Once regarded, not without justification, as a cultural backwater of strip malls and sprawl, Houston has enjoyed growing recognition for its art scene in recent decades. Credit for much of the rise in the city’s international art profile goes to the prestige of the Menil Collection, which houses one of the most important privately assembled art collections in the world. No less significant is the explosive growth of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) under its longtime director, the late Peter C. Marzio, who more than quadrupled the size of its collection and grew its endowment to more than $1 billion before his untimely death in December. The MFAH’s Core Program, which offers one- and two-year residencies for artists and critics–famous alumni include Julie Mehretu, Shahzia Sikander and Annette Lawrence–has served as a magnet for outside talent. But even visitors familiar with the reputations of the Menil, the MFAH and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), the city’s senior kunsthalle, invariably express astonishment at the breadth and depth of Houston’s art scene. Indeed, the number of galleries has only expanded since 2008 brought the double-whammy of a global recession and Hurricane Ike, the third costliest cyclone in US history, which took direct aim at the city and left billions of dollars worth of damage in its wake. Filling a surprisingly rich and varied niche between the major museums and a vibrant commercial gallery sector is a healthy ecosystem of nonprofit art spaces that had just started to emerge when Marzio (and the first Core Fellows) arrived in 1982. Beginning in 1979, a wave of new nonprofits ushered in a renewed focus on local artists the museums had neglected, brought performance art where previously there had been little to none, and made Houston an important center for lens-based media.
Perhaps fittingly for a city whose lack of zoning and decidedly unsentimental approach to historic preservation have contributed to its status as a site of ongoing creative destruction, Houston’s kunsthalle culture can be said to have been sparked by a fire. Late one afternoon in 1979, lightning struck the power source in the University of Houston’s graduate-student art studios, causing enough damage to render the building useless, so the studios were moved to a cavernous metal warehouse in Houston’s largely industrial East End. The Lawndale Art and Performance Annex, as it was then known, became Houston’s first alternative art space, one that mounted not just student work but that of national and international artists while hosting performances from a Black Flag concert to a staging of Philip Glass’ The Panther. Now known as the Lawndale Art Center and occupying a restored Museum District Art Deco building that once housed a cafeteria, Lawndale’s wildest days may be behind it, but it’s stayed true to its artist-driven origins. Artists and curators submit exhibition proposals that are reviewed by a programming committee of regional artists and arts professionals, who also make up a third of the board of directors. On view through September 24, Lawndale’s current round of shows includes “Detritus,” an installation of ceramicist Jeff Forster’s hulking but ephemeral outdoor sculptures made from reclaimed building materials coated in clay; and “Southern/Pacific,” the first installment of a changing three-city group show of artists from Houston, Marfa, and Portland, OR, guest-curated by Paul Middendorf of Portland’s galleryHOMELAND.
Lawndale’s artist-driven energy proved contagious, and the city’s arts infrastructure exploded during the 1980s despite the effects of the oil bust on the local economy. Another artist-founded venture, downtown’s DiverseWorks ArtSpace, opened in 1983 and quickly became a fountainhead of experimental visual, literary and performing arts programming. DiverseWorks brought such performance artists as Annie Sprinkle, Pomo Afro Homos and members of the so-called NEA Four to Houston before they gained international reputations and has mounted such acclaimed exhibitions as “William Pope.L: eRacism” (2003), “Thought Crimes: The Art of Subversion” (2005), and this year’s “This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship Between Land and Identity,” which featured work by 43 artists from 19 tribal nations across the United States. Next up, as a counterpoint to fall’s infusion of art fairs, DiverseWorks is putting on “State Fair” (September 9 October 29), in which artists from around Texas will fill the main gallery with projects related to street commerce, underground exchange and other alternatives to the commercial art economy. Concurrently with “State Fair,” DiverseWorks will kick off the second year of “Grandalism,” a season-long series of street art commissions curated by GONZO247, the godfather of Houston’s graffiti movement and founder of Aerosol Warfare Gallery; and the latest iteration of “flickerlounge,” a season-long program of rotating full-length films, shorts and video presentations.
