How Do We Combine Forces?: Menilfest Celebrates Houston

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

When I was a kid, I always wanted to have a place like the diner in GREASE or BACK TO THE FUTURE -- a place where everybody always goes, somewhere where everyone on staff knows your name (or at least your face) and what you order. My last two years in Indianapolis, a gastro-pub named Twenty Tap was my place (still my favorite fries ever; my waiter’s name was Andrew). Here, it’s Lowbrow over on West Main. For those unfamiliar, they top their mac & cheese with Cheetos (just try it) and their chicken fried veggie burger is a game-changer.

But enough about pub food. This article is about Menilfest, or the day I had a long pre-Easter lunch with Carlos Herbert Hernandez and his wife Stephanie. Stephanie, of course, was a surprise, but there were lots of surprises that day. When I came in to work at eleven, we were without connection to the outside world. The phones were down; the internet was down. When our rep over at Workman volunteered to buy pizza for the store, I had to call in the order from the parking lot on my cell phone.

At Lowbrow, Stephanie makes sure to tell me that she doesn’t come to all the interviews; her work closed early for Easter. Still, when I sit down and their order of duck quesadillas arrives, I already feel behind. It’s the middle of the day and the rest of the tables are empty. My notebook is empty. However, Hernandez and I have met before, and if I’ve learned anything from in-person interviews, it’s that everyone has something to say. He won’t need my help, is what I tell myself. I am here to listen.


As the Digital Editor for Gulf Coast, Hernandez is full of information, especially as his vision for Menilfest and the Gulf Coast Indie Book Fair includes major logistical overhauls that have not been done before. He tells me that until two years ago, Menilfest was actually two separate events: the Menil Community Arts Festival and the Houston Indie Book Fair. “Year after year...there was a hubbub twice a month in the same area,” Hernandez says. “And so the Gulf Coast board and the Menil board sat down to say, ‘How can we combine forces?’”

In teaming up, the goal was to create “spillover” between visitors and attendees. Rather than two separate entities sharing a campus, “it was this idea that everybody just knows that they’re coming to this great event of all the Menil community organizations but also that Gulf Coast [would] be celebrating literature there, too.” Of course, the branding at first was not as solidified as it is today. Now, though, the Menilfest partnership is in its third year and established enough that Hernandez feels comfortable making changes.

Here’s one: for the first time, all the book fair events and panels will be hosted off-campus at the Houston Center for Photography (HCP). Hernandez hopes the new collaboration “[embodies] the idea that the Book Fair and Menilfest are working together and that the mission of Gulf Coast and Menil is to sort of embody an interdisciplinary appreciation for the arts.” In other words, even though individual organizations “identify with a certain art form, we’re each trying to branch out and sort of let other things influence us.”

HCP playing host has logistical benefits as well. In addition to protecting visitors and attendees from the weather (including, Hernandez jokes, Houston’s signature “sweltering heat”), it takes the pressure off in terms of numbers. Rather than having to “worry about trying to pack a house...we can worry about close engagement with our panelists.” Hernandez guesstimates HCP’s main room can house about a maximum of 80 people. If that’s true, traffic will take care of itself and give the panels a chance to “encourage a conversation not just between panelists but audience members as well.”

What constitutes a panel? Generally “issues specific to Houston’s artistic landscape, or that reflect on Houston culturally.” Hernandez tells me about last year’s panels, where speakers discussed minority writers’ publications, independent publishing, and self-publishing. This year, the theme is trans-nationalism and diversity, including “diverse literature and...practical and artistic aspects of that.”

On the practical side, there will be a panel about Houston “as a landscape in itself [and] how that sort of influences writers.” As for the artistic influence, our own marketing director and events coordinator Benjamin Rybeck will be on a panel with harpist Talia Mailman, writer/drummer Christopher Brean Murray, and writer/indie press editor Brian Bowers where each of them will discuss his or her experience as a Houston transplant.

Not all of it is so serious, though. One reading (lovingly called “The Trans-National Baton”) includes many readers reading very quickly (six to eight minutes per person) and throughout the day, Writespace Writing Center will be hosting six-word story contests. Inprint will have its poetry buskers on-campus completing on-the-spot commissions via electronic typewriter. Da Camera will perform a family concert with music by Camille Saint-Saëns. “There’s a lot of overlap,” Hernandez says. “There’s always gonna be something in every discipline [happening] on the campus, throughout the day.”

In total, Menilfest is projected to attract 3,500 guests. One hundred some vendors will line the sidewalks around the Menil Collection -- “authors, artists, organizations, and even schools.” Most of them are local but Hernandez says they’ve had organizations come from Austin -- and one person as far as Canada! He sees it more like a homecoming: “It’s great because when you see that folks have registered from outside of the state and the region, you know it’s because Gulf Coast staff members likely have gone out and still have the book fair resonating within them.”


So, what have I learned on my first official business luncheon?

For one thing, I learned that to simply order a cheeseburger with sweet potato fries is not enough; you must actually say “substitute,” lest ye make my “mistake” and you are brought two plates of fries, sweet and regular.

Mostly, I had the opportunity to celebrate the “labor of love” that is Menilfest and Gulf Coast Indie Book Fair. Though they have brilliant sponsors ( has been “substantial and kind”; the Texas Commission on the Arts is “the sole-granting identity for the book fair”), this year’s Menilfest will be the first time all the coordination will be “housed solely by the organizations.” It’s that step -- all of the non-profit organizations taking over logistics and promotion -- that says more to me about community than anything Hernandez can tell me.

But there is still more to be done. In the future, Hernandez hopes for more local sponsors and for “the events and panels to feel even more interdisciplinary.” Whereas right now, most of the cross-discipline related discussion is focused on writing (“How does art influence writing? How does music influence writing?”), “we want the exchange of interdisciplines to be equal.”

As for the switch from “Houston Indie Book Fair” to “Gulf Coast Indie Book Fair”? It’s not as much an emphasis on the Gulf Coast journal. Yes, there will always be a double meaning for people who are familiar with the publication but the change was designed more “to represent the region in general.” “What we want to do is invigorate Houston locally,” Hernandez says. “That’s the draw: to say Houston has an identity from an artistic standpoint in all the disciplines.”


Menilfest will take place April 11 at the Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, and Houston Center for Photography. For more information, please consult the official Menilfest website.

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