Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Most Successful Community Experiment — the Real Story of Project Row Houses: And the Three Wonder Women Charged With Keeping the Magic Going

BY // 11.02.18
photography Portraits by Jenny Antill Clifton.

Let’s take a look at a bold community experiment birthed in the Third Ward three decades ago — one that would go on to change the art world.

It was 1993, and President Bill Clinton had just taken office. Optimism prevailed in many sectors, as Silicon Valley and the infant Internet heated up. In Houston, prosperity percolated throughout the art world, which would get a second Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, building by the end of the decade.

The Core Program at the MFAH Glassell School of Art was just garnering national attention, with its first residents soon to be included in career-making surveys such as the Whitney Biennial.

But for Houston talents, additional museum space did not necessarily mean more visibility — especially for those of color.

A band of seven black artists did not find that acceptable, so they decided it was better to create something new than to squeeze out a place in a system where opportunities were in inverse proportion to geography.

Inspired by the example of Dr. John Biggers, founder of the Texas Southern University art department and a proponent of equating African-Americans with the rich history of the African continent and its rise of democracy, this group staked out their own place to exhibit art. But it did not look anything like a marbled museum.

Instead, one of the leaders of the group — which was composed of three mid-careers artists and four a generation younger — looked to a historic black neighborhood. Alabama transplant Rick Lowe had spotted 22 shotgun houses, their structures forlorn and derelict and emblematic of the state of the once thriving, yet still proud Third Ward.

For more on this history (the funders, friends, and community who made it possible), acquire the book Collective Creative Actions: Project Row Houses at 25, being released this fall in conjunction with the nonprofit’s 25th anniversary gala, which took place Thursday night.

Finding and Funding Row Houses

There are many aspects to PRH: its Young Mothers Residential Program, after-school initiatives,  collaborations with Rice School of Architecture, focus on neighborhood redevelopment, establishment of a CDC, Third Ward Community Markets on select Saturdays throughout the year, grocery store stocked with local produce to end the area’s food desert, entrepreneurship programs that have birthed such neighborhood businesses as a woman-owned artisanal bakery, and a new chef-driven pop-up that benefits Texas Children’s Hospital’s Sickle Cell Program.

All are interwoven in an organic and intrinsic way with its round of site-specific artist installations. If you had to use only one word, it would be “community.”

In the art world, the term synonymous with PRH that came to embody its shining success is “social sculpture.” The phrase was coined by the late conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, whose way of thinking still serves as a guiding influence for Row Houses’ model, which now is sprouting around the world, from Athens to Detroit and Dallas.

The charismatic Rick Lowe has been the face of Row Houses — a role he has held most collaboratively, his leadership devoid of ego. Thus, Lowe has been able to empower this historic Houston neighborhood to forge alliances with corporations, government entities, and foundations from Chevron to the NEA.

For this, he has been honored as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, receiving a $625,000 “genius” grant, bestowed in 2014, which cast even more international limelight on the meaning and implications of social practice as practiced in the Third Ward. (In typical Lowe fashion, he’s gifted a portion of his MacArthur to Row Houses over the years.)

The specific place that is PRH began with a challenge, when a student years ago suggested that Lowe, rather than critiquing in his art the problems of a black neighborhood, do something.

At University of Houston, Lowe now leads an innovative endeavor that introduces students to the example of the urban renewal meets art project that PRH typifies — social practice at its best. The department where Lowe serves as professor carries its mission in its name: Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE).

PRH functions as de facto lab for the students, including CASE Fellows who interact between the University of Houston academia and Row Houses’ real world.

Importantly, Lowe has forged a sustainable model where Row Houses functions without Lowe himself at the helm. The torch has effectively been passed, with Lowe, elder statesmen artists George Smithand Jesse Lott, and contemporaries Floyd Newsum and Bert Samples occupying roles as co-founders emeritus.

Lowe tells Art in America: “Genius unfolds when simple actions come together at the right time and manifest themselves in ways that are powerful. To me it doesn’t carry with the person — it’s the context in which the person acts which allows ‘genius’ to unfold.”

Reflection on Row Houses

As a writer who has covered the Houston art scene for more than 20 years, I first wrote about Row Houses in 1998, five years in, as a fledgling reporter for the gritty Public News. The assignment, which yielded a friendship with Bert Long Jr., introduced a new model to me — one where artwork mediated on place and also reverberated in that actual place.

I wrote at the time of Row Houses using “art as a catalyst to stimulate constructive dialogue addressing cultural, educational, and social issues.” The same remains true of PRH’s mission and guiding mantra in its third decade.

