Interview with Rick Lowe

Bad at Sports

Interview with Rick Lowe

By Bad at Sports April 23, 2015

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


On a Monday morning in late November 2014, Bad at Sports sat down with artist, community organizer, and MacArthur Fellow Rick Lowe, who was wrapping up a ten-day residency with UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center. As part of the residency, Lowe visited classrooms, conducted studio critiques, toured art and community projects throughout the Bay Area, met with local leaders, and delivered two lectures about his work with the acclaimed Project Row Houses (PRH).

PRH is a community-based arts and culture nonprofit organization in Houston’s northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods. As an artist, Lowe’s unconventional approach to community revitalization transformed this long-neglected Houston neighborhood into a visionary public art project that continues to evolve, two decades since its inception.

You can listen to the full interview on Bad at SportsEpisode 487.

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Patricia Maloney: What was the conversation like when they called you to tell you that you had won a MacArthur Fellowship?

Rick Lowe: It was an interesting conversation. First of all, it took a long time to happen because I kept getting a phone call from an unfamiliar number, and I didn’t answer it for a couple of weeks. [Laughs] And I finally answered only because I was sitting in a meeting that I wanted to get out of. But when I picked it up, they just said straight up, “We’re calling from the MacArthur Foundation, and we wanted to let you know that you’re one of the 2014 Fellows.”

PM:What was your initial response? Because mine would be, “Okay, who is playing a joke on me?”

RL:Yeah, that’s generally the feeling because it comes out of nowhere. I listened while she explained how the process works, and I was a little stunned. But it wasn’t so much that conversation as it was going back afterwards to a meeting that I didn’t want to be in and sitting there, thinking, “What just happened?!”

Rick Lowe at Project Row Houses, Houston. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

PM:The work that earned you the MacArthur Award—Project Row Houses—can be described from so many different angles without even beginning to encompass it as a whole. It is a public art program, an artist residency program, a program for young, single women, an architectural restoration and preservation project, a community program, and the list goes on from there. How would you encapsulate the work you do with Project Row Houses?

RL:I frame Project Row Houses and other projects that I work on within a context of social sculpture. Joseph Beuys coined that term and defined it as the ways in which we shape and mold the world around us. That’s been the essence of how I approach my work: shaping and molding community as a sculptural form. All the things that you named are elements of what Project Row Houses is. But at its core, it’s really just about thinking the social environment as a sculptural form so that we understand some of the everyday, mundane things that happen—from transitional housing for single mothers or education programs or real-estate development—not only from the standpoint of the practical outcomes from these services but also the poetic elements that can be layered into them.

Brian Andrews: Can we start with the backdrop, which would be the neighborhood—the Third Ward in Houston—before this project began? What were the initial ideas that led you to found Project Row Houses?  

RL:I was trained as a painter, and I was always trying to figure out how do work that impacted communities in a direct way. So I did volunteer work within the Third Ward neighborhood where Project Row Houses exists, and one day happened to join a bus tour with a group that was looking at dangerous places that they thought should be torn down. At a certain point, they stopped the bus and [the tour organizers] pointed to what they considered the worst place in the entire neighborhood. It was about a four-block area with twenty-two little shotgun-style houses scattered throughout and a lot of vacant land that was all overgrown. I connected them with another artist, Dr. John Biggers, who made paintings about shotgun houses and shotgun communities. He depicted them in such a beautiful, poetic, and inspirational way. That’s when I made the connection and thought maybe we could utilize that site and build a living John Biggers painting that would take the shape of a social sculpture.

BA:So in a way, it actually began with an aesthetic, with a visual idea?

RL:I mean, it initially started with a problematic circumstance: blight within a neighborhood. That was the core of the problem, or of the opportunity. And as I was contemplating that blight as a problem, I was able to think about the poetics of addressing that problem and contextualize it in a poetic way.

BA:Which is such a beautiful notion of how to look at these complex, interrelated issues of society that are presented in that situation. How do you start something like that? How do you get to, “I have this idea of starting a social sculpture. I see these houses actually embodying something”?

