A Very Brief History of the MFAH Film Program September 10, 2021

Cinema debuted in the 1890s with the silent films of the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès in France, and Thomas Edison in the United States. In the following decades, artist-made films gained recognition, and art museums worldwide added films to their collections and public programs.

Films at the MFAH
The Museum’s first film screening took place in January 1938, in the auditorium of what is now Bob Lanier Middle School. A review in the Houston Post newspaper stated that “many people were loud in their praise of this new form of entertainment, predicting that moving pictures are destined to become widely popular in this country. Others complained of having headaches!”

Brown Auditorium Theater Opens
Brown Pavilion, designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, opened at the MFAH in 1974 with the elegant Brown Auditorium Theater on the lower level. The expansive space featured Mies’s visionary, steeply raked seating and provided the Museum with a dedicated space for lectures and films. The first movies shown in the Brown included the 1973 documentary Painters Painting and Otto Preminger’s 1959 drama Anatomy of a Murder.

Commitment to film expanded in the subsequent years, establishing the MFAH as a destination for movie fans. Film directors often visited to present screenings of contemporary world cinema and celebrated American independent films. The Brown hosted premieres of many award-winning films, such as the 1984 drama Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders, partially filmed in Houston. Filmmakers Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater cite the MFAH as a venue they frequented while growing up in Houston.

Into the 21st Century
Film eventually became part of the Museum’s curatorial department, continuing to stimulate audiences with premieres, revivals, acclaimed documentaries, and thematic festivals. The annual “Festival of Films from Iran,” “Five Funny French Films,” “Latin Wave: New Films from Latin America,” and “QFest,” Houston’s international LGBTQ festival, became popular events.

Partnerships with community and cultural organizations engaged new audiences with the Museum’s film offerings. “Movies Houstonians Love” has featured more than 50 local notables, each showcasing a favorite movie in the Brown. Among the guests we’ve welcomed are Bun B, Chloe Dao, Clyde Drexler, Robert Earl Keen, and Sylvester Turner.

This fall the Museum welcomes filmgoers back to Brown Auditorium Theater in the Caroline Wiess Law Building, with the new Lynn Wyatt Theater opening soon in the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Both theaters feature state-of-the-art digital capabilities as well as 35mm reel-to-reel, making the Museum the only venue in Houston currently projecting movies in that format.

Film Buffs, the MFAH patron group for cinephiles, is an especially affordable way to enjoy our films, and a membership makes a great gift for any movie lover.

Now Playing See the film schedule.

Film Buffs Learn more and join.

About the Author
Marian Luntz is curator of film.

The MFAH film department is supported by Tenaris; the Vaughn Foundation; Nina and Michael Zilkha; The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea; Consulate General of Italy in Houston; Franci Neely; Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles; Carrin Patman and Jim Derrick; Consulate General of Brazil in Houston; Lois Chiles Foundation; ILEX Foundation; and L’Alliance Française de Houston.