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The Arty Difference Makers of Houston Arts Alliance’s Add On Art Gala — Community Changers to Know

Building a World Class City Where Art Is Appreciated and Artists Are Supported

BY // 10.18.23

Earlier, we highlighted eight artists who will be featured in Houston Arts Alliance’s Add On Art Gala, which will take place this Friday, October 20. As the date draws near, it’s time to spotlight more of the contributors and honorees behind this extraordinary evening.

This year, the Houston Arts Alliance gala honors three leaders in the city’s arts scene: the legendary Alice Valdez — founder and executive director of MECA — as well as longtime philanthropist couple Leigh and Reggie Smith.

As for who’s heading the event? The eminent Tatiana and Craig Massey return as co-chairs, joined by young power couple newcomers Meredith Flores Barker and Mason Barker.

And none of it would be possible without production managers Rosalinda Martinez and Daisy Mendoza of Eve & Grace and Casa Mendoza respectively, working diligently behind the scenes for Houston Arts Alliance to coordinate logistics for the Gala.

The event benefits Houston Arts Alliance’s disaster, equity, research and other work, which is privately funded. Additional efforts from Houston Arts Alliance includes its two contracts with the City of Houston, one to administer competitive grants to nonprofits and artists, and one to build public art projects to be included in the city’s art collection.

HAA is integral to the strength of Houston’s arts community, supporting artists and nonprofit organizations through disaster, in particular. When an arson attack at Winter Street artist studios displaced nearly 100 artists from their creative practice — their livelihood — Houston Arts Alliance stepped in with an emergency relief fund. Raising nearly $400,000, thanks to hundreds of donations from fellow artists and a large investment from Mayor Turner’s administration, Houston Arts Alliance was able to help these members of the city’s resilient arts community get back to their life’s work.

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This gala will support these good efforts — and more.

Read on to learn more about some of the Houston Arts Alliance Add on Art Gala’s true difference makers.

Mason Barker and Meredith Flores Barker; Photo by Jenny Antill (Photo by Jenny Antill)
Mason Barker & Meredith Flores Barker at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston Grand Gala in 2017 (Photo by Jenny Antill Clifton)

Meredith Flores Barker & Mason Barker

Spearheading the 2023 Houston Arts Alliance Add On Art Gala is a striking doubleheader — or should we say, a quadruple-header.

Returning chairs and longtime Houston Arts Alliance supporters Craig and Tatiana Massey are joined by an up-and-coming couple on the arts scene: Meredith Flores Barker and Mason Barker. The Barkers celebrated their dreamy wedding in June of last year and this is their first time chairing an event as spouses.

Both Barkers come from distinctive backgrounds — Meredith’s parents Cherie and Jim Flores are a well-known philanthropic family in Houston, while Mason’s parents are notable contributors to charities in Louisiana. In anticipation of their chairing debut, I spoke with the Barkers about their history in Houston’s arts community.

As newlyweds, are you beginning an art collection? Were you collectors before you got married? 

As newlyweds, we began collecting antique furniture first. Meredith loves French antique furniture especially from the Louis-Philippe Period (1830 to 1848), while Mason favors modern furniture. We’ve enjoyed mixing our styles inside our home.

Meredith: I really enjoy making my space mine, so I’ve always been interested in interior design, art and architecture. I started collecting French antique furniture, and then became interested in oil on canvas pieces, prints and sculptures.

The first piece we bought together as a couple was an oil on canvas painting called Silver Streak Totem by Hunt Slonem. We also have collected works by local artist Reagan Corbett (Reagart) and Chicago-based artist Liz Flores, who will be presenting her art at the gala, to name a few. We plan to continue learning and collecting for many years.

What are your go-to galleries in Houston? 

Although Houston hosts many incredible art galleries, we tend to visit the MFAH campus the most. MFAH holds a special place in Meredith’s heart since she previously worked in its fundraising department. And Houston Arts Alliance supports MFAH with substantial city funding. We love to see every season’s new exhibition.

We often explore inside the Caroline Wiess Law Building, and we have so enjoyed dining at Le Jardinier inside the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building after visiting the Lynn Wyatt Theater, the sculpture gardens and the many wonderful contemporary pieces throughout. When the weather is great, we like to go to The Menil Collection and have lunch together at the cafe.

We also love Laura Rathe Fine Art and Barbara Davis Gallery.

How did you get involved with Houston Arts Alliance? Who introduced you to HAA?

Craig Massey, a longtime family friend, reached out and instantly had us onboard by expressing his passionate, and spirited love for the Houston Arts Alliance, and especially Add On Art. He and his wife Tatiana are so wonderfully creative and brilliant, we were honored they asked us to get involved to support the important work of the Houston Arts Alliance for every artist and arts organization in Houston.