RL:It’s a journey, right? As I talk about it with hindsight, it seems so much clearer. In reality, it was more fluid than just seeing the houses and trying to think about how art could impact the community in a practical way. I was also working with another group of African American artists who were interested in the community.  And in casual conversations, they were asking, “What if we wanted to do a project within an African American community?” And I just suggested, “Why don’t we take these houses [in the Third Ward] and start there? We can clean them up and do installations there.”

With that support from that small core of artists, I did some research, and once I found the owners, started working things out with them and talking to other people in the community, and it just slowly evolved. It wasn’t a transactional thing. It was much more experiential. Different experiences led to different opportunities.

Archival image of shotgun houses in Houston's Third Ward, n.d. Courtesy of Open Charter.

PM:What has been the trajectory of that idea from a notion of social sculpture to one of bringing together the very different populations who interact with this project? So that the young mothers in transitional housing share with the Core Residency artists the vision of PRH as a social sculpture?

RL:All of those things got woven together in a very organic way. Once we got the opportunity to sign a lease, purchase agreement on the properties, we started to clean it up, and that was an act all in itself, not connected to any of these things. But once we started, young children came from the neighborhood and hung out, which planted the seed for the education programs.

After establishing the arts program and the education program, people hanging around began to point out that housing was a real problem in the neighborhood. So that gave us the opportunity to think about housing in a poetic way: How do we talk about housing and ask questions about housing and provide it to someone in a way that could be inspirational? That’s when we decided to focus on young mothers, because there was a large number of single mothers in the neighborhood. And so every aspect of the work that we’ve been doing has been woven together through the experience of doing one thing and having it connect us to another.

BA:This project has been going for twenty years now, right? So generations have been passing through at this point. What changes have you seen with the project in terms of the people who were already established in this community when you arrived versus the youth and other people for whom you’ve always been part of their community?

RL:Seeing generations of people come through is one of the great rewards for long-term engagement in projects. You get to see the fruits of the work in interesting ways. A couple of weeks back, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I got a text from one of our former young people in our program who’s an incredible young woman. She’s now at Harvard getting her PhD in education. It’s amazing to work with young people at an early age and see them move on in their life to become really great contributors.

But there are also the people that were already in the neighborhood, and there’s been some interesting dynamics there. There are people who understand that framing Project Row Houses as an art project gives it a different kind of leverage in the broader context of the city that a lot of the community development folks haven’t been able to access. And there’s a lot of respect for that. But there are also people that warn you that that is a very privileged place to occupy, and you have to be careful to not utilize that to propel yourself beyond the ecology of leadership in the neighborhood structure. There are people in our community who were leaders when I got there to whom I still defer. Even though I may be the person that gets a call from the mayor, I call Deloyd Parker, who runs the community center down there, because he understands the neighborhood in a longer historical context than I do.

Project Row Houses shotgun houses. Courtesy of Project Row Houses, Houston.

PM:Can you expand a bit more on that term: the ecology of neighborhood leadership?

RL:Communities are really interesting.  They exist, basically, because of a certain order. On the one hand, I think that order should be fluid. On the other hand, I think you have to be aware of it and honor it.  There are people who feel that their skin in the game is much, much deeper than someone new coming along. There’s one person who just flat out tells me all the time, “Okay, you’ve been here [a while], but my family’s been here for four generations.” And that means something even if it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of how things happen or how transactions happen within a neighborhood. It means something historically. It’s a valuable thing for me and the project to honor that and make it a part of the layered complexity of the place, as opposed to wiping it out.

PM:So you’re not talking about the civic structure and elected leaders. You’re very much talking about the people whose investments are in the locality, their family’s history, the histories of their neighborhood, and about people who feel that they understand what their neighborhood needs.

RL:Oh yeah. Elected officials, they come and go, you know? The real people to me are the people that run the community centers. They’re the teachers that have been around. They’re the people who hold court at the domino table under certain trees and at certain corners. Those are the people that you build a relationship with, and they’ll tell you when students are doing things, going in way that shouldn’t necessarily go. They are a valuable part of the neighborhood, and if you embrace that, they become even more valuable. They make the neighborhood work.

The strange thing, though, is that they’re the people that are the most vulnerable as the neighborhood develops. For many of them, the only thing they have that anchors them are these positions that are informal. They’re not deeply rooted in any kind of structural element, so when a house gets sold with the tree where they sit, they get moved on.

