How Texas Art Museums Weathered the Storm

Damage at the Rockport Center for the Arts

While the SE coast of the US prepares for the onslaught of Hurricane Irma, let us not too quickly forget about Harvey and its effect on the Gulf coast of Texas.

Hurricane Harvey generated more than 50 inches of rain over some parts of Texas, producing floodwaters so heavy that, according to a NASA scientist, Houston temporarily sank 2 cms.

Flooding from the relentless rain affected many of Houston’s cultural institutions, especially in the city’s Theater District, but the good news is that only one art museum — further along the coast, in Rockport, where Harvey made landfall — sustained significant damage. All the major art museums in the Houston area seem to have borne the brunt of the storm well.

Houston’s susceptibility to flooding means that the museums have emergency protocols in place, including sandbags, emergency water pump stations, and floodgate activation to help protect the buildings. A major museum, like the Museum of Fine Arts, has a 24/7 emergency team (including engineers, art handlers, and IT specialists) that remained on site at the main campus to monitor the situation for the duration of the storm.

Advance warning of the storm gave museums’ staff time to move potentially vulnerable artwork to a safer location. The Galveston Arts Center de-installed and secured all their artwork in a second-floor vault and galleries. Outdoor sculptures, of which Houston has a good number, were largely left in place, by necessity, and little information about how they fared is available yet.

While this is not a complete report about the status of all the museums in the area, it is heartening to know that the major art museums’ facilities and collections are reportedly intact.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — According to a museum spokesman, the main campus of the MFAHouston suffered no significant damage, and the collections are safe. The MFAH’s satellite museums, the Rienzi and Bayou Bend — which hold American and European decorative arts, respectively — did have some flooding in the gardens, but the houses and their collections are fine. The museum’s main campus reopened Tuesday, September 5th. Gary Tinterow, Director of the MFAH, has offered the museum “as a place for reflection and renewal.”

The Menil Collection — The Menil reports that Harvey did not impact the museum’s buildings or collection. Museum Director Rebecca Rabinow reported that the buildings are in “great shape” following her walk-through the morning after. The Menil reopened to the public on September 1st.

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston — The Contemporary Arts Museum reopened Thursday, August 31, and has resumed regular hours and programming, having determined there was no structural damage to the facility. In an email to the Huffington Post, a spokesperson said, “The building was braced for flooding with water barriers and sandbags. In addition, our registrar’s team de-installed our downstairs exhibition and moved it to the upstairs space.”

The Blaffer Art Museum — After an initial assessment, Deputy Director James Rosengren said it appeared that there was no wind or water damage to the Blaffer Art Museum which is on the University of Houston campus, in a part of the city that did not flood. “Storms like this can be so unpredictable and fickle,” he said. “In this case, the museum dodged any damage to its infrastructure or to exhibitions on view.”

Rothko Chapel — Rothko Chapel in Houston reported no damage resulting from the flood. Alison Pruitt, director of operations, said the Chapel had reopened its doors “so that those in need of solace can gather and come together during the road to recovery ahead.”

The Galveston Arts Center — The Galveston Arts Center postponed the scheduled opening date for its three new special exhibitions from August 26th to September 9, but reported “doing very well under the current circumstances”.

The CGA learned a crucial lesson in 2008 when Hurricane Ike, which brought around 13 feet of rain to the area, left the ground floor ― and the exhibition displayed in it ― completely ruined. Art valued at more than $100,000 was ruined, and the storm caused upward of $1 million in damage to the historic, 19th-century structure. Dating to 1886, the building was originally a bank. When the museum was rebuilt, the bank vaults were retained to be used as “safe rooms” for artwork. You can read about how the Galveston Art Center prepared for Harvey in this Smithsonian Magazine article.

The Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi — The museum’s preparedness served them well, and despite their Internet access and phone lines still being down, AMST reopened its galleries to the public on Thursday, August 31.

The Rockport Center for the Arts — The Rockport Center for the Arts, standing a few feet from Aransas Bay, near Corpus Christi, south of Houston, sustained serious damage, despite having been boarded up. The chilling image of the exterior damage suggests the extent of the interior destruction that occurred when the roof was ripped off by the 130 miles-per-hour wind.

According to Luis Purón, Executive Director, most of the outdoor sculptures appear intact, although a triptych was blown over, and a large portion of the roof was scattered across the Sculpture Garden.

The Rockport Center for the Arts is not one of America’s major museums, but the damage it experienced represents a significant loss to the community. We wish them the very best as they rebuild — as we hope they will.

And as our attention swings to the Southeast coast as it braces for Irma, we can only hope that the museums there will fare as well as did most of the museums along the Gulf in Texas.

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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