My Montrose: Josef Helfenstein, The Menil Collection
Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection for the past 12 years, recently announced that he was leaving the museum after this year to become the director of the Kunstmuseum Basel.
What are you proudest of accomplishing at the Menil?
There are a couple of very, very big things that will be relevant after I’m gone. Probably the most important thing is the strategic plan, which the museum never had before. When I arrived, there was a lot of anxiety about where the museum should go. And there were very basic questions like, should the museum collect? If so, how? Should the museum expand? Should the museum continue to acquire property? After we developed the strategy, we hired David Chipperfield Architects to create a campus master plan, and that led to our current expansion and the construction of the Menil Drawing Institute, which is underway.
In addition to being museum director, you were also a curator at the Menil. What show were you happiest with?
Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence [which ran from October 2014 to February 2015] was a very unusual and very ambitious one. It was a big collective effort—I had been working on the show for decades, but in the end you need a great staff to realize it. It was an almost utopian effort to reach out and bring many segments of the hugely diverse Houston community together. We worked with more than two dozen cultural institutions. What made me the most happy is that it was very well attended, with many young people and many people I had never seen before. It was a very diverse visitorship.
By coincidence the show happened to coincide with the aftermath of Ferguson and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was kind of unbelievable the way everything happened. All those events came up in our programming and they were discussed on panels held at the museum. I never wanted this to just be a historical project, so I’m glad that it was so relevant to current events.
You have an eight-month research sabbatical before you start your new position as director of the Kunstmuseum Basel. What will you do?
I’ll be doing research at an interdisciplinary think tank in Basel. It will be wonderful do research for eight months, and also to do some traveling, reconnect with colleagues and institutions in Europe. And I’ll be preparing for the new job.
You live in Montrose, not far from the Menil. What will you miss about the neighborhood when you move to Switzerland?
I love Montrose. And of course the Menil is in the heart of Montrose, and in a way we’re as much a neighborhood museum as we are a world-class, global institution. And I think that’s what museums should always be. You need to matter in your immediate surroundings. The Menil has an almost humble presence in the neighborhood—it does not impose itself. It’s not too big. It doesn’t dwarf other houses. So that’s what’s great about Montrose—you have museums, you have university campuses, you have very diverse people here, a lot of young people, a lot of small businesses. I’ll be very sad when I leave, because I’ll never find that again anywhere.