PM:You get access to a certain level of funding, a certain level of visibility within the art community. I’m curious about the line that you have to walk and how you think about modeling Project Row Houses, or how people look to your project as a model on both sides: as something that could be seen within an arts context as well as within neighborhood revitalization and community-driven projects.

RL:From the internal neighborhood side, we try to be respectful of existing communities and work with them as much as possible on joint projects so that they get to benefit from the resources that we may have access to that they don’t. That becomes a major way of keeping peace, because there’s always the threat of the new kids on the block who have access to resources and become the leader above the other institutions that have been around for a while. That rubs people the wrong way.

We’re always trying to figure out how to keep a balance and keep people understanding that we’re not trying to become the community leader, we just want to play a role, we just want bring the resources that we have into the mix for everyone else.

With the art world, we try to encourage a higher awareness of the balance of who gets to do what and to leverage arts institutions as much as they leverage us. One of the reasons Project Row Houses was able to come about, to be quite frank, was because the art world needed it. I mean, it came about shortly after the embattled NEA was cut down to nothing and as people thought of art as being such an elite thing. We became a valuable opportunity for the art world to invest in, to show that it was more democratic than people thought. And we benefited from that, but they also benefited as well. As we continue to build relationships and work with larger cultural institutions, we’re always trying to make sure that a balance exists in terms of the benefits.

Third Ward Community Market. Courtesy of Project Row Houses, Houston.

BA:That extends this discussion of how an institution benefits a community and the people who really have their skin in the game. It makes me think of some of your more recent work, because you’ve applied some of these activities in places such as post-Katrina New Orleans. Were there times where you were seen as an outsider or interloper? Or had your experience given you tools and ways to actually organically mesh with a community and make sure that the ledger book is even on both sides for everybody involved?

RL:I just want to be as clear as possible about this: I’ve never worked on a project in which I didn’t feel like I was an outsider. And I own that. Even with Project Row Houses—even though I was living in Houston and I was doing volunteer work within that neighborhood before starting the project—I still understand that I’m an outsider. There are people who’ve been there for much, much longer than I have and there’s also a certain thing that I bring with me to the projects that creates a different relationship for me to it.

Unlike me, [the residents] are not going anywhere. If things work, it’s great. If things don’t work, they’re still there. If things don’t work out, I can go. I have mobility that is different. It’s always important for me to acknowledge that, and so I always consider myself an outsider. It provides an advantage and an opportunity to build better relationships to people within the neighborhoods. I can find my mentors, I can find people who have deeper connections there and honor them in the process, and help them understand me as a resource for them and not the other way around.

PM:How do all of these things come together? It sounds like there is great continuity between the education programs and the public art programs and the artists-in-residence there, but how do they recognize each other? And feel like they are a part of a community rather than drawing delineations between themselves?

RL:We try to encourage some of the connections through programming. The mothers get to work with artists, and many times their children are in the education programs, or sometimes they’re artists themselves. There are some programmatic things that we push along, but we also understand that everybody is not going to experience things the same way. We try to create an aesthetic vibe, an aesthetic experience with people, within the context of the neighborhood, whether they’re connected to any of the programs or not. They may not necessarily know the connectedness of things, but there’s something they find that’s valuable to them. Sometimes that value is reflected back to us in ways that heighten our awareness of what’s working or of where there are gaps and holes to explore. Part of it is having a sense of connectedness with people, and the other is about generating an opportunity for people to have an experience that heightens their awareness of their ability to contribute in their own ways.

Young Mothers Residential Program. Courtesy of Project Row Houses, Houston.

BA:When you think about this project, it’s so multifarious. How do you know if things are successful or not successful, or disasters or home runs? How do you look at this thing and direct yourself forward?

RL:There are times where you miss, for sure. There are times where you just miss things that were probably better than you thought because you were looking at them through the wrong lens. Or things that you’re pushing for but they’re just not working. There are a lot of different ways that that happens, and we try to keep fluidity and an open door possibility through which we can respond in an ongoing way.

BA:So failure is okay? You just fail forward and just keep swinging at it?