We’re particularly passionate about disaster support for artists. It’s so critical to protect Houston’s arts community from the disasters Houston suffers. We’re grateful the Houston Arts Alliance is here to help – and that we can help ensure they can do this work.

What are you most excited about at the Houston Arts Alliance Add On Art Gala? 

We’ve learned so much of our local arts scene throughout the planning process and have met incredible artists and professionals along the way. We’re most looking forward to seeing the featured artists’ pieces in-person and on display. Houston Arts Alliance’s selection process for those artists is thorough and remarkable.

Multiple board committees reviewed and selected artists, and each is offered significant support throughout the process. It is truly unique and healthy for the artists. We can’t wait to hear how the Add On Art collaboration process was for the artists themselves.

Meredith Flores and Mason Barker's wedding was an outdoor dream. (Photo by John Cain Photography)
Meredith Flores and Mason Barker’s wedding was an outdoor dream. (Photo by John Cain Photography)

Meredith comes from a famous philanthropic family in Houston. What antiques and art do they collect?

Meredith’s mom Cherie Flores started collecting antiques as a newlywed, eventually working at Fireside Antiques, a well-known dealer in Louisiana. She and Jim Flores (Meredith’s father) enjoyed the journey of learning about art and antiques together and ended up collecting everything from English silver, Flow Blue, tortoiseshell boxes, Boulle specimen cabinets to Country French furniture, Palissy ware, opaline glass, Majolica, Italian micro mosaics and Pietra Dura.

When they moved into their 1920s English Regency home, they expanded to Neoclassical, Empire, Georgian and 18th century French.

What museums and charities is the Flores family involved in?

In addition the Houston Arts Alliance, they have been extremely involved in the Louisiana State University Foundation, and founded the James C. Flores MBA program at LSU’s business school. In 2017, the couple chaired the MFAH’s annual Grand Gala Ball, which raised a record $2.3 million and brought the team behind Oscar de la Renta into town for the festivities.

Most who know Cherie know her passion for green spaces and gardens. She served eight years on the mayor’s board to transform the Houston Garden Center at Hermann Park into the McGovern Centennial Gardens. In 2013, Jim gifted the pavilion in his wife’s honor. Now, the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion bears her name.

What charitable causes is Mason’s family involved within Louisiana? 

The Barker family has contributed to several schools in their community, namely Saint Matthew’s Episcopal School, Vandebilt Catholic High School, Fletcher Technical Community College and Nicholls State University. Mr. and Mrs. Barker have also been involved with the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at NSU, as their family’s passion is deeply rooted in the culinary arts.

Alice Valdez (2)
Alice Valdez

Honoree Alice Valdez

In a cozy neighborhood between White Street and Silver Street — right in the heart of Old Sixth Ward — sits the historic Dow School, headquarters of Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts (MECA). Founded in the 1970s and helmed by Alice Valdez, MECA has been providing artistic, educational and cultural programming for often under-recognized and under-supported communities for more than 40 years, helping countless young people become locally and nationally recognized artists and arts leaders.

Valdez has carried a torch for justice, representation, and culture in a way like no one else has, for multiple generations. Now, the Houston Arts Alliance is honoring her – on the eve of her retirement from the organization she founded decades ago. It is a much-deserved recognition of what she has done for thousands of Houstonians.

Valdez began her career as a musician, working as an oboist and an instrumental music teacher at various elementary and middle schools in Texas. After moving to Houston from El Paso, Valdez saw a gap in inner city schools’ access to music and arts education. MECA was born from Valdez’s desire to bridge that gap.

The organization has since been recognized with such honors as a George H. W. Bush Point of Light Award and was named a semifinalist — four times — for the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Coming Up Taller Award.

Ahead of Valdez’s recognition at the Add On Art Gala, I sat down with Valdez’s daughters Clarissa L. Valdez and Frances E. Valdez to reflect on the legacy that their mother has created and continues to create.

Alice Valdez with Clarissa Valdez as a child (Courtesy Clarissa Valdez)

Alice comes from an extensive background in music. How does her love for music inform her work at MECA?

Clarissa Valdez: It’s in everything. For Mom, it’s about discipline. She learned a discipline in her art. One of the things that she always said is “If someone can practice a violin for several hours a day, someone can study for several hours a day.” It’s about teaching children the discipline that they need in their lives.

Frances Valdez: As Mom has gotten older, I have started to realize how shy she really was. Music was the first place where she found refuge, and I think that’s true for a lot of artists. Their art form is the way they can communicate to the world and find peace and happiness. It was her way of working through her own personal struggles, how she got through her shyness and awkwardness: through her music.

