In the early 90s, a group of high school students visited Rick Lowe’s artist studio in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood. A student asked how Lowe could use his art to help foster change in the community. Lowe didn’t have an answer, but in 1993, gathered a group of local artists to see how they could use art to revitalize the Third Ward. Inspired by artist Joseph Beuys’ idea of a “social sculpture,” Lowe and the group of artists bought 22 dilapidated row houses that line a street in downtown Houston. The art-based project became known as the nonprofit, Project Row Houses.
23 years later, Project Row Houses has grown into an artist community comprised of houses that bring museum-quality work to the historically black community. The project also offers multiple artist residency programs, temporary shelter for single mothers, and after school and public art programs. In 2003, in partnership with Rice University, Project Row Houses launched Row House CDC, to build 57 permanent affordable housing units for families living in the northern section of the Third Ward community.
The official mission statement of Project Row Houses is “to be the catalyst for transforming community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture,” according to its website. Assata Richards, the community liaison for the project, and a recipient of the Project Row Houses’ Young Mothers Program before earning a PhD, tells The Creators Project, “We use art and creativity for activism that challenge the values and norms of the traditional art cannon.” Richards explains, “This round [of exhibitions] use art to engage issues of police brutality, immigration, and imprisonment. All of those issues embody our willingness to see value and celebrate artists who address and redress the issues of forgotten members of our society.”
Currently on view at the shotgun-style gallery spaces is curator Raquel de Anda’s exhibition, Project Row Houses' Round 44 | Shattering the Concrete: Artists, Activists, and Instigators. The show, which explores politics and culture on a community level, features seven site-specific installations by artists and collectives, including The Argus Project, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, People’s Paper Co-op, Storyline Media, and Verbobala.
“The work in Shattering the Concrete embodies an expansive understanding of art,” writes de Anda in the exhibition catalog. “One that is both analytical and experiential, one that develops an analysis of our socioeconomic conditions and then engages with communities to alter the conditions of our daily lives.” She asks, “How does art serve to break apart what has been deemed concrete and insurmountable, and reformulate reality into something new?”
When Project Row Houses began, it was one of the first social practice art initiatives of its kind. Lowe’s project has inspired similar works of “social sculpture” in black communities around the country. Artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation’s work on the Southside of Chicago and painter Mark Bradford’s Art+ Practice Foundation’s efforts in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, are two examples of community-based art practices that use contemporary art to empower underprivileged communities. These large-scale community art practices blur the lines between art and social action, and suggest that the solutions that art can offer increasingly lie beyond traditional galleries.
“One of our key goals is to have a contributing impact on our community,” explains Richards, “Project Row Houses wants to build upon its work and create a platform and process for a new generation of artists to understand the value of social practice and use it in their work.” She says, “We are taking all that we have learned and rooting ourselves deeper in the community to affect the future of our neighborhood.”
Shattering the Concrete: Artists, Activists, and Instigators continues through June 19. For more information on Project Row House, click here.