The arrival and growth of Lawndale and DiverseWorks shook up the city’s art community and prompted more senior kunsthalles such as CAMH and UH’s Blaffer Art Museum (formerly Blaffer Gallery), both of which have undergone shifts in emphasis and identity over the decades, to pay more attention to local artists. In fact, Blaffer director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli has used Blaffer’s ongoing renovation of what has long been one of Houston’s most physically challenging spaces for curators as an occasion to give Houston artists a new platform. The series “Window Into Houston” showcases local developments in a pair of windows at 110 Milam, a downtown building that was once part of a brewery complex. On view through September 28, “Window Into Houston: Patrick Renner” presents the Houston artist’s collaboration with high school students enrolled in the summer edition of Blaffer’s Young Artist Apprenticeship Program. Renner and the students used collage, sculpture, lights and kinetic movement triggered by passers-by to transform the windows into what Renner describes as “oculi that have the dual role of focusing viewership on the architecture and becoming the eyes of the building.” The next “Window Into Houston” (October 6 – January 5) will feature the work of sculptor Dennis Harper, whose witty 2009 Lawndale exhibition “Ritual Prototypes for the Afterlife” transformed the main gallery into a contemporary tomb humorously modeled after that of Tutankhamun, but made from such non-Tut-worthy materials as foam-core and polyvinyl chloride. Viewers wishing to see WORK Architecture Company (WORKac)’s renderings of Blaffer’s renovations, which include such features as a cantilevered interior staircase–replacing one that used to disrupt gallery space–aligned with a new streetside entrance, should check out “WORKac” (September 24 – October 30) at UH’s nearby College of Architecture Gallery, which will also host Blaffer’s Young Artist Apprenticeship Program exhibition (November 2 – 16).
Since 1995, Rice University Art Gallery has embodied the virtues of doing one thing exceptionally well. Under director Kim Davenport’s leadership, artists from Yayoi Kusama to El Anatsui to Sarah Oppenheimer have transformed Rice Gallery–the only US university museum exclusively devoted to installation art–with site-specific commissions. In many cases, the artists are making site-specific work for the first time and rely on Davenport, assistant curator Josh Fischer and Rice students to help them realize their visions. That’s true of Los Angeles-based artist Ana Serrano, whose “Salon of Beauty” (September 29 – December 11) will turn Rice Gallery into a cityscape that, aptly enough for a Houston exhibition, is inspired by her observations “of the unexpected and ephemeral nature of a city constantly being made and unmade by its residents.”
Artists also routinely transform a group of renovated shotgun houses in southeast Houston’s historic, mostly African-American Third Ward neighborhood, at Project Row Houses, which New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman has called “the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country.” At once a neighborhood-renewal project and an experiment in Beuysian social sculpture, Project Row Houses was launched by artist and community activist Rick Lowe in 1993 and has grown to a six-block campus with 40 properties that include 12 artist exhibition and/or residency spaces, seven houses for young mothers, office spaces, a community gallery, a park, and low-income residential and commercial spaces. Local, national and international artists conduct residencies that culminate in four-month “rounds” of installations in seven of the original row houses. While the rounds often feature themes–ranging from identity issues to commemorating blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins–artists Sharon Kopriva, Patrick McFarlin, Robert McKnight, Carrie Schneider, Charles Washington and the Communograph House with Ashley Hunt will have free reign in Round 35 (October 15 – March 4).
A desire to launch artist residences for craft practitioners played a key role in the 2001 founding of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which is winding down its first alumni group show, “Crafting Live(s): 10 Years of Artists-in-Residence” (through September 3), featuring works by about half the artists–including Jeff Forster; jeweler-sculptor Edward Lane McCartney; and fiber/mixed-media artist Anila Quayyum Agha–who have spent time in HCCC studios. “In Residence 2010” (October 1 – December 4) will present the work of 2010 HCCC residents Elaine Bradford, Libby DeLyria, Jessica Dupuis, Clark Kellogg, Pamela Sager, Kristi Rae Wilson and Lisa Wilson. The center also originates and hosts exhibitions that question the boundaries between the functional and the nonfunctional or examine the ways in which traditional craft media such as clay, fiber, glass, metal and wood interact with such “fine art” forms as sculpture, installation and video. Case in point: “Beyond Useful & Beautiful: Rethinking Domestic Craft” (October 1 – December 4), HCCC curator Anna Walker’s roundup of 13 US artists whose work explores contemporary craft’s relationship to the home. Concurrently, “Soundforge” will present an interactive installation addressing the musicality of metal forging with video, audio and sculptural elements by metalsmith (and former HCCC artist-in-residence) Gabriel Craig and Houston-area composer Michael Remson.
