Rosine Kouamen, Anlu is Protest. Photo credit: Alex Barber.
The socially-engaged art practice of Project Row Houses
“It’s one of the few places in Houston where you’re free to do whatever you want.” That’s how an artist described Project Row Houses. Of course, an artist’s project still has to engage or relate to the community in some way. But, as I realized during my own short residency there this past summer, one is given a great deal of freedom to imagine a work of art.
Lately Project Row Houses, an alternative art space dedicated to African-American art and culture and nestled in the heart of the Third Ward, has been getting some much-deserved media attention. It has attracted an extraordinary list of artists since its founding in 1993 by Rick Lowe, James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith. Artists and researchers have come from around the country and the world to work in and around the seven renovated 1920s shotgun houses that make up PRH’s art spaces, and the remaining houses dedicated to the organization’s Young Mothers’ Program.
For the past week I’ve exchanged dialogue about the space with PRH’s Public Art Director, Ryan Dennis. Dennis was kind enough to share her thoughts on curating, art making, and Project Row Houses’ role in the community.
A+C: You’re relatively new to Project Row Houses, at least when considering the 20 years the space is celebrating this year. Tell me about what attracted you to the organization and where you see it going in terms of your curatorial vision?
RD: I joined PRH in 2012 and have been attracted to the organization since I was an undergraduate student at the University of Houston. The organization is unique because of its ties to art and community. The idea that art can have an impact on the lives of people is significant and I wanted to be a part of that. PRH is located in a very important neighborhood [Third Ward] that is often overlooked, and misrepresented. That’s what drew me to the organization! So much…I wanted to learn from residents and the history of this neighborhood, have a better understanding of development in under-resourced communities, realize projects with [artists of color], and attend community meetings; there was so much, and after 2 years I continue to be drawn to the many facets of the organization!
My curatorial vision for the organization is making sure to stay fresh and relevant while creating opportunities for artists of color to engage with a space like Project Row Houses. My curatorial vision here can’t be stagnant because things are always moving – I have to be alert to those movements, and respond accordingly.
A+C: That gets me thinking about the art PRH presents, dubbed: “social practice art” by many.The more success and recognition a space like PRH gains, the more others become interested in this form of making. However, I think there’s still a great deal of stigmatization of social practice art, especially in more traditional art spaces—maybe because it’s become so popular. Would you agree with this? How do you navigate this and does it affect your curatorial vision in anyway?
RD: I personally do not like the term social practice art, but I use it, critique it, and have even organized a symposium around it! The fact of the matter is that this term is used to make people feel comfortable with an idea, a practice that artists have been engaged in for years. The term has become popularized because it is taught in academic institutions and is really attractive to funders, but the reality is that you can’t just start with social practice; one has to look in the past to realize that this work is grounded in a rich history. The term itself does not affect my curatorial vision because my practice is not the defined by ephemeral terms like this; it is about the work that is being created, the ideas that I am able to discuss with artists about public space, collaboration, socio-political issues, you know?
A+C :That’s really interesting to hear you say, especially when considering the symposium you mentioned that took place earlier this year and featured speakers such as Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford. Is there another term that you prefer to use? Or do you think one even exists that isn’t also an attempt at academicizingart-making?
RD: If a term must be used, I prefer “socially engaged art practice,” which as a term is an umbrella to a lot of things, but I think it speaks to locally specific and community-led outcomes for and with communities. Socially engaged art is an intersection between social issues, political activism, and community collaboration. I think the term is broad enough to encompass multiple ways of working in a specific framework and includes dialogue, participation, and site-specificity.
A+C: How would you describe PRH’s role in the community, not just the arts community, but Houston as a whole?
RD:You know, that is a funny question because, while we are very connected to the local arts community and the Third Ward community, we are not as connected with the Greater Houston area as much as I would like to think. It’s amazing that PRH has an international reputation while folks in Katy have no idea we exist! You can’t reach everyone obviously, so when new visitors come to PRH, we are excited to talk about the work we do and ask them to join the mailing list to stay connected. Even though we have been around for 20 years, there is still a lot that can be done in terms of audience/visitor development. It’s always good to make a new friend, so we hope to keep on reaching out while making sure our local Third Ward residents know that we are there to offer resources and serve them as much as we can.
A+C: I’m from Houston, grew up in Houston, but literally only heard about PRH when I was living abroad and looking into moving back. So, I see what you mean about locals not knowing about the space! In what ways are you all at PRH working to balance this: international vs. local visibility?
RD:It is a constant work in progress. We have also grown to have a number of “communities,” but at the end of the day, PRH is invested and committed to Third Ward. The beauty is being tied to (and responding to) the neighborhood while maintaining/initiating a global conversation.
A+C: I imagine the more well-known the space becomes the harder, yet more critical, it becomes to stay grounded in Third Ward’s community. Is that correct? In what ways have you addressed this issue?
RD:There are challenges because in order to stay grounded to Third Ward, we have to be fluid and respond to the changes of the neighborhood. I think we address this through affordable housing, and the plan to develop more housing; providing tutoring for residents; creating economic opportunities for residents through monthly markets; empowering folks share their talents through community talent show (which happens in conjunction with the monthly markets); and providing a social safety net for women, their children, and families.
A+ C: Lastly, can you tell me a little about the current Round? The ideas behind it–it’s predominately women artists, right? Was this deliberate?
RD: I was really interested in ideas of Labor – as an open-ended exploration. Process and Action emerged from me asking a set of questions, and I wanted artists to think about those [questions] and respond in their own way. As you can see, there are a number of responses that look at, to name a few, motherhood, which we often don’t attach to Labor [although it] is an act of labor and certainly connected to unwaged labor; parental-leave inequalities in the work place; international protest sourced by women and for women; and immigration. The artists will each lead a lecture in the Consciousness-Raising Lecture Series, which will kick off on December 2, 2014 with RosineKouamen, as a way to connect specific parts of their installations to the public to explore ideas in a deeper way.
In our 20-year history, I noticed that we have not had a Round dedicated to all female voices, and I wanted to change that. There are so many thoughtful female artists working in the city and beyond, and I wanted to highlight them. It is also a nod to the Young Mothers Residential Program, which is made of up women, and given the fact that this is the Round that closes are 20th anniversary celebration, I wanted to make an informal highlight.
– CHARISSE PEARLINA WESTON