Arts / Galleries

The Mistress of The Menil: The Surprising Story of the Woman At the Front Desk of the World’s Most Vaunted Jewel-Box Museum

photography Jack Thompson

Thelma Smith does not hold showy academic honors or boast a high-profile history of curatorial accomplishments or museum directorships. Nonetheless, her role in the Texas art world and the American museum realm is significant: This pleasant, intelligent woman oversees the front desk of one of the world’s most vaunted museums, The Menil Collection.

Over coffee and a subsequent email conversation, we queried Miz Smith about her journey to be the Menil’s most visible person — its official greeter — and sought insider tales about its legendary founder, Dominique de Menil.

North Carolina-born Smith and her husband, sculptor George Smith, moved to Houston in 1981 when he was offered a teaching professorship at Rice. The mother of three (including artist Kaneem Smith) attended colleges and universities in North Carolina, New York and Houston; she modestly describes herself as a “perpetual student.”

Her entry into the Menil culture began after a stint as secretary to the head of the Houston Public Library system.

Thelma Smith mans the front desk of The Menil Collection.

“I first worked at the Menil at the Houston publication office for the Image of the Black in Western Art for about a year while the museum was being built across the street,” she says. “Next I worked at Rothko Chapel from about 1986 to 1998. When the chapel closed for renovations, in 1998, I began working at the Menil as a gallery attendant, which was the only position available at the time. I began at the front desk about a year after Winfrey Purington retired [2006].”

With the official title of visitor/ membership associate, Smith has been one of the museum’s longest-serving presences at the understated entrance, ready with a calm word of encouragement or acting as a Sherpa to the galleries and rotating exhibitions.

She first met Mrs. de Menil in 1981, when George Smith began his tenure at Rice; the couple was invited to a reception at the patroness’ home for photojournalist Gordon Parks.

Of her former boss, the museum’s namesake founder, she says, “I had never met anyone like her. Such a special person, who exemplified grace, dignity and respect for others. I was impressed by what seemed to me her belief that the world could be a better place, and she actually did her part in that pursuit.”

She shares her favorite Mrs. de Menil anecdote: “One day I was working in the chapel when Mrs. de Menil entered. A young man was lying down on one of the benches inside, and I quickly went over to the bench and began to ask him to get up. By that time, Mrs. D. was walking through the entrance, and realizing what I was doing, she shook her head “No.” I understood immediately that she did not want me to disturb him on her behalf.

“I also remember once she, Mrs. Nabila Drooby [board member], and Suna Umari [attendant and later historian] walked into the chapel when a woman was sitting on the center cushion. They began a conversation. As they continued their conversation, the woman turned around and went, “Shh.” Mrs. D. quietly got up from the bench where she was sitting, and they all went outside. Just a couple of examples of the respect she had for others.”

Most memorable visitor? Smith refuses to single out one, drop a celebrity name or mention art-world luminati; instead, she is impressed by those who make a pilgrimage from parts of the world as far-flung as Tasmania and return more than once.

“So many people who visit the Menil are memorable,” Smith says. “I especially appreciate those who come back to the desk to tell me how much they enjoyed their visit, using words like ‘amazing,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘special.’ I graciously accept all these accolades in honor of Mrs. de Menil.”

About her job, Smith says, “Behind these walls are some of the most beautiful, most important, most amazing works of art in art history. Yet, the museum is not unapproachable, nor exhausting. You visit the Menil, and you are refreshed.”

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