artists on loan from Switzerland’s Fondation Opale.

The Codex Silex Vallis (The Silicon Valley Codex)Lawndale Art Center | Sept. 21-Dec. 22

This site-specific wallpaper installation from San Antonio’s Michael Menchaca fuses cell phones with the artist’s long-running use of animal archetypes. The vibrant end result explores how Silicon Valley’s tech industry has infiltrated everyday Latino family customs.

OBJECTS: REDUX—How 50 Years Made Craft ContemporaryHouston Center for Contemporary Craft | Sept. 28-Jan. 5

This year marks half a century since the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s seminal OBJECTS: USA exhibition, which showcased the country’s foremost furniture designers, woodworkers, and glass artists. HCCC’s follow-up features some of the original objects from that show, along with an updated range of items highlighting innovative techniques while exploring the newfound emphasis on craft as a tool for social justice.

Berthe Morisot: an Impressionist OriginalMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston | Oct. 20-Jan. 12

Impressionism calls to mind marquee names like Monet, Degas, and Renoir, but Berthe Morisot played an oft-forgotten role in the movement’s founding and development. This international traveling exhibition, a four-institution collaboration, gathers 40 of the artist’s best figure paintings and portraits.

Beatriz González: A RetrospectiveMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston | Oct. 27-Jan. 20

Although this retrospective will be the Colombian artist’s first major show in the United States, the 80-year-old is internationally celebrated for her vibrant pop art, which addresses the violent political and social history of her country. More than 100 works, pulled from González’s personal collection and elsewhere—including paintings, decorated curtains, and recycled furniture sculptures—will be on display.

Nari Ward: We the PeopleContemporary Arts Museum Houston | Thru Nov. 30

With its namesake piece using thousands of multicolored shoelaces to conjure the powerful preamble to the Constitution, this exhibition from Harlem-based Ward uses recycled materials to grapple with urgent issues of gentrification, race, and national identity. 

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