20th Century and Contemporary, American History, Museums/Exhibits

Art and Activism

John and Dominique de Menil were not convinced about Max Ernst. In 1934, they planned to ask him to paint a mural in their home, but after seeing his work, wanted an excuse to retract the offer. Instead, they asked him merely for a portrait of Dominique and then forgot about it until they were able to return to Paris after the war. By the time they returned to Europe, they knew enough about Max Ernst to realize they had a long-lost treasure in their old apartment. In the decades following the war, the de Menils would become one of Ernst’s patrons and champions.

As noted in Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Laureen Schipsi, the de Menils sometimes needed to be convinced of an upcoming artist’s potential or the value of a certain work of art. There is an art to art collecting, so the middle-aged couple, who had not originally planned on becoming collectors, carefully learned the trade. Although their early years of purchasing art made John and Dominique feel as though they were permitting themselves “guilty indulgences or pleasures,” collecting was especially foreign to the Puritan-raised Dominique. She suggested she “inherited the craving” for collecting from her mother and grandmother, “frustrated collectors” who had passed to Dominique an aversion to unnecessary expenses.

However, no one had to convince the couple to become social activists, and once they settled in Houston, they committed themselves to sponsoring and raising awareness of artistic and architectural projects and education. The influence of their work was and is impossibly far-reaching, but the individuals they helped remembered them as spiritual and humble. Deloyd Parker, co-founder of SHAPE (Self-Help for African People through Education), recalls that while John de Menil provided financial assistance to his program, the benefactor made no stipulations about how the money should be used. Alivia J. Wardlaw remembers watching the “warzone” that Texas Southern University became on May 17, 1967, during the police’s abusive crackdown of a riot at a predominantly African-American school. She points out that John de Menil anonymously paid the legal fees for five students charged with murder and also rented buses to take members of the community and university to the trial. Even the de Menils’ collection was a conscious effort to increase others’ welfare. They considered art “a basic human necessity,” not something to be monopolized by the rich, and intended their art to educate generations that came long after them.

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