Franci Neely Reflects on Growth of MFAH’s Islamic Art Exhibit: ‘From Almost Nothing to Thousands of Objects’

Franci Neely
4 min readFeb 28, 2023

Islamic art is getting a big Texas welcome, thanks in part to Franci Neely .

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is counting down to the March 5 unveiling of its reimagined space for its Art of the Islamic Worlds exhibit. It’s been a labor of love for Neely, a world traveler who has extensive experience in the Middle East, and is a co-chair for both of the subcommittees for MFAH’s Art of the Islamic Worlds initiatives .

“In the 16 years I’ve been involved with this initiative, I have made deep and lasting friendships with people from Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait,” Neely says. “We have traveled together to expand our horizons and knowledge of parts of the world steeped in the history, culture, and art of Islam and other religions. We have watched the Houston collection grow from almost nothing to thousands of objects in all different mediums, representing the rich tapestry of the Islamic world.”

On Jan. 20, 350 art-loving luminaries gathered in their finery at the black-tie Art of the Islamic Worlds gala, which raised more than $616,000. As the bubbly flowed and the scent of Persian cuisine filled the air, guests were able to tour the unfinished gallery space, which will house 6,000 square feet of art — that’s double the space it previously occupied — thanks to an endowment by Kuwaiti collector Hossein Afshar. It will house 1,000 pieces of Persian art on long-term loan. The museum says it plans to one day add an adjacent garden.

“Hundreds of objects — exquisite paintings, manuscripts, ceramics, carpets, and metalwork spanning more than 1,000 years — will reflect the breadth of historic Islamic lands, including present-day Morocco, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Türkiye, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India,” Neely reveals.

The museum says visitors to the exhibit are in for an added treat. During the gala, guests bid on which one of three breathtaking works of art the museum should acquire, and “Dragons of Karabakh Carpet” was one. The artwork is an ode to surrealism, vaguely reminiscent of the style immortalized in Salvador Dalí’s 1931 piece “The Persistence of Memory.” ArtistFaig Ahmed reimagined a multicolored Karabakh carpet that hangs high, in all its splendor, on a wall but slowly melts downward into a rich, circular pool that stretches toward onlookers.

Bringing More Islamic Art to MFAH Becomes Reality

It all began back in 2007 , when Franci Neely says the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston made an institutional commitment to collect, exhibit, and interpret the art of the Islamic world.

“This initiative was launched with the generous and enthusiastic support of Houstonians under the leadership of former director Peter Marzio, and, since 2012, Gary Tinterow, our director, and Margaret Alkek Williams, our chair,” Franci Neely acknowledges.

In an official statement, MFAH says the exhibit simply wouldn’t be possible without generous support from constituents’ donations at the biennial Islamic World Galas, and support from Friends of the Art of the Islamic Worlds patron group chaired by Franci Neely and Sima Ladjevardian.

“I get emotional thinking about how it all started and where we are now,” said Ladjevardian in a statement.

She recalls going door to door to garner support from the community.

“That was the impetus: getting backing and fostering a dialogue,” Ladjevardian said. “We raised the money to show the interest was there.”

Today, the museum has become the premier center for the permanent display, documentation, and interpretation of art of the Islamic worlds in the southeastern United States and has been a boon to a city of tremendous vitality and diversity.

It anticipates that the exhibit will be a big draw.

Since 2012, the museum reports it has had 926,669 visits to yet another exhibit, Art of Islamic Lands: Selections from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.

One of the most coveted pieces of the collection includes a 12th-century bronze incense burner from Iran in the form of a feline figure. There is also a 14th-century Quran from Morocco to see and a 16th-century tondino (small bowl) made in Iznik, Turkey.

In addition to Islamic art, MFAH also offers exhibitions, installations, and virtual programs to enrich the local community. Looking South: Collecting the Arts of Mexico will be on display at the MFAH through Feb. 26, and Portrait of Courage: Gentileschi, Wiley, and the Story of Judith juxtaposes two paintings created 400 years apart and is on exhibit through April 1. In all, MFAH says it houses more than 70,000 works of art from around the globe.

A Passion Project for a World Traveler

During her travels to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and beyond, Neely says her life was changed for the better.

“I have experienced the rich tapestry of the desert and sea, and the warm and welcoming embrace of the people who live there, who share their stories with me, and whose lives, enriched by their art and culture, enrich and expand my worldview and understanding,” adds Neely, who says she will soon complete her list of visiting every country in the world.

It’s no wonder, then, that Neely is an ardent supporter and lover of a sweeping variety of arts . She says wherever she goes, her trusty Nikon will be with her to help her capture all there is to one day reminisce upon.

“Diverse cultures have opened my eyes and therefore my heart to the majesty of the world. I want to encourage others to explore and experience.”

The well-traveled Neely says she most fondly recalls her dispatches to Iran . “[Locals] would come up and just want to embrace me,” Neely says.

“The Iranians I met [share] one of the oldest cultures in the world. The Persian culture is rich,” she shares. “And the average citizen in Iran probably knows more about their history, their literature, [and] their culture than the average American,” Neely explains. “They were exemplars of kind hospitality to this American.”

Originally published at on February 28, 2023.