The Mitchell Center for the Arts: An Interview with Karen Farber

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts has an interdisciplinary and collaborative focus that is very unique in Houston and nationally. The Mitchell Center also offers courses through the Interdisciplinary Arts Program (IART) at the University of Houston which are open to students of any major. Frequently, these classes are also unofficially open to the public and heard about through word of mouth in Houston’s community of artists. Projects at the Mitchell Center include literary, performing and visual arts that engage diverse communities and sites of contention in the city and metro area including the university and its surrounding neighborhood. Karen Farber has been the director since 2005.

Sasha Dela: The Mitchell Center is a very unique model, unlike anything, anywhere else, right?

Karen Farber: There isn’t anything quite like it. Our program was shaped by our unique circumstances: funding without space, our situation within the University of Houston (UH), and also our role as part of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, a large, broad based college at UH. We are also deeply influenced by the city around us, and the university’s proximity to several Houston neighborhoods.

SD: The Mitchell Center has supported long-term artist projects. How do you adapt and support the artists as they grow and change? Working with Amy Patton must have differed from working with Marc Bamuthi Joseph because their process is so varied.

KF: The Mitchell Center’s focus on genuine interdisciplinarity, working with artists from visual, performing, literary, and other backgrounds, means that no two projects will call for the same things. Many institutions seek out artists with transdisciplinary practices, but if the host organization has a singular structure – be it studio space, exhibition space, theater, fee structure, or even housing – they are automatically going to attract artists who fit a certain mold. We are constantly evolving and adapting. Some artists need a dance studio, others an office. The Center for Land Use Interpretation needed a trailer they could use as a site-specific outpost. The Shrimp Boat Projects needed a boat. The adaptability goes beyond tangibles, though. Within one artist’s residency, the project often evolves. Sometimes we know the focus of an artist’s research, but not the outcome. Other times, it’s a vision of a final project that compels us to become involved, but the steps to realizing that vision are still being worked out. It certainly keeps us on our toes.

SD: In the Interdisciplinary Arts Program (IART) program you support visionary learning by inviting artists to design non-traditional interdisciplinary classes. For example, in a class I was teaching at the Mitchell Center, Activism in the Arts, we invited guest artist and curator Erin Elder to work with the students. As a starting point for our discussion, we read “Temporary Autonomous Zone” by Hakim Bey and then went camping on the outskirts of Houston where we gathered around a campfire, discussed the possibilities of an autonomous zone, sang campfire songs, and cooked together. It was an amazing learning experience that was deepened by the relationships that formed around the fire.

When I was teaching in the IART program I had many guest artists speak to the class via skype; Amy Balkin, Sean Dockery, Duncan Wooldridge and Elysa Lozano among others. Because such amazing people were speaking with us, I wanted to invite fellow artists to join and made announcements to friends and through email lists. Different local artists would show up for the talks and engage in discussions. As I understand it, the IART classes have continued in this unofficial tradition mirroring to some extent the Freie Hochschule by Joseph Beuys. Tell me about your vision for the IART program?

KF: The IART curriculum was created to allow UH students to connect with visiting artists, and to provide a background and context for interdisciplinary practice. Initially, we were offering one class, Collaboration Among the Arts, which was a studio format class in which students would create group projects over the course of the semester and present them to the public. This class is still offered annually and usually is held in an art space somewhere off campus. So there was always a public dialogue built into IART. As time went on, we created a minor for undergraduates that included an introductory course (Intro to IART) as well as a range of classes such as the Art and Activism class you led. A recent course offered via a joint residency with Blaffer Art Museum, was led by Lynne McCabe, who offered the class to UH students and the public, without making any delineation between the two populations. It was also a cumulative exhibition at Blaffer, which created yet another layer of experience – a class that is also a public gathering that is also a public artwork. We continue to experiment with both form and content for IART. As far as a future vision, it’s my hope that we will have increased participation from throughout the student body, not just by arts students. We can even envision using IART as a recruiting tool for prospective students who are interested in contemporary interdisciplinary practice.

SD: Tell me about your collaboration with Shrimp Boat Projects?

KF: Shrimp Boat Projects is a name for the ongoing work of Zach Moser and Eric Leshinsky, two artists who seek to engage with the regional landscape by learning to become working shrimpers in Galveston Bay. They are interested in the inherent tensions between ecology, economy and culture in the Houston-Galveston region. We took them on as artists-in-residence in an effort to make this improbable project a reality. In that sense, the Mitchell Center was a catalyst for something that would not have happened otherwise. Zach and Eric were able to dedicate themselves full time to learning a new trade. They got to know the landscape, the characters, the scholarship, the science, everything surrounding their project. We did not pay for their boat, but they found the means to purchase and retrofit it themselves, and once it was seaworthy, they invited artists and others to go shrimping with them. We also worked with them on a series of exciting public programs in conjunction with their residency, including a lecture by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles and a panel discussion at the Rothko Chapel on the topic of food and spirituality. We have concluded the residency, and the next stage of their project is focused on artistic production. We are eager to see what they develop.

SD: You’ve been in an interesting position as the director of a center that supports interdisciplinary artistic practice for 7 years. How has it influenced your perception of the programs that happen with the Mitchell Center? Do you see commonality in the trends and themes that are happening within the multiple disciplines?

KF: Over time, our proclivities and commitments have crystallized. We are based at an urban research university and are positioned to be national leaders when it comes to socially engaged art, especially due to the communities around us. While a few years ago we may have said our programming calls for a steady bricks-and-mortar venue, we are becoming increasingly excited about the benefits of being nomadic. We also are drawn to projects with a sense of vision and adventure. We do projects that are radical and transformational, for the artists, for the audiences, and for the university community in particular.

We are also uniquely positioned to further interdisciplinary dialogue due to our staff, as we have both performing and visual arts expertise.

SD: What’s in the works for the Mitchell Center? Do you see its role in the University changing?

KF: The University of Houston is such a compelling place to work when it comes to contemporary art. Our campus is hugely diverse and, while we aim to harness that diversity, it isn’t always easy. But that is what we strive for. We are constantly seeking projects that are relevant to both the university and the city around us, while also having resonance nationally and internationally. That sense of connection is critical in our work.

Next up, we are realizing a longtime dream by hosting an artist-in-residence with the UH Cougar Marching Band. Daniel Bernard Roumain is a New York-based composer who will be working and performing with the band over the next three years. There is no greater opportunity to champion the university than to do it through the “Spirit of Houston,” but we hope this project will demonstrate that there are many ways to connect with an audience. Just because something is experimental doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to a wide audience, and just because it appeals to a wide audience doesn’t mean it won’t be sophisticated and complex. We are also working with the bold and radical artist Sehba Sarwar over the next two years and she conducts research in several Houston neighborhoods and develops site specific public events that speak to her current focus. Further down the road, we are looking forward to two museum partnerships: one with the Blaffer Art Museum on their exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, and another with The Menil Collection on a joint residency, exhibition, and series of public programs by the artist Dario Robleto. There is much, much more, so stay tuned.



Images courtesy of The Mitchell Center for the Arts.

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