See Modern Art in Houston

1. Where to Stay

The Hotel ZaZaPhoto: Courtesy of Hotel ZaZa

The highly theatrical Hotel ZaZa (from $189), opening June 4, is located in trendy Montrose, right next to the Museum of Fine Arts. Give yourself some Texas street cred by booking the Outlaw suite, loaded with distressed furniture, cowhide-covered chairs, and all kinds of spurs.

A seventeen-minute ride from Montrose on Houston’s new light rail, the three-year-old Hotel Icon (from $139) is housed in an imposing former bank building made luxurious by velvet davenports, ginger-jar lamps, and rich brocades. After a day of melting in the heat, grab a seat in the Icon bar and order a smoking-cool, dry-ice cosmo.

Near Houston’s swank Galleria mall, about fifteen minutes by car from the museum district, the sleek Hotel Derek (from $139) caters to the design-minded, with loftlike rooms, crisp, modern accents, and a Jeffrey Beer–designed restaurant (bistro moderne) crowned by a massive bull’s head.

2. Where to Eat

From left, the tequila-ready bar at Hugo's; outside t'afia. Photo: From left, courtesy of Paula Murphy, Sharon Engelstein

Gear up for a day of art-gazing by putting back a Bloody Mary and spinach eggs Benedict at Empire Café. Or grab coffee and pastries and listen to live jazz on the sunny patio at the nearby Café Brasil (2604 Dunlavy St.; 713-528-1993).

On the border of Montrose, Julia’s Bistro serves southwestern and South American food in a tropically hued dining room. Sit by the windows to watch the light rail in action. Nearby, t’afia, a great tapas and wine bar—and the site of a Saturday farmer’s market—pairs well-chosen wines with free, market-fresh appetizers at happy hour (Tuesday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.).

Join Houston’s A-list—everyone from Astros managers to opera singers to ex-presidents—for dinner at Hugo’s, five minutes from Montrose. Admire the Deco décor, then settle at one of the round tables for chef Hugo Ortega’s house-made moles and flights of tequilas.

3. What to Do

The Menil CollectionPhoto: Courtesy of the Menil Collection

Local oil baroness Dominique de Menil nourished the careers of Robert Rauschenberg, Max Ernst, and many other artists here, but her most lasting legacy is the free-admission Menil Collection, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year with an impressive bequest by David Whitney. The exhibit, running through October 28, 2007, includes rarely seen works on paper by Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenberg.

A quarter of a mile south, in the heart of Montrose, a newly built arts complex at 4411 Montrose Boulevard houses five of Houston’s top galleries. They’re all worth checking out, but don’t miss two: the Barbara Davis Gallery, known for showcasing works from major names like Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, and Kiki Smith; and the Anya Tish Gallery, which draws heavily on Russian and Eastern European artists. Just down the street is the excellent McClain Gallery, which follows up a current Louise Nevelson retrospective (through June 10, 2007) with a pair of summer exhibitions featuring recent works from China and tile fabrications and drawings from the Italian-American sculptor Renee Lotenero. About two miles away, on Main Street—another gallery row—hit the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which displays a striking array of found-art sculptures, and the Inman Gallery, a proving ground for New York–bound artists like Dana Frankfort and Brent Steen.

Another must-visit fifteen minutes to the east: Project Row Houses, a live-work community in the largely African-American Third Ward neighborhood. Twenty-two traditional shotgun cottages are preserved for local artists and artisans, creating unconventional gallery space for their photos, sculptures, and prints. And don’t leave town without stopping at the Live Oak Friends Meeting, whose simple frame also holds an extraordinary James Turrell sky piece, best seen at dusk or dawn.

4. Insider’s Tip

Buffalo Bayou Park Photo: Courtesy of Greater Houston CVB

It might seem counterintuitive to rent bikes in oil-mad Houston, but it’s a great way to get around Montrose, which is sandwiched between three of the city’s main green spots: Buffalo Bayou, Memorial Park, and the Rice University campus. Rent wheels ($40 a day) at West End Bicycles in Montrose, a two-minute ride from Memorial Park. Then head off to peruse the grand homes and cottages along North and South Boulevards, and circle the beautifully landscaped campus of the Menil. End up at the newly renovated Memorial Park at sunset, and watch the Houston skyline light up.

5. An Oddball Day

Aurora Picture ShowPhoto: Courtesy of Kenny Haner

Though Houston’s loaded with works by art-world heavyweights, there’s also a thriving grassroots scene. Start hunting for new wall purchases at Domy Books in Montrose, where you can find bargain drawings from local artists and ongoing movies and art installations on the patio. The edgy, campy DiverseWorks Art Space, housed in a warehouse near a knot of freeways to the east, specializes in collaborative performance-art pieces and mixed-media installations. Be sure to buy something from the Art-O-Mat, $5, and pick up a calendar to find out about upcoming barbecues and performances at satellite spaces around town. For evening entertainment, head over to the Aurora Picture Show, three miles north in Houston Heights, where you can watch avant-garde film series like the Extremely Shorts festival (June 30–July 1), featuring videos under three minutes. Finish up by trekking back to Montrose to the West Alabama Ice House (1919 W. Alabama St.; 713-528-6874), an artist-friendly dive with a no-frills vibe, a great patio, and cold, cold beers.

6. Related Links

The online arts journal Glasstire lists art happenings throughout Texas.

The city’s main alternative newspaper, the Houston Press, is the go-to site for entertainment listings.

Texas Monthly, the self-dubbed “national magazine of Texas,” is the rare regional glossy that covers national politics and local news with the same panache.

Local hipster Sean Morrissey Carroll’s B.S. blog casts a scholarly eye on the Houston arts scene.

See Modern Art in Houston