RL:Yeah. Just keep going. And those failures help you along the way. So for instance, we’ve been trying for the last six or so years to support artists or creative people in the neighborhood around the notion of food because there are no food opportunities there. We’ve tried a number of different things. For instance, this woman who had community gardens and is a chef wanted to do this restaurant thing. We incubated her for two years, and it just did not happen. But then, just within the last six months, there was another woman that wanted to explore a food co-op. The energy and everything clicked perfectly, and with the small amount of money and space that we were able to give her, she started this thing off and in the first month cleared $5,000. That’s one of those things that is obviously a success for us, but even with the one that didn’t make it, there were some successful elements that we learned from along the way.

PM:Related to this, what are the changes that the education program is undergoing?

RL:It’s funny you ask that because we’re right in the middle of that. A lot of people want to define you by the thing that you do, and we’ve pushed against that, because sometimes the things that you do are no longer the best or most important things to address in the community. My role as the artist engaged in this project is to be able to push and challenge people and offer new ways of seeing and thinking about things. How do you provide educational opportunities that connect with what the children really need?

We started to think about the educational needs of the parents, and we’re in the process of shifting the educational programming to more of a caseworker kind of management program, where someone is monitoring each household from an education standpoint. It’s about knowing what school each child is going to, what extracurricular activities they are interested and involved in, and trying to connect them throughout the city using our networks. So their programs might not be at Project Row Houses, they may be at other parts of the city. Similarly, we want to promote to adults that education is a lifelong journey and everybody should constantly educate themselves with new possibilities of learning and knowing. It sounds simple, but it’s actually a radical way of thinking about education in neighborhoods where we work.

And it’s very challenging. It’s easier to have a program where you bring children and they just all work on the same thing, but it’s much harder to cater it to each child and each parent. [But it creates] a deeper level of engagement for the parents with their child and their education goals.

Stewart Morris Family House. Courtesy of Project Row Houses, Houston.

PM:It’s interesting that you would term yourself as the artist rather than the director or the leader within Project Row Houses.

RL:I shouldn’t have said the artist; I should have said one of the artists. I’m known as the founder, which means that I am the person who did most of the conceptual framing of things, but there are artists around me that participate in significant ways. It’s really how I see myself in the project; my role is more of an artist-in residence at the organization that I founded. It puts me in a better place to explore and do the creative work that I’m interested in, as opposed to the management and operational kinds of things. Project Row Houses is my rock, it’s my home, it’s my main studio, community, and laboratory, but I also get to go out and work on different things. Directors have to defend their work. I don’t want to have to defend the work that I’m doing. I want to be in a position that I can push people, and sometimes it’s being able to push against myself or against the institution.

PM:How do you perceive the limits of Project Row Houses?

RL:I think the limits and the possibilities are all defined by the experiences that you’re having at a particular time. Early on, the experiences that we were having within the neighborhood, connecting with people, provided opportunities or insight about issues of education and housing and even real estate. It wasn’t like we had this long vision to buy a bunch of real estate. It came through the experiences and the practice that we were doing within the neighborhood that people started offering us property.

There are limitations that are put in front of us because of the experiences that we’re having now. For example, real-estate prices have gone up greatly, so we’re not going to be able to continue to land-bank in the way that we were. So what are the other opportunities? One is to solidify ourselves as the cultural hub for African American experiences in that community. There are cultural facilities that we’ll probably pursue, and those decisions are made based on the perspectives the experiences that we’re having now offer us.

BA:So the community that started as a context for this sculpture became a collaborator, not only on the individual level but because of the actual landscape. This sculpture evolved through organic growth based on where the actual interests are. Not the growth-for-growth’s-sake that you see in some other places, but growth where growth can flourish.

RL:Our whole purpose is to be partners with the people that live there and to be creative in helping them achieve the aspirations that they have for themselves and for the community. We just play a role in helping people do what they want to do.

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Originally trained as a painter, Rick Lowe shifted the focus of his artistic practice in the early 1990s in order to address more directly the pressing social, economic, and cultural needs of his community. With a group of fellow artists, he organized the purchase and restoration of a block and a half of derelict properties—twenty-two shotgun houses from the 1930s—in Houston’s predominantly African American Third Ward and turned them into Project Row Houses (PRH), an unusual amalgam of arts venue and community support center.

Rick Lowe attended Columbus College and studied visual arts at Texas Southern University in Houston. His work has been exhibited at such national and international venues as Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and the Venice Architecture Biennale. Lowe was named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2014.

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