Modern vision | US Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Museums Association

Modern vision | US Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

An impressive project in the midst of a pandemic. By Simon Stephens
Profile image for Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens
Installation view of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Cromosaturación MFAH, Paris 1965 / Houston 2017 Photo by Thomas Dubrock, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Large-scale construction projects are always complex, but the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH) faced more than the usual challenges in the development of a new building to house its international collections of modern and contemporary art.

Despite a pandemic, a hurricane and several tropical storms, the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building opened on 21 November last year, just a few weeks later than planned. The project marked the completion of the expansion and redevelopment of the 14-acre Sarofim Campus, the largest cultural expansion project in North America at the time.

The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building from above © Richard Barnes, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Kinder building was designed by Steven Holl Architects as the third gallery building on MFAH’s campus – the other two are designed by the architects Mies van der Rohe and Rafael Moneo.

The new galleries in the Kinder building include painting, sculpture, craft and design, video and immersive installations. A flexible black-box gallery at the street-level entry of the Kinder building is devoted to immersive installations. The second-floor galleries highlight the strengths of the collection, with spaces dedicated to the history of photography; decorative arts, craft and design; prints and drawings; European and American 20th-century painting and sculpture; and Latin American modernism.

There are significant works by Alice Neel, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Miró, among many others. The Latin American modernism displays feature Joaquín Torres-García, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Francisco Matto and Julio Alpuy. Key photographers in the collection include Robert Frank, Zanele Muholi, Julia Margaret Cameron and Thomas Struth.


The third-floor galleries feature thematic exhibitions, with five inaugural installations presenting art from the 1960s onward. Collectivity explores interdisciplinary works that focus on a sense of community; Colour into Light showcases the role that colour has played for artists in the US, Latin America, and Europe; LOL! features more than 50 works that use humour; Border, Mapping, Witness considers maps and borders in geographic, social and political terms; and Line into Space examines how artists have explored line in multiple media, from paper to jewellery and furniture.

Why was the new building needed?

Gary Tinterow: The building is dedicated to the most rapidly growing area of our collection: modern and contemporary art. Our capacity to collect in that area increased in 2004 when we received a $400m bequest from the philanthropist and trustee Caroline Wiess Law, for acquisitions in modern and contemporary art. The museum has never had the space to present these collections in depth until now, as the building increases overall MFAH gallery space by 75%.

A view of the building from the sculpture garden; Ai Weiwei’s Dragon Reflection, 2019-20© Richard Barnes; Photo by Thomas Dubrock, both courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
How does the Kinder building integrate with the existing structures?

It is the final component in our multi-year redevelopment of our Sarofim Campus, which includes the Glassell School of Art and Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center, both of which opened in 2018. Steven Holl Architects designed the Kinder building to stand in complementary contrast to the two existing gallery buildings, as well as create a dialogue with Isamu Noguchi’s Cullen Sculpture Garden.

What have been the challenges of completing the project in the pandemic?

Fortunately, we were able to carry on albeit with adjustments to the size of crews on site. Our primary issues were with supply-chain delays and having to pivot – such as sourcing wood flooring domestically, when imported flooring was not an option.

Did the pandemic lead to any changes in the development?

We had to delay our opening date from 1 November to 21 November, but we did not need to adjust the design in any way, given the generous spaces of Steven Holl’s architecture.

Installation view of Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two, 2019–2020 Photo by Thomas Dubrock, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

How were the site-specific commissioned artworks chosen and developed?

There are eight commissions. We added Jason Salavon to the roster of international artists – Ai Weiwei, Byung Hoon Choi, Cristina Iglesias, Carlos Cruz-Diez, El Anatsui, Olafur Eliasson and Trenton Doyle Hancock. The works are located at strategic points of the campus that mark moments of transition. I commissioned them in collaboration with our curators.

What are the key strengths of your collections?

The MFAH houses some 72,000 works spanning 6,000 years and six continents. The collection represents all mediums and historical periods, but is exceptionally strong in pre-Columbian and African gold; renaissance and baroque European painting and sculpture; French impressionism; as well as 19th- and 20th-century European and American art, international photography, and Latin American modernism.

What is the most innovative part of the project?

The biggest accomplishment was to complete the project on time and on budget. And it is rare for a new museum to open with so many impressive works of art from diverse artists.

Project data
Steven Holl Architects
Associate architect
Kendall/Heaton Associates
Project management
The Projects Group
Structural engineer
Guy Nordenson & Associates/ Cardno Haynes Whaley
MEP engineer
Climate engineer
Lighting consultant
L’Observetoire International
Facade consultant
Knippers Helbig
Adult $23, concessions $18

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.