The real Menil

September 2008 | It would be hard to refute the art world consensus that the most admired collector of the second half of the twentieth century was Dominique de Menil (Fig. 6), the French-born heiress to the Schlumberger oil drilling equipment fortune, whose eponymous private museum of 1982 to 1986, designed for her adopted hometown of Houston by Renzo Piano (1937–), is as universally esteemed as its founder. In the centennial year of Menil’s birth, her status as aesthetic visionary and high priestess of art only continues to rise.

Menil died just weeks after the opening of Frank Gehry’s Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, which set off a disastrous redirection of museums worldwide. In retrospect she seems the personification of values that now appear nearly extinct, as speculators see art only as an investment and museums act as vehicles for civic and corporate marketing.

With the authority of those born to wealth, the incorruptible Menil rejected the commercialism that has spread from the art market and infected once-sacrosanct institutions like a plague. She disdained the trendy and superficial, championed the arcane and challenging, considered philanthropy used for self-promotion to be not merely vulgar but immoral, and felt that museums that stooped to anything to attract ever-larger audiences betrayed a sacred trust.“Art is what lifts us above daily life,” she wrote, in the most succinct summary of her aesthetic philosophy. “It makes us more open, more human, more refined, and even more intelligent.”

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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