Since 1993, there have been 48 rounds of art installations, 300-some talents doing more than showing — interacting and folding into the community during their months-long projects. (Round 48, presciently titled “Beyond Social Practice,” remains on view through February 17, 2019.)

Two other memorable PRH encounters took place a decade later. One was seeing Susan Plum’s glass Maya Cosmic Tree of Life in one of the simple shotgun houses. The installation, part of Round 27 in 2007-2008, was transformative. The artist and I later became friends.

My greatest recent Row House experience involved performance: attending Tierney Malone’s Jazz Church of Houston evenings (Round 45, 2016-2017) where the size of the crowd made for an evening intimate and profound. (Malone was part of the originals, showing in the very first Round 1 in 1994-1995.)

This summer it was hard to top Arnett Cobb’s 100th birthday celebration at Eldorado Ballroom, another Jazz Church presentation on the Row Houses campus.

The Torch is Passed

Meet three women who are propelling Project Row Houses forward. Our Q&A with executive director Eureka Gilkey, curator and programs director Ryan N. Dennis, and 2018 UH CASE + PRH Fellow Regina Agu follows, a PaperCity exclusive.

Regina Agu, Ryan N. Dennis, and Eureka Gilkey photographed September 4, 2018, at Project Row Houses with Charli Sol’s installation, “Future Visions.”

Eureka Gilkey, executive director

When you first became first aware of PRH.  

I’m not an artist by training, nor did I study art history formally. I spent over two decades working in the political/policy arena in Washington, D.C., and traveling across the country working for progressive causes and candidates.

When I left D.C., I was seeking a position that would allow me to use my political gifts in a different way, and I initially headed west to Los Angeles. After immediately figuring out that L.A. was not my calling, I returned home to Texas, hoping to continue a life in politics at a local level.

A former colleague, Sherry Merfish, encouraged me to look outside the traditional political path of lobbying or advocacy and pushed me to apply for the executive director position at PRH. She and Rick [Lowe] had been long-time friends, and she understood the work and strongly felt that my background would serve the organization well.

Date you came on board.

My first day was April 7, 2015. I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ PRH is definitely a place that is layered with several entry points, and you don’t really understand the magic until you see it, feel it, and touch it.

On how you see PRH’s role in the Third Ward, greater Houston, and beyond.

I hope Houstonians know that PRH is unlike any other cultural institution in this country. People from all over the country and the world come to PRH seeking guidance on how to build a social practice model in their community. PRH’s reputation as a thought leader has been elevated, and the organization is often spoken of as the shining example of what culturally creative development looks like.

In terms of our presence in Third Ward, we have and always will be an ambassador for this historic community. Whether it’s using our resources to elevate emerging artists, provide brick-and-mortar space for small business owners or a safe and supportive home for young mothers and their children, PRH will always be anchored in using its resources to enhance the lives of our neighbors.

Typical day.

There is no typical day at Project Row Houses. My day does consist of various meetings, and some of them are recurring, but in my three years at this organization, I’ve never had the same day twice. It’s one of the things I love about PRH.

On propelling the PRH vision forward.

Part of PRH’s magic is its ability to adapt to the ever-changing needs of its community. We are clear that preserving the history and culture of Third Ward is important and have been very intentional about the way we engage and implement our work.

It’s important that we never become stagnant or too rigid in our approach. We must always push forward, color outside the lines, and elevate our work in a way that makes room for those who may not be seen or heard.

Why you’re at Row Houses.

The work that we do at PRH is hard, but it’s necessary — and it happens because it’s imaginative, creative, thoughtful, and inclusive. I don’t want anyone who interacts with PRH to ever think of us as anything but dream builders. Even if our neighbors in our community walk past our front door every day without ever stepping foot inside, I want them to know that PRH is working every day to ensure that their dream, big or small, is actualized.

Biggest challenge — and greatest reward.

My biggest opportunity has been centered on creating efficient systems for the organization. When I initially joined the organization, I joked that I was managing a 22-year-old toddler because there was a number of things that needed to be addressed internally to ensure we had the proper operational resources.

The greatest reward has been seeing the fruit of all the hard work we’ve done to make the organization a sustainable place to work, volunteer, and contribute to. I love it when an artist or former young mother walks in the door and remarks on how much PRH has changed and the impact that it’s had on their lives.

On what’s next.

There are so many things to be excited about at PRH. We are deeply committed to continuing to build meaningful relationships with our community. By launching an integrated services delivery program, we’ll use our resources to engage directly with residents focusing on their financial well-being.

