PaperCity Magazine

November 2018- Houston

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Page 86 of 100

I t was 1993, and President Bill Clinton had just taken office. Optimism prevailed in many sectors, as Silicon Valley and the infant Internet heated up. In Houston, prosperity percolated throughout the art world, which would get a second Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, building by the end of the decade. The Core Program at the MFAH Glassell School of Art was just garnering national attention, with its first residents soon to be included in career-making surveys such as the Whitney Biennial. But for Houston talents, additional museum space did not necessarily mean more visibility — especially for those of color. A band of seven black artists did not find that acceptable, so they decided it was better to create something new than to squeeze out a place in a system where opportunities were in inverse proportion to geography. Inspired by the example of Dr. John Biggers, founder of the Texas Southern University art department and a proponent of equating African-Americans with the rich history of the African continent and its rise of democracy, this group staked out their own place to exhibit art. But it did not look anything like a marbled museum. Instead, one of the leaders of the group — which was composed of three mid-careers artists and four a generation younger — looked to a historic black neighborhood. Alabama transplant Rick Lowe had spotted 22 shotgun houses, their structures forlorn and derelict and emblematic of the state of the once thriving, yet still proud Third Ward. For more on this history (the funders, friends, and community who made it possible), acquire the book Collective Creative Actions: Project Row Houses at 25, being released this fall in conjunction with the nonprofit's 25th anniversary gala, set for Thursday, November 1. FINDING + FUNDING ROW HOUSES There are many aspects to PRH: its Young Mothers Residential Program, after-school initiatives, collaborations with Rice School of Architecture, focus on neighborhood redevelopment, establishment of a CDC, Third Ward Community Markets on select Saturdays throughout the year, grocery store stocked with local produce to end the area's food desert, entrepreneurship programs that have birthed such neighborhood businesses as a woman-owned artisanal bakery, and a new chef-driven pop-up that benefits Texas Children's Hospital's Sickle Cell Program. All are interwoven in an organic and intrinsic way with its round of site-specific artist installations. If you had to use only one word, it would be "community." In the art world, the term synonymous with PRH that came to embody its shining success is "social sculpture"; the phrase was coined by the late conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, whose way of thinking still serves as a guiding influence for Row Houses' model, which now is sprouting around the world, from Athens to Detroit and Dallas. The charismatic Rick Lowe has been the face of Row Houses — a role he has held most collaboratively, his leadership devoid of ego. Thus, Lowe has been able to empower this historic Houston neighborhood to forge alliances with corporations, government entities, and foundations from Chevron to the NEA. For this, he has been honored as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, receiving a $625,000 "genius" grant, bestowed in 2014, which cast even more international limelight on the meaning and implications of social practice as practiced in the Third Ward. (In typical Lowe fashion, he's gifted a portion of his MacArthur to Row Houses over the years.) The specific place that is PRH began with a challenge, when a student years ago suggested that Lowe, rather than critiquing in his art the problems of a black neighborhood, do something. At University of Houston, Lowe now leads an innovative endeavor that introduces students to the example of the urban renewal meets art project that PRH typifies — social practice at its best. The department where Lowe serves as professor carries its mission in its name: Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE); PRH functions as de facto lab for the students, including CASE Fellows who interact between the University of Houston academia and Row Houses' real world. Importantly, Lowe has forged a sustainable model where Row Houses functions without Lowe himself at the helm. The torch has effectively been passed, with Lowe, elder statesmen artists George Smith PROJECT ROW HOUSES BY CATHERINE D. ANSPON. PORTRAIT JENNY ANTILL CLIFTON. AT A QUARTER CENTURY A LOOK AT A BOLD COMMUNITY EXPERIMENT BIRTHED IN THE THIRD WARD THREE DECADES AGO — ONE THAT WOULD GO ON TO CHANGE THE ART WORLD. Regina Agu, Ryan N. Dennis, and Eureka Gilkey photographed September 4, 2018, at Project Row Houses with Charli Sol's installation, "Future Visions." (continued on page 96)

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