For each of you, why is it so important to uplift Latino voices, especially in Houston? What impact have you seen your mom’s work have on Houston’s Latino community?

FV: This was once Mexico. So, as we sit in Houston, it shouldn’t even be a question. We’re here in numbers, because this is our home. Latino culture, Mexican American culture, should be prevalent. The fact that we’re even having to “bring it back” is because we have been intentionally silenced for many, many years.

This really is a resistance. We are political beings. As people of color, to be able to be our full selves is a political act of resistance. Everyone should have been born with the ability to have their own arts and cultural practices, but we have had to reclaim that.

That is what’s so powerful about MECA. It’s not just powerful for Mexican Americans and Latinos, because she’s always brought everyone along with her. In every room, it’s always been: “What are we doing for Black folks? What are we doing for Asian Americans? What are we doing for queer folks? How are we including everyone?”

The work of MECA really is inherently about social justice, racial justice. It is a movement. And again, it shouldn’t have to be. But to be our true authentic selves, that is what we’re fighting for.

Any final thoughts?

FV: What I have to say to the community is this: Help Alice not have to worry about MECA anymore. Help her not have to support MECA. Give them the money they need to do the work that they have proven they can do, and don’t make them prove it.

If you want to support my mom, and you want to honor her legacy, the way we do that is by committing to the community and the institution, in every way possible.

Andrea Daniela (Photo by Jorge Castro/Black Beans Media)

A MECA Student’s Voice

PaperCity also had the pleasure of speaking with former MECA student Andrea Daniela who is now the founder and director of an all-female mariachi band, a professional musician herself, and a true testament to the power and influence of Valdez’s work.

Andrea Daniela: I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a performer. I was born to be on stage. I started ballet, tap, modern and jazz classes at the age of 4 with studios in the greater East End area.

When I was about 9, my mom’s friend told her about MECA and how they offered folklórico. I was excited to try a different type of dance. I participated in almost ALL the performing arts programs; ballet, folklórico, private violin, private voice, private piano, theater, and mariachi.

MECA was quite literally my home away from home. I attended MECA from about 10 years old until I graduated from high school, and I spent most of my afters-school evenings there. Because of MECA, I ended up attending Johnston Middle School (now Meyerland Middle School), leading to my high school years at HSPVA (now Kinder High School for the Performing & Visual Arts).

My time at MECA gave me a great appreciation for all types of music and art forms. I enjoy incorporating dance and even theater into my musical performances, and exploring new sounds as a soloist. Moreover, fusing mariachi with other worldly genres has become my signature style — I often perform with my fusion “jazziachi” band.

My mariachi cover of “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran went viral years ago, and I am actually releasing an EP called Mariachi Pop of more popular songs interpreted in mariachi style later this month.

MECA not only impacted my life, but so many others in Houston’s artist community as well. I founded Mariachi Amor a Mexico, Houston’s first and only all-female mariachi band, in January 2023. Most of the girls in the group are also alumni of MECA. In fact, performing at MECA’s Dia de la Virgen event in December 2022 and reuniting with my fellow female colleagues made me realize the group could finally be a reality.

Andrea Daniela (Photo by Jorge Castro/Black Beans Media)

Though I did not have many opportunities to work directly with Alice Valdez over the years — she was always working tirelessly in her office until late hours — I knew she was the boss lady. The battery that kept MECA powered. She was a strong female figure in my life and the only example of a female entrepreneur that I had ever seen. I now realize how much that directly thrusted me to become an entrepreneur, because I saw that it was possible.

In addition to influencing my path as an artist, MECA has also motivated my interest in nonprofit organizations focused on the arts. Apart from being a performer, I also work in real estate development. A big part of my purpose in life is bringing both my passions for the arts and for real estate together. My intention is to create music venues, theaters, art galleries and even affordable housing for artists.

I am currently the marketing director and commercial broker for Concept Neighborhood, a real estate development firm that is executing Houston’s most walkable neighborhood in the East End: The Plant in Second Ward. Although we are a for-profit developer, my work includes being a community liaison and working directly with nonprofits.

A few months ago, I worked with Up Art Studio to bring a mural to one of our buildings in the neighborhood (3401 Harrisburg) which was commissioned by Amigo Energy — and they partnered with MECA on the project too. It was truly a full circle moment.

I strongly believe the work that MECA is doing for the community is vital. Arts programs teach children consistency and creativity, along with confidence and teamwork. Those skills can be applied to any field of work, even if that child doesn’t pursue the arts. I am proud to be an advocate for nonprofits and the legacy that Alice Valdez has given to Houston.

Houston Arts Alliance’s Add On Art Gala will take place this Friday, October 20 at The Warehouse at Silver Street Studios. For more details, the full artist lineup, ticket info or to donate, go here.

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