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Arts / Museums

Man at the Menil Helm Moves On

Josef Helfenstein’s Next Chapter

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 07.02.15

In major American art world news, The Menil Collection has just announced that director Josef Helfenstein is departing to return to Switzerland, his home country, where he will assume the directorship of the museum where his career began, the Kunstmuseum Basel. Texas art audiences were caught by surprise by the release that arrived this week from Houston’s vaunted private institution, which Helfenstein has helmed since January 2004.

In addition to doubling attendance and increasing the museum’s endowment by more than 54 percent, Helfenstein’s tenure brought remarkable stability to the Menil and restored its timber to that of the unerring institution that houses a 16,000-piece collection assiduously assembled by the late Dominique and John de Menil. (The museum seemed to founder for a while after the death of Dominique de Menil in 1997 and during the 2000-2001 tenure of Ned Rifkin, who, although praised for his exhibitions, did not perfectly mesh with the culture of the Menil.)

The museum found an extraordinary match in the erudite, soft-spoken and private Helfenstein, whose demeanor and connoisseurship are always impeccable — a man who would no doubt have pleased the Menil’s founders, were they still with us. It will be difficult to find a replacement for Helfenstein, who steered the museum towards its new Menil Drawing Institute (arriving 2017) while opening up the campus to more diverse visitors, including the many members of Gen Y who fill it every weekend or recline and read in its serenely verdant surrounding acres.

Then there was Helfenstein the curator, who gave us a litany of nuanced, exquisite exhibitions, from the under-known Rauschenberg cardboards to explorations of outsider voices such as Bill Traylor, as well as a peek into the seminal early work of Magritte and what turned out to be his extraordinary swan song: “Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence” — one of the epicenters of the Texas art world last fall. Follow our slideshow for more Helfenstein highlights.

Josef Helfenstein’s arrival in 2004 was met with great hope, which he more than fulfilled. Here’s PaperCity’s exclusive profile in the months after his arrival, which appeared in the November 2004 issue.
Josef Helfenstein’s arrival in 2004 was met with great hope, which he more than fulfilled. Above, PaperCity’s profile in the months after his arrival, which appeared in the November 2004 issue.

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