An Expert’s Guide to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
If you want to trace the entirety of art history, there are plenty of places around the world to go, from the British Museum in London to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. But all that travel would be a hassle, and why bother when Houston’s own museums have so much to offer?
Sprawling across Main Street, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) anchors the city’s Museum District, offering an endless array of touring and temporary exhibitions, along with a staggering permanent collection of nearly 70,000 works of art that rivals other large museums in cities across the globe. And that’s just its Museum District location—MFAH’s Bayou Bend Collection and Rienzi, both in River Oaks, are also terrific spots to explore.
So, where to begin? Our guide here should help you plan your experience.
Where is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston?
The museum’s Susan and Fayez S. Sarofim campus is located at 1001 Bissonnet Street in the Museum District. The campus has three main buildings: the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, and the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. The campus includes the Cullen Sculpture Garden and the Glassell School of Art. The museum also owns the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens at 6003 Memorial Drive and Rienzi at 1406 Kirby Drive.
That sounds like a lot. How do I know where to begin and what the must-sees are?
Start at the Sarofim Campus, where both the Beck Building and the Law Building have changing exhibits and permanent collections. On view through Sept. 4, Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish in the Law Building is a walk-through installation that brings together two pieces, Pixel Forest, an immersive array of LED lights, and Worry Will Vanish, a video projection through the natural world. The Law Building will also host Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Pearlman Foundation, which opens May 21, and brings together works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and more. The museum offers a special ticket package for these two exhibits that also allows you to stroll the main galleries.
While you’re in the Law Building, don’t miss the New Galleries for Art of the Islamic World, which opened earlier this year and features 6,000 square feet devoted to art from present-day Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, dating from the seventh through nineteenth centuries and including paintings, books, ceramics, metalware, and more. The new galleries allow MFAH to showcase several objects in its collection that have never been seen before. The building is also home to Asian, African, Islamic, Native American, Pacific Islander, Australian, and Pre-Columbian art.
Beginning June 10, you can explore Woven Wonders: Indian Textiles from the Parpia Collection in the Beck Building. The pieces are from one of the most significant private collections of Indian textiles outside of India, and showcase the country’s wide range of artistic traditions. The Beck Building holds the MFAH’s collection of ancient art, European art, photography, prints and drawings, and American art through the mid-twentieth century. It’s also where you can find Spanish Viceregal Paintings from the Thoma Collection, which explores Spain’s influence over Latin American art from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.
In the Kinder Building, you’ll see the museum’s international collections of contemporary and modern art. Stroll through the Cullen Sculpture Garden to see works by Louise Bourgeois, Pietro Consagra, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Auguste Rodin, and David Smith.
For the most up-to-date details on what’s showing at the museum, visit the Now on View page of MFAH’s website.
Is all of this self-guided or does the museum offer tours?
All of the galleries and exhibits at MFAH can be enjoyed at your own pace, and the curator notes next to the artworks are excellent at providing additional context about the artist, the work’s themes, and the world it came from. The museum also offers drop-in tours and gallery talks that can provide a deeper experience. They’re listed on the MFAH calendar.
Hey, wait. It looks like they show movies, too?
Yes! The museum’s small theater shows some excellent retrospectives, along with contemporary independent and foreign films. You can usually catch the shorts that are nominated for Oscars prior to the Academy Awards. Check out the film calendar to plan your visit.
OK, and what about those other places you mentioned?
Rienzi is home to the MFAH’s collection of European decorative arts, housed in an important Houston home designed in 1926 by architect John Staub. Self-guided and docent-led tours are available, and there are special events throughout the year. The Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens is on the former estate of Ima Hogg, one of the city’s noted philanthropists. Nestled on 14 acres, you can wander the grounds and check out the extensive collection of furniture, silver, ceramics, and paintings. During the holidays, Bayou Bend hosts carolers and moonlit tours.
That sounds like a lot to see and do! How much does it cost?
General admission, which gives you access to the permanent collections, is $19 for adults, $12 for youth ages 13 to 18, and free for children 12 and under. Seniors 65 and older have a discounted admission of $16. If you’re a Bank of America customer, you can get free admission on the first Saturday or Sunday of each month by showing your credit card to the ticket agents. On Thursdays, general admission is free for everyone. Special exhibits have their own ticket prices, depending on the show; admission to the permanent collection is covered in the purchase price. Film admission is $9 ($10 for film festivals held at the MFAH). Parking will set you back $10 for visits between 31 minutes and four hours.
Memberships to the museum start at $70 for individuals, with pricing available for couples and families, along with multiple levels of sponsorships. The membership is good for a year and allows you to visit as many times as you like, and includes parking discounts along with free or discounted admission to special exhibits. It’s a fantastic way to keep exploring this Houston gem.
When is the best time to go?
The MFAH is open Sunday from 12:30 to 6 p.m., Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Monday and Tuesday). Head there on a Thursday for free admission and stick around for happy hour from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The museum can get crowded on weekends, so getting there when it opens or about two hours prior to closing can help avoid crowds. If you’re able, weekday visits are a great option.
Where can I eat?
The MFAH offers two options where you can recharge and chat with friends and family about the art you’ve seen. Café Leonelli is a casual spot for Italian-influenced focaccias, salads, sandwiches, coffees, and desserts, along with a selection of wine and beer. The upscale Le Jardinier has quickly become one of the city’s must-visit restaurants, offering lunch and dinner that blends French cuisine with seasonal panache.