Established in 1997 with 11 founding institutions, Houston’s Museum District has since grown to 18 museums and continues to prove invaluable to the city’s global tourism and group appeal.
Gathered within an approximate 1.5-mile radius in the heart of the city and served by four METRORail stops, the district draws more than 6.6 million visitors per year—more than Houston’s three major sports teams combined. Also working closely with the Greater Houston CVB to attract conventions and meetings, the district’s outreach programs reach more than an additional 1.6 million attendees annually.
Featuring eclectic choices ranging from the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, Houston’s museum collection (10 are free all the time) alone makes “Bayou City” a world-class cultural draw.
There’s much more to the Houston cultural conversation, though. Anchored by the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Houston’s acclaimed Theater District distinctively features year-round resident companies for symphony, opera, drama and ballet. Opened last year, the Houston Ballet’s new $53 million Center for Dance is the largest professional dance company facility of its kind in the U.S.
“Houston is clearly the cultural capital of Texas and beyond,” says Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston CVB. “With some of the best museums and performing arts companies in the country, as well as smaller emerging groups that give our heavily supported, thriving cultural scene even greater dimension, art is everywhere in Houston.”
Evidence of this abundance is found at the following eight venues, each an expression of Houston’s extended cultural “discovery zone.”
THE MENIL COLLECTION
The old saying that “the best things in life are free” never rings truer when visiting this can’t-miss Museum District oasis, set in a tree-shaded residential neighborhood of early-20th century bungalows and parks. The first building in the U.S. designed by master Italian architect Renzo Piano, the museum is “a rare and quiet gem in our bustling world,” says Vance Muse, the museum’s communications director.
The extensive art collection of philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil, widely considered one of the greatest of the 20th century, can hold your attention for hours—that the Menil is admission-free only adds to the wonder.
“Here, visitors experience art in a tranquil setting, in galleries illuminated by gentle natural light and set apart by glass garden atriums,” Muse continues. “It’s rather like being invited into someone’s home to view amazing and ever-changing displays of art.”
Groups are welcome, but on account of the Menil’s “contemplative environment,” no guided tours are provided. Call ahead if bringing more than 20 people for a visit. The Menil also features public programs and events throughout the year.
CHILDREN’S MUSEUM OF HOUSTON
Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Robert Venturi, this joyful venue is another landmark attraction in the Museum District. Innovative and engaging for all age groups, the museum is also a surprisingly affordable event destination with 90,000 square feet of interactive, state-of-the-art exhibits, including 14 galleries and space for a wide range of meetings or events.
“The strategic design of the Children’s Museum of Houston’s whimsical and vibrant building makes it an institution like no other,” says Alex Vasquez, the museum’s director of business development. “Offering several versatile meeting spaces with a creative edge, the museum is the ideal location to host your next private event.”
With a combined capacity of 2,500 guests, the Kid’s Hall and exhibition areas are complemented by the Brown Auditorium, seating groups of up to 164, and the Duncan Family Conference Room, with theater-style seating capacity of 100 guests.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON
Yet another Museum District luminary, this dynamic cultural complex, founded in 1900, has a collection of more than 56,000 works from antiquity to the present. With free admission on Thursdays, exhibits range from haute-couture fashion and Texas art to a rare collection of pre-Columbian gold and the newly opened Arts of Japan Gallery.
After satisfying a $5,000 gift to the museum through its Leadership Circle or Corporate Partner Programs, groups gain the unique benefit of staging events at the museum.
With its 30-foot ceiling and 6,800 square feet of open floor space, Cullinan Hall, accommodating up to 800 for receptions, is the museum’s largest and most flexible space for entertaining. Other spaces include the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden and 350-seat Brown Auditorium.
“Whether you are looking to host a large gathering or an intimate gathering in one of our galleries, entertaining at the museum is a magical experience,” says Linda Kuykendall, director of special events.
HOUSTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE
This Museum District heavyweight, one of the most visited museums in the U.S., takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of our planet’s past, present and future. The newly renovated Weiss Energy Hall offers immersive excursions into the world of energy, while the Hall of Palentology, holding more than 450 fossils and fossil replicas, beguilingly portrays the 3.5-billion-year story of life on Earth. The Cockrell Butterfly Center is a stunning showcase of hundreds of live butterflies in a naturalistic rainforest setting, with the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals providing the dazzle of more than 750 gems and minerals. These and other spaces, including the museum’s new facility in the nearby community of Sugar Land, are available for group rental.
HOBBY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
Anchoring Houston’s renowned Theater District, this state-of-the-art, $100 million complex is a cultural tour de force, featuring the 2,650-seat Fayez Sarofim Hall, home to Theatre Under the Stars and Broadway in Houston, and the 500-seat Selim K. Zilkha Hall, home to the Uniquely Houston Series.
“The Hobby Center offers exceptional entertainment and a cultural environment for patrons and performers alike,” says Fran Macferran, president of the Hobby Center Foundation. “With two acoustically distinguished theaters, an impressive grand lobby, a contemporary American restaurant and convenient parking, we are capable of hosting a myriad of performances and events.”
Available for receptions, seated dinners, corporate events, product launches and much more, the Hobby’s other versatile spaces include the intimate Art Deco-inspired Founder’s Club, the heavenly Sarofim Hall and the petite jewel-box Zilkha Hall.
WORTHAM THEATER CENTER
Home of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera and the site of many fine arts performances, this expansive venue, opened in 1987, is one of Houston’s most significant cultural icons. Among many starry features, the Wortham is home to a century-old chandelier salvaged from the original Helen Hayes Theater in New York City.
With flexible rental space including the 2,405-seat Brown Theater (remarkably overhung with more than three-quarters of a mile of catwalks and walkways), the 1,100-seat Cullen Theater and the sumptuous Grand Foyer, the Wortham also enjoys a convenient location for planners and delegates. Just a short cab ride from the George R. Brown Convention Center, the facility stands across the street from group favorites Bayou Place and the Downtown Aquarium.
“Built almost completely with private funds, the Wortham represents the best of Houston’s can-do spirit,” says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation, which manages the Wortham for the City of Houston. “The venue is a beloved piece of Houston’s history and a key part of its future.”
THE CAPITOL AT ST. GERMAIN
With its dazzling retro marquee and chic decor, this jazzy update of a vintage supper club arrived on the Houston scene last fall. Taking over the space previously occupied by the more whimsical Zula, the multi-dimensional downtown venue includes a lounge, a red velvet-draped stage, a mezzanine and table seating for 200 to 450 for shows and special events. Adding to the allure is the National Register of Historic Places-listed building itself, constructed in 1913 and once home of the Kress department store.
Against a backdrop of long-hidden marble columns and soaring ceilings restored to their original grandeur, the concept also includes two bars, with the signature St. Germain elderflower liqueur cocktails and high-octane martinis fueling the party. Also a draw for lunchtime business meetings, The Capitol offers lunch and dinner service, with shared bites such as the menage a foie among the highlights.
THE WAREHOUSE LIVE
A major anchor and catalyst for the revitalization of Houston’s dynamic East Downtown (EaDo) neighborhood, this repurposed 1920s-era warehouse is an ideal choice for high-energy events. Located directly behind the George R. Brown Convention Center, the versatile venue burst on the scene in 2006 and seemingly overnight became one of the hottest clubs in town.
Since then, Warehouse Live has also evolved into one of Houston’s signature multipurpose facilities, accommodating groups as small as 50 and as large as 1,500. With branding opportunities on the facility’s vintage neon marquee and high-speed Internet access throughout, planners can utilize the Ballroom and the Studio for a wide array of corporate, social and entertainment gatherings.
Each space is fully independent, including separate entrances and exits, bars, stages, restrooms, LCD and plasma displays, and sound and lighting systems. The availability of ample parking options is also a major selling point.
Regular Meetings Focus South contributor Jeff Heilman returns to Houston and other Lone Star locales this summer to write his fifth consecutive Meetings Focus Texas supplement.