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Arts / Museums

The Menil’s New Woman in Charge

America’s Most-Watched Museum Director Opens Up on the Challenges of Her Houston Return

BY // 05.26.16

We posed four questions to Dr. Rebecca Rabinow, The Menil Collection’s newly appointed director — the first woman to helm this very vaunted, world-renowned museum. Over email, we caught up with the Houston-raised scholar, who arrives from a plum spot at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a parallel path set by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s director Gary Tinterow, who was once a curatorial colleague of Rabinow’s at The Met.

The new director, the fifth ever for the museum, assumes the reins during a transformative time at the Menil. She succeeds Dr. Josef Helfenstein, who restored the equilibrium disrupted by Dominque de Menil’s death, and after 12 successful years returned to his native Switzerland to become director of Kunstmuseum Basel. Rabinow takes over on the eve of the Menil’s 30th anniversary, set to be celebrated with a gala in November 2017, and 12 months before the eagerly watched Menil Drawing Institute opens, an occasion that will inaugurate Houston’s fall art season in September 2017.

Did you grow up surrounded by art? Are your parents collectors?

My parents did not collect art when I was a child, but they did make sure that my sister and I were exposed to a wide variety of it, both at local museums and farther afield. They began to collect contemporary trompe l’oeil around the time I left for college. Now their walls (and mine) also showcase photographs taken by my mother, Kathryn Rabinow, who recently had an exhibition of her work here at The Jung Center.

Teacher who first got you excited about art history.

I attended St. John’s School from ninth through 12th grades. At the time, the school offered an AP art history class taught by Marion Vokey, whom I remember as an inspiring presence. Most of us were absolutely passionate about the subject. We had many fascinating discussions, perhaps a few too many, because when the school year concluded, we still had a century of art left to learn. The result (for me at least) was a so-so AP score coupled with a certainty that I wanted to learn more. The excellent art history program and museum at Smith College (in Northampton, Massachusetts) was my next step.

 How long did you think about the decision to return to Houston and become the Menil’s next director?

My current position as Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art and curator-in-charge of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at The Metropolitan Museum is challenging, creative and deeply rewarding. I was not looking to leave The Met. It is so much a part of me, and I have devoted so much time and energy to it, but how do you not take a call from the Menil? The Menil has been one of my favorite museums ever since it opened 29 years ago.

It is an incredibly special place: beautiful spaces with spectacular art displayed with great care, public parks with live oak trees, intellectually stimulating programming and a staff of the highest caliber. When Dominique de Menil dedicated the museum in 1987, she proclaimed, “Houston, this is your museum,” and in that spirit, the museum has always been and will always be free to every visitor, something that I feel is so important. I am incredibly honored to have been chosen to join the Menil and carry the founders’ vision into the 21st century. So how long did I have to think about whether to accept the job? Not a second; it feels absolutely right. And I am delighted to return to Houston, a city that has changed so much over the past 30 years. I will have the great good fortune of discovering it anew.

Have you and Gary Tinterow collaborated before? Are you open to shared future collaborations?

I have known Gary Tinterow for years and am one of his biggest fans. He and his Met colleague Susan Stein hired me to join The Met while I was in grad school. I am very much looking forward to working with him and his colleagues at the MFAH, as well as with institutions across the city. In fact, within 24 hours of the announcement of my appointment to The Menil, my in-box was flooded with notes from colleagues across the United States and Europe expressing interest in collaborating on projects. What a testament to the collections of the Menil and the high caliber of its curators!

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