Core Residency Program: An Interview with Joseph Havel

Not many people would think of the Core Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art as an artist-run residency, but to some extent it is. Joseph Havel is an artist who has been directing the Glassell School and Core residency for over twenty years. I catch up with him here on the dynamics between his artistic practice and directing the Core, as well as new developments at the Glassell School and the larger picture of the program.

Sasha Dela: You’ve been running the Core Program now for 22 years, and your work as an artist has developed parallel. There must be some synergy there. What have the benefits been for you as an artist and how does the program benefit from your success?

Joseph Havel: Being involved with the Core Program has created an opportunity for me to intellectually grow by constantly being challenged by subsequent generations of young cultural practitioners as well as the person I direct it with, the critic Mary Leclere, and the visitors we bring in to lecture and run seminars. I feel like in a way I am the senior artist/Core Fellow. We also try to develop the program in response to what seems culturally current, which has to be continuously reconsidered. I am involved in crafting a program that needs to constantly evolve to be relevant so I have to ask questions I might not in a more isolated practice. My own active practice helps generate these questions from the point of a participant. It helps me mentor people as they develop their projects as well as what it might mean to have a practice in the long term.

SD: You had an interesting way of describing your relationship to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (and institutions in general), that you see the institution as a sculptural structure and you look for the right tools. Is this correct?

JH: Yes. I think every institution is a structure with inherent content, intentions, and meaning. At the MFAH the Core Program and the Glassell School are substructures and we work to shape the overall form and effect meaning.

SD: Part of your job description at the museum is to direct the residency and the school, as well as to be an artist. Similarly Mary Leclere is spending a portion of her week on her work as a critic. How do you negotiate this at the museum? Has it always been this way? In a way you both are in-residence like the Core Fellows. It seems exceptional, to be employed as a director and as an artist.

JH: It is easier to be a director than an artist as the job has clearer definitions. It is important from my point of view that the Core Program is a mentoring situation run by practitioners or I think it could not be fluid enough to be relevant. I have to be intensely focused in order to maintain both situations, but this also nurtures me (and occasionally exhausts me). I am not someone with a great deal of “spare” time. The Museum has respected it although it is up to me to draw the boundaries and protect myself. As far as whether it has always been this way, Alan Hacklin who started the program and Rachel Hecker who ran it before both retained their practices.

SD: What are you working on at your studio now?

JH: I am working on a couple of sculpture commissions and an outdoor sculpture that will be shown at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH) as well as the early stages of some new works based on the relationship of memory, fiction, and forgetting.

SD: Your insight, efforts and work at the Core have been foundational to its structure. It is absolutely unique to Houston and the United States as a whole. It has recognition nationally and internationally. Where do you see the results of your efforts the most?

JH: I think locally in terms of impact and globally in ideas. Locally it has certainly been one of the fundamental forces in shaping the contemporary art community. I think this is a natural outcome of having my own practice based here and wanted a place that nourishes me.

SD: What’s changing with the program now?

JH: At the moment Mary Leclere is taking a lead role in creating the year’s syllabus and we have a little greater structure through seminars and readings as a way of creating a stronger sense of community. The idea of a community of peers is key to the Core Program and recently there has been some atomization which may not have allowed for the dynamics that create the most fertile growth situation. The one thing constant each year is that there will be change to keep things vital.

SD: There is a resentment among some local artists, that the Core Fellows arrive in Houston with some fanfare, and quickly gather up all the resources and then leave. Have you ever made an effort to mend these mostly erroneous perceptions?

JH: I have made an effort and the evidence that contradicts this is obvious. Many of them stay and now alumni teach at most of our institutions. I think a balance between people who stay for at least a period of time and people who rotate through and go out to other places is actually good for the arts here and keep us from being provincial. If people perceive otherwise, I can’t change that. The Core Program has kept me here for 22 years.

SD: Without alternative sources of support and income, it is very difficult to be a Core Fellow. First there is the expense of moving cross-country and setting up in a new city. Secondly the annual stipend for a Core Fellow is $11,000. It is certainly not enough to live on. How is the stipend determined and how are the ethics of it negotiated by the museum?

JH: It is obvious it is not enough to live on, but we are a non-profit that raises the money we can and puts it towards the program. It is actually fairly generous compared to some programs – for instance the Whitney Independent Study Program charges tuition. We hope it is enough to form a base combined with the fact they have free studio space and that by needing to find other ways to receive support it gets them better integrated into the local community and out of the protected community of the MFAH.

SD: What’s happening at Glassell School now? Are there new classes? Maybe a new building on the horizon?

JH: The MFAH is developing a plan for campus expansion which includes a new exhibition building for modern and contemporary art and a new school building. We are working with Stephen Holl architects. It is in the dreaming stages now, but I am hopeful it will come to fruition as it would be wonderful for the Houston art community.

As far as curriculum, we offer more critical theory classes at the upper level for our students incorporating ideas from the Core Program. We also are offering more Art History classes associated with programming at the MFAH. Patrick Palmer is the Dean of the studio school and is always looking for ways it can be unique and relevant.

SD: How is the relationship with University of St. Thomas shaping up?

JH: We now offer a BA and a BFA through St. Thomas and have had a few graduates go to graduate school.

SD: Currently you have a program at Rice University that allows for some Core Fellows to teach a class in the art department. What else may be happening with Rice?

J.H. We are always looking for community partners to strengthen what happens at Glassell and the community in general. Rice University is one of closer partnerships and we are looking for ways we might strengthen our joint programming. It is too early to know what will come of it but the discussions are ongoing and the possibilities exciting.





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