Eyes toward the future: Houston’s Hobby Center Builds a New Vision

As Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022, its board, staff and its new president and CEO Mark Folkes decided to get contemplative about their identity, especially when it comes to the “Center” in the name. Certainly, Hobby, with two stages, serves as an important center for performances in the Theater District, but Folkes says that anniversary led to a deeper question.

“Not a single one of us is here because we have this masterfully designed, beautiful, iconic building. It’s not about the building. Ultimately, what is our role in the community?”

Answering that question for the last two years has led to a new vision of what the Hobby Center represents and how it can grow to be not just a space for touring and locally produced shows but also a supporting center of Houston’s performing arts community.

During our discussion about that change in vision, Folkes acknowledged that audiences and local performing artists alike probably think of Hobby as a venue with a stage to rent to local arts organizations and companies, but using the language of one of the Hobby’s board members, their new goal is to grow as a “connector, conveyor and incubator for Houston audiences, art-makers and art organizations” and to “lift up the art ecosystem in our city.”

To set upon this journey into their next twenty years, Folkes says their introspection has led them to new goals, some of which are already visible to audiences and some behind the scenes initiatives that we might never be aware of but artists will.

The biggest onstage changes will come as the Hobby Center moves into more presenting. Of course we all know the Broadway at the Hobby Center series brings in some of the biggest Broadway touring shows to town. What Houston audiences might not realize is that in their partnership with the Broadway Across America organization, Folkes and his staff make decisions about what shows will best fit Houston audiences.

“We are ultimately driving the conversations about what our audiences are interested in seeing,” explains Folkes.

But beyond Broadway at Hobby, they want to get into the presenting shows business. In the fall of 2023, they announced an entire new presenting series, appropriately titled Beyond Broadway to bring in iconic stage stars for concert performances. This inaugural season opened with Tony Award-winning Texan, Renée Elise Goldsberry and will later feature Broadway and screen stars Alan Cumming (March 6-7) and Patti LuPone (March 21) and the West End’s vocal group phenomenon The Barricade Boys (June 6-7).

Many of these performers do solo tours, but for venue reasons hardly ever make it to Houston. When I mentioned that I once went to Austin to see a touring Alan Cumming and wondered the whole drive why Houston wasn’t on his schedule, Folkes said he had the same question when Patti LuPone’s solo show stopped in most Texas cities but not Houston. He says these kinds of concert tours that no other Houston venue is picking up are a great example of how Hobby can leverage their resources to present new programming.

“We take that and say O.K, we’re going to do this really cool thing and present an artist who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform in our city.”

Another presenting series in the works is Live at the Founders Club. The spacious, but mostly underused, upper level event space in-between Sarofim Hall and Zilkha Hall, the Founders Club, will become home to a series of intimate concerts from local, Texas and sometimes national performers.

“Every other major market across the country has multiple supper club, or cabaret type performance venues, so this is the opportunity to do that in Houston,” says Folkes.

Along with these new series, Hobby has and will take on a larger role as presenter of local performing arts companies, like ISHIDA Dance and Urban Souls Dance Company. While they will always continue to rent their stages, as a presenter this sets up a new relationship with artists.

“When we act as a presenting partner, we are paying artists and organizations to present their work on our stages. In addition, we’re leveraging other kinds of resources on behalf of our partners to extend their existing capacities and amplify their work,” explains Deborah Lugo, Vice President of Programming and Education.

One of the new vision goals is to deepen their education and community engagement initiatives. Education has been a part of the Hobby’s mission since opening. For a decade, one of their largest educational programs, the Discovery Series, has invited students and teachers into the Hobby for special productions from Houston-based artists. But recently they’ve enhanced partnerships with other arts organizations, including Performing Arts Houston, as they commit to bring one of PAH’s commissioned New/Now Houston artists into their Discovery Series each year.

“The impact of the Discovery Series is twofold. We provide access and educational experiences for students who might not have access to high quality arts programming in a world class venue,” explains Folkes, adding that the other side of this equations means “supporting Houston-based arts organization through the process because we engage producers in the work of preparing and presenting what’s happening on stage.”

This support for local arts also ties in with their goal to strengthen Houston’s art ecosystem. While something of an abstract idea that audiences won’t necessarily see as a new production, it’s a goal that might have the most resonance into the next decades. Going beyond the Hobby Center as a space they want to find ways to aid Houston artists and arts organizations in strengthening their work.

Something they’ve done recently is connecting local performers to some touring artists in the form of workshops and training sessions. For example, when Tina—The Tina Turner Musical was in town they hosted a dance workshop for professional local dancers with some of the Tina company members.

As Houston’s annual Fade to Black Play Festival expands into a week-long performing arts festival in 2025, the Hobby will support its organizers by hosting stakeholders meetings. They’ll also undertake some of their own programming and feature work created by Black artists during the week of the festival.

When I asked Folkes about how he sees the many changes they’ve made since he first took on the role of CEO, he said they’ve gone far beyond what he imagined, but that there’s still much they want to achieve.

“We’re presenting the Beyond Broadway Series and Live at the Founders Club. We’re building new muscles. That work is not the same as presenting touring Broadway. It’s very different in every single way possible: how we engage and interact with artists, how we market and communicate to audiences, how we attract and retain the financial resources possible to make it happen. This is all new for us.”

But as they set that vision for the future, they keep their eyes on that bigger Houston arts picture. “We’re working to think beyond our own four walls and how we lift up the community overall.”