On the edge of the Third Ward, in a metal building on a lot where an auto body and paint manufacturing shop once sat, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art aims to fill what few gaps remain in the city’s art ecosystem. Founded in 2002 by former CAMH director James Harithas and his wife Ann Harithas, an artist and philanthropist whose private Ineri Foundation funds the museum, the Station has taken advantage of its independence with such landmark exhibitions as “Made in Palestine” (2003) and last year’s “Because We Are,” a queer-themed group show that
included screenings of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly months before the Smithsonian Institution, under political pressure from Congressional Republicans, yanked it from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” On view through September 18 is “George Gittoes: Witness to War,” the first US solo show for the Australian painter, photographer and filmmaker who has set up mobile studios in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor and other global hot spots. A solo exhibition of sculpture and mixed-media works by Russian conceptual artists Andrei Molodkin runs October 15 – February 15.
No discussion of Houston’s kunsthalles would be complete without a look at its photo venues. In 1981, the Houston Center for Photography was founded as an artists’ organization, partly to fill a void left by the closure of Cronin Gallery, one of the city’s early photography venues. In 1982, it incorporated as a nonprofit and has grown to boast seven staff members and hundreds of volunteers at its current space steps away from the Menil campus. HCP grants two fellowships each year–one to a Houston artist, one to a national or international photographer, and its exhibition program similarly reflects a balance of regional and global artists. HCP’s next round of shows (September 9 – November 6) includes “Pelle Cass: Selected People,” featuring the Brookline, MA-based artist’s composite photos of passersby in public spaces; and “Adrian Fernandez: Life Style,” the US debut of the Cuban photographer’s study of the social and aesthetic dynamics governing contemporary Cuba’s “wealthy class.”
Two years after HCP was launched, documentary photographers Frederick Baldwin and Wendy Watriss and European gallery director Petra Benteler founded FotoFest, the nonprofit arts and education organization that has made Houston an international photography Mecca. Every two years since 1986, FotoFest has presented a citywide month of photography that takes over more than 100 spaces, from commercial galleries to museums to corporate lobbies. Recent iterations have focused on lens-based work from China (2008) and contemporary US photography (2010); the theme of the FotoFest 2012 Biennial (March 16 – April 29) will be “Contemporary Russian Photography: Post-war Avant-garde to Today.” Baldwin and Watress will co-curate the biennial’s five official photography, video and multimedia exhibitions with independent Russian curators Evgeny Berezner and Irina Tchmyreva, while the dozens of independent shows timed to coincide with the biennial may or may not be related to the theme. Since 1990, FotoFest has also produced inter-biennial exhibitions, including its Talent in Texas series spotlighting emerging artists from all corners of the state; HCP began co-presenting the series with FotoFest in 2008. FotoFest and HCP are also teaming up on “People” (October 17 – December 2), featuring work by 15 contemporary photographers including Geoff Winningham, Soody Sharifi and Ben Tecumseh DeSoto who explore the city’s subcultures, interest groups and leaders. Part of Houston 175, a series of events celebrating the city’s 175th anniversary, the show will be held at Allen Center One and Two, a downtown office complex that often hosts biennial exhibits. FotoFest will also mount “International Discoveries III” (November 3 – December 23), featuring work FotoFest curators saw in 2010 and 2011 during travels in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Canada and the United States. Among the confirmed participants is Louie Palu, whose stark black-and-white series Afghanistan: Garmsir Marines captures the tired faces of US Marines serving in the longest war in American history.
Further enriching an already lively mix are artist-run nonprofits Box 13 ArtSpace and Skydive–both hotbeds of noncommercial programming –microcinemas Aurora Picture Show and 14 Pews, and Art League Houston, which supplements education programs with curated exhibitions led by its annual “Texas Artist of the Year” solo show (September 9 – November 12). This year’s winner, Nacogdoches-based artist Mary McCleary, is known for her obsessively complex allegorical collages and was recently given a retrospective at the Grace Museum in Abilene.
Adding to Houstonians’ enjoyment of this bounty is the lively cross-pollination between institutions and galleries. It’s difficult to go to an opening reception–whether at a major museum, a top-tier commercial gallery, or a resourceful artist’s living room–without running into curators from the MFAH, the Menil, CAMH and Houston’s many alternative spaces. It’s even harder to keep track of the collaborations between institutions that seem to sprout with ever-increasing frequency — or to predict where they might lead. But as word about the city’s kunsthalle infrastructure spreads, expect the Houston art scene’s spirit of experimentation and innovation to keep pace.