Aurora Picture Show: An Interview with Andrea Grover
Andrea Grover moved to Houston in 1995 to attend the Core Program. Shortly after her time at the Core, she founded the Aurora Picture Show. Andrea has much to say about the playfulness and DIY spirit of the Houston art scene and reveals the secret of running a successful program at Aurora.
Sasha Dela: Andrea, how did you arrive in Houston and what were your first impressions?
Andrea Grover: I arrived in Houston just a few days shy of my 25th birthday in July 1995 (I remember this specifically because I had trouble renting a car). I had been accepted into the Core Program, and this was a reconnaissance trip to plan my move from Chicago to Houston in the fall. Another Core Fellow named Mark Allen (now the Director of Machine Project, Los Angeles) had contacted me a few weeks earlier and asked if I would be interested in having my work on the cover of the zine-like art journal, ArtLies, which he was guest editing. I said, “Sure,” and he promptly offered to tour me around and crash with him on Marconi Street in Montrose. Mark’s place was a constant hub for creative activities, excessive parties, and temporary galleries like the one he dubbed Revolution Summer. In my first 24 hours in Houston, I ate crawfish at Floyd’s Cajun Shack, attended a backyard party full of extreme Houston freaks in wigs and costumes propped up among lush banana and papaya trees, drank beer perched on the edge of the thick algae-filled pool at Emo’s (a former orphanage turned nightclub), and ended the night wearing a cowboy hat and posing for pictures. What struck me first and foremost about the place I had arrived was the lawlessness and radical hyperactivity of the art scene.
SD: In a sense I see artist-run spaces like Aurora as creative projects, not unlike making a video or a sculpture, however they often have a much more social context in that they are very collaborative and are designed around specific communities and interaction. What is your take on artist-run spaces and their unique potential, and your thoughts about Aurora and its relationship to your practice as an artist?
AG: In 1995, it seemed like every artist in Houston was creating a public space in their home, just because they could. Houston’s lack of zoning laws and pro-homesteader attitude allowed this kind of activity to flourish. Nestor Topchy ran Zocalo, a renegade artist compound on over an acre of industrial land in the Heights, Bill Davenport and Delfina Vanucci operated a home gallery in the living room of their duplex, Jeff Elrod converted a former Driver’s Ed storefront into a sparsely furnished living space and gallery, Commerce Street Art warehouse was jam-packed with artist live/work space, exhibitions and parties, Jim Pirtle was just conceiving of his storefront speakeasy, notsuoH, and of course, Mark Allen had several temporary galleries and events on the second floor of his ramshackle duplex– I was shocked the floor never caved in.
Aurora was a direct byproduct of this spirit of free enterprise, and was most definitely a living work of art. Visiting artists screened their work then went to sleep in our apartment behind the screen. Meals were cooked and shared with the audience. Every event was like an amateur performance, and the space became a collage of donated objects and fixtures, like the set of first class American Airline seats that became our VIP seating, a cigarette vending machine a friend filled with random items she found, an “Applause” sign from a cancelled game show, and so on. Aurora was an evolving platform that shifted a little each time another person participated or donated something.
SD: Tell me about the development of Aurora Picture Show? How did it begin?
AG: I was ending my tenure in the Core Program in 1997 and a friend mentioned to my boyfriend that an old church was for sale in the Sunset Heights and we went to check it out. It was a one room 1200 square foot building with no indoor plumbing, and a single outhouse in the backyard. There was a full immersion baptismal beneath the altar and I imagined making it into a hot tub (soaking is my lifelong passion). I fell in love with the place immediately and the price was right: $49,000. We moved into the main sanctuary and ripped out the wood paneling, acoustic tiles, wallpaper, carpeting, 2 sets of drop ceilings (one atop the other), and fluorescent tube lighting, but left the 16 pews intact. In that time, we also built an apartment on the back of the church, bought some second hand audio visual equipment from an auction at Rice University, and began telling friends we were opening a movie theater in our living room. Aurora Picture Show opened in June 1998 to a standing room only crowd, and a year later, despite my reticence, we were fully incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit art center.
SD: What was special about doing a project like Aurora in Houston? Do you think it’s a good place for the off-center and artist-run?
AG: I’m not sure it’s quite as easy today, but back then it seemed like no one was really policing these kinds of makeshift spaces. Houston legend Jackie Harris lived down the street and spray painted “Jackie’s House of Weapons” on the front of her building. There was a barber shop in the front window of a neighbor’s bungalow. But if you did have an occasional surprise inspection, it was met with, “Hey, this place is pretty cool. What are your hours?” There was a lingering homesteaders’ rights attitude coupled with a slightly downward economy that allowed for artists (and others for that matter) to build whatever they “damn well pleased” on their properties.
SD: Tell me about beginning Aurora’s funding structure? How did that evolve and how did you feel about it over the long run in the ten years you were involved? Do you think the non-profit model was the right thing for Aurora? Do you think it could exist with another more traditional or nontraditional funding structure?
AG: At first, Aurora was largely funded by individual art collectors who I met through the Core Program. The main reason we incorporated in 1999 was so that we could offer these generous folks tax write-offs. Overtime, some forward thinking funders like The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts came on board, and Aurora started to grow and become a stable enterprise, but still miles from conventional. It was absolutely necessary for us to become a non-profit in order to be more than a fleeting memory (all the spaces I mentioned above, with the exception of notsuoH, are long gone from the Houston art scene). That said, I think the non-profit model needs an overhaul, and that some hybrid commercial/noncommercial structure is a better fit for the 21st century.
SD: In its first decade as an organization, Aurora was housed in an old church. How do you feel this affected its identity and how people experienced the screenings?
AG: There’s no doubt that the environment created an intimate and familiar setting for people to have unfamiliar experiences. The formula for Aurora’s success (and a core value that carries over to today) was to make people feel at home so that anything they experienced, no matter how demanding or challenging, would be OK. I guess we borrowed that from religious cults of the 1970s. I’m joking.
SD: As you have stepped back from it, and moved away from Houston, what has become clear?
AG: The playful and inventive culture of Aurora was so important to its early success, and this definitely carries through to Aurora’s current operations. There is, and always has been, an attitude of being able to accomplish anything without restriction. In recent years, Aurora has converted innumerable outdoor sites into one-night only screening sites and installation, taken its programs into other esteemed institutions, and finally gotten a new home base with expanded space for classes and experimentation. The “can do” attitude travels well, and the audience follows loyally. I like to duplicate this formula everywhere I go, regardless of institutional size and tone. Now at the Parrish Art Museum as Curator of Special Projects, I still let artists and the audience lead the way. Most of my programs are co-created with members of the community, and involve storytelling, and personalized experiences. The Aurora method seems to translate well to any size institution, but it has to be enacted with authenticity and a genuine love for artists and people. That’s the secret.