As a non-collecting museum, it strives to provide a forum for visual arts of the present and recent past and document new directions in art, while engaging the public and encouraging a greater understanding of contemporary art through education programs.
The Contemporary Arts Museum occupies a stainless-steel building in the heart of Houston's Museum District. The highly recognizable building was designed for the Contemporary Arts Museum by the award-winning architect Gunnar Birkerts and opened its doors in 1972.
By 1950, the success of these efforts allowed the Museum to build of a small, professionally equipped facility where ambitious exhibitions of the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and John Biggers and his students from the then-fledgling Texas Negro College (now Texas Southern University). It was evident that Houstonians were receptive to new ideas.
By the end of the decade, the Contemporary Arts Museum had outgrown the original 1950 facility, so the trustees raised funds to purchase a prominent site on the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet, where the new building, designed by Gunnar Birkerts, was built. In 1972, the present building opened with a controversial exhibition called "Ten," featuring several artists working in non-traditional media. The Museum continued to showcase new national and regional art, throughout the 1970s, including such presentations as John Chamberlain, "Dalé Gas" (one of the first surveys of Hispanic artists in the U.S.), and a major thematic exhibition, "American Narrative/Story Art." In addition, exhibitions of new Texas talent provided early venues for works of James Surls, John Alexander, and Luis Jimenez, among others.
In the 1990s, the Museum adjusted its focus to concentrate only on art made created within the past 40 years. It also worked to extend its reach internationally. Major single-artist exhibitions at the end of the 20th century included "Art Guys: Think Twice," "Tony Cragg: Sculpture," "Ann Hamilton: kaph," "Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stone," "Nic Nicosia: Real Pictures," "Introjection: Tony Oursler: 1976-1999," "Lari Pittman," "Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective," "James Turrell: Spirit and Light," "William Wegman: Paintings and Drawings, Photographs and Videotapes" and "Robert Wilson's Vision."
As the new millennium began, the Museum celebrated the change with a look back at some of the exhibitions of the previous decade in "Outbound: Passages from the Nineties." Other exhibitions of the fledgling century have included "Afterimage: Drawing Through Process", "Subject Plural" and "The Inward Eye." Single-artist shows have focused on a variety of media and have included "When One is Two: The Art of Alighiero e Boetti," William Kentridge, Uta Barth, and Juan Muñoz.