Houston Forward

[uds-billboard name=”houston”]My idea of the Houston art scene still remains plastic, as I continue to discover new communities. Houston, after all, just recently surpassed NYC as the most diverse city in the United States. I moved here in 2005 from San Francisco when I was invited to be an Artist in Residence at the Core Residency Program and have seldom left. One of my favorite things about Houston, which I noticed the day I arrived, is that people are unbelievably friendly. It feels like a whole bunch of small towns put together to assemble a huge sprawling city. There are so many artistic communities that after six years of living here I am still learning of new ones. Romantic fantasies about my time living in the Bay Area sometimes resurface; however, I quickly remember the cost of living there.

Many shifts are happening in the Houston art scene that I want to highlight, starting with artist-run spaces–which play an especially important role. Although many of the universities have art departments (the most impressive being at the University of Houston), they cannot compare to the presence of an art school. Unlike Chicago, the slightly larger city to the north which Houston is often compared to, we do not have the School of the Art Institute of Chicago generating gobs of new grads, spilling out every year to beautify the city with their youthful liberated minds. In Houston, it is the artist-run spaces that add a critical perspective to the local ecology and enrich the soil in which artists grow, creating new critical feedback loops that affects the galleries, large institutions, and the art viewing public as a whole. Artist-run spaces create new expectations, generate critical response, and make room for even more diverse artistic activities.

Almost thirty years ago, DiverseWorks Art Space and Lawndale Art Center, although now very much institutions, were initiated by artists. DiverseWorks’ long-term co-director Diane Barber has moved on to become Director at G Gallery, and Elizabeth Dunbar has stepped in from ArtHouse in Austin with an eye towards social and educational projects. Lawndale’s successful Artist Studio Program is in its third year. Another artist-initiated nonprofit, Project Row Houses, also remains at the forefront, supporting the development of the careers of many local artists, helping them to extend outside of Houston, and supporting projects like GreenHouse Collective. During their current round of exhibitions, seven new projects are on view including Antena Books: Pop-Up Bookstore and Literary Experimentation Lab/Libros Antena: Librería temporal y Laboratorio de experimentación literaria by John Pluecker.

A few spaces that have been creating shows and events in their fourth or fifth years of operation are the johanna, Box13 ArtSpace and the space I helped found and now co-direct, Skydive. It is notable that these spaces have managed to keep their doors open for so long, as Houston has had waves of artist-run spaces, most have closed their doors after a year or two.

Newer artist-run spaces in Houston include Cardoza Fine Art, The Lens Capsule, Optical Project, and Front Gallery. All of these small spaces do their part to feature both emerging local and non-local artists and to host the work of new generations of thought. They go a long way to connect and engage a local, youthful crowd. The Kenmore and Roadsign USA are both surprising and sustainable artist-run projects with small, low-cost venues. The Kenmore is a mini-fridge that hosts artists’ installations. Roadsign USA is a billboard off of Bellaire Blvd. on which, several times a year, an artist creates a new sign, viewable by many cars on their busy commute.

Some interesting temporary residencies have popped up at different locations in the past two years including ManyMini Residency, hosted last summer by Skydive, School of Latitudes at Labotanica, and Nohegan East organized by a group from Box13 ArtSpace. These DIY residencies are great models for artists supporting each other and ultimately supporting their own practice.

The Galveston Artist Residency began this year and hosts three artists, providing housing, studio, a yearly exhibition and a stipend. It functions through invitation only but has taken largely from a recent group of the Core Residency Program Fellows. The Core Program, which provides a studio, stipend, an exhibition, various studio visits and lectures, continues its legacy and has a higher number of applicants each year. Although this residency provides an important service to the Houston community, with lectures and exhibitions, the stipend provided to the artists is less than it costs to get by and the residency still provides no housing. It is curious why such an established program, managed by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, would not set its sights higher, and that a new residency in Galveston, although it has not yet proven to be sustainable like the Core, manages to support its artists more.

Now at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a remarkable show, Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which has recently invited curator Dean Daderko to join their team, just closed The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991. Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston is remodeling and will open this October with a retrospective of sculptor Tony Feher.

The de Menils literally changed the way Houston embraces and supports the arts, and certainly made an impact with the idea that museum spaces should feel more like domestic spaces. At the The Menil Collection, Michelle White, one of the curators of the current exhibition, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, is putting together a show for the fall from the archive of the de Menils’ letters to further explore their artistic and curatorial perspectives. Also of note during this current exhibition, Aurora Picture Show screened a series of short films on The Menil grounds entitled Cinematic Graphite, which explored drawing and video and included Ana Mendiata’s Body Tracks and 12 Sketches by Magali Charrier, amoung many others.

The numerous collectors in Houston not only support the artist-run spaces, museums and nonprofits, but support the many great galleries in town. There are too many to mention them all, but a few include: Texas Gallery, De Santos Gallery, Sicardi Gallery, Hiram Butler Gallery, Devin Borden Gallery, Inman Gallery, Art Palace, Brian Miller Gallery, and many more. These galleries not only create fabulous settings to view contemporary art, they support the careers of many artists and help to create and nurture the tastes of a local body of collectors.

To gain more insight into the experience of Houston as a place, check out Swamplot, one of my favorite Houston blogs. Also not to be missed is The Center for Houston’s Future, a visionary organization focusing on making the city better now and in the future.

I never expected to find myself settled in a dystopic, sprawling Texas city, much less to find such fertile and diverse ground for an arts community here. Houston is part of middle America, but it is also part of the open west, and the gulf coast. There is much exchange with Latin America as, after all, it used to be part of Mexico. It is a place that embodies many identities and has room for more. A place that remains open, changeable and supportive to the artists and organizations that inhabit it.


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  1. Jennie Ash

    Fab Article Sasha! Houston is an incredible city and I can’t wait to see what exciting things happen here over the next 5 – 10 years.
    I would also like to add Art League Houston to the mix; as its one of Houston’s longest running non-profit art organization, originally set up by women artists in 1948!
    With the construction of our modern building in 2007, we have embarked on creating an exciting and contemporary series of art programming, featuring engaging shows by artists such as Elaine Bradford, Patrick Turk, Joe Havel, Mary McCleary, Emily Sloan, Heather Bause, Hillerbrand+Magsamen and Rigoberto Gonzalez.
    Upcoming events include shows by the author of this article Sasha Dela (whoop!), Kathryn Kelley, Adela Andea and Devon Britt-Darby.

  2. Larry Kelly

    June Woest took our eye sore of a street sign and has developed a wonderful revolving exhibit; bring REAL art to thousands of commuters, daily.

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