The Project Row Houses Institute has long been a dream of our organization, and thanks to generous support from The Mellon Foundation we have begun research to develop curriculum centered around our model. We are also in the process of developing a renovation plan for the Historic Eldorado Ballroom.

Favorite anecdote.

I have lots, but watching the growth of the young mothers at PRH gets me every time because you literally see them and their children transform before your eyes. I also beam with pride every time I walk into [the bakery shop] Crumbville, Texas.

Ella Russell is the epitome of why PRH exists. She had a dream of showcasing her culinary skills while also providing for her family. She has used the opportunity that PRH’s small business incubation program provided to grow her business while maintaining it as a gathering place for the community which is evident in her gourmet treats.

Looking ahead to 2023, and PRH’s 30th.

In addition to spearheading an effort to designate northern Third Ward as a cultural district, it is my hope we have serviced at least 100 families through our integrated service delivery program, open the PRH Institute and invite you into a new gallery space housing the artistic works of PRH’s founders. More than anything, I want to see PRH continue to work with the community to preserve its rich cultural history.

Personal pursuits, projects, inspirations.

I am a big proponent of self-care, and I take that very seriously. I also have a close-knit group of friends, and we love to travel; we’re going to Egypt and Morocco in six weeks. I have a strong sense of wanderlust; getting on a plane, immersing myself in another culture, and eating great food really brings me joy. Travel and good food inspire me in so many ways.

What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you.

I’m just a country girl from Livingston, Texas.

Ephemera Group of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter’s “Untitled,” 2017, at Project Row Houses

Ryan N. Dennis, curator and programs director

When you first became first aware of PRH.

When I was volunteering at SHAPE Community Center while obtaining my undergraduate degree at the University of Houston. The inimitable founder Deloyd Parker knew my interests in the arts and community work and told me to check it out. Needless to say, I am very thankful he introduced me to the organization.

Once I learned about the work of PRH, I wanted to intern at the organization, so I did. At that time, I had the opportunity learn from Jesse Lott and Ashley Clemmer (then public art manager). My internship included a number of things, but I always remember Jesse talking about artists being responsible for doing things that contribute to the betterment of society.

He had this phrase and wanted a program to be created that talked about the philosophy of artists in action. This concept had an impact on me, not only by the way that Jesse spoke about it, but through the way he carried himself as an artist.

Date you came on board.

My first day at PRH was October 1, 2012 — happy sixth-year anniversary to me.

On how you see PRH’s role in the Third Ward, greater Houston, and beyond.

PRH is a unique organization that utilizes art and creativity to address sociopolitical issues. I see the organization as one that creates a platform for tough conversations while presenting exciting contemporary art for the Houston community and beyond.

The art world has looked to PRH as model to think about engagement, inclusivity, diversity, and community building in meaningful and impactful ways. We have worked with so many amazing artists, and I intend to add to that history.

Typical day.

I can’t say that I have a typical day at PRH. That is one of joys of my work. The thing that seems most consistent these days is that I am in a lot of planning meetings, but I am able to break that up with studio visits, #art4lunch, and developing ideas with artists and residents in the neighborhood.

On propelling the PRH vision forward.

Being and staying present, remembering why this organization was started, and honoring the legacy of the people and the place of this rich neighborhood.

Why you’re at Row Houses.

My mission as a participant at PRH is to propel the work forward. I can’t be moved by ego in this work; that will only take us so far, and it is not productive for all that engage with us. I am also committed to building this institution as a black space that is able to sustain itself into the future.

Biggest challenge — and greatest reward.

Honestly, every day has the potential to be a challenge, but that is also the greatest reward. It is about seeing and talking with people that we have had a positive impact on. Seeing how people connect with us is rewarding and inspiring — it keeps me going.

On what’s next.

I am excited to release our first publication, Collective Creative Actions: Project Row Houses at 25, edited by me with contributions by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, George Lipsitz, Michael McFadden, Assata-Nicole Richards, and Danny Samuels and Nonya Grenader.

I am also thrilled to be researching ideas and theories on Latinx art and artists as we think about a Round that looks at the Afro-Latin Diaspora and artists who work alongside, or counter to the LatinX framework(s).

I am also very excited to see the culmination of what Pia Agrawal, and I have been working on for a year or so with the artists Okwui Okpowasili and Peter Born as part of our collaboration, Performing the Neighborhood in April 2019. Seeing the integrated service delivery program enhance the non-residential component of our YMRP program is also a thrill.

Favorite anecdote.

It is always good to hear people who have lived at one of the houses on Holman Street share their family stories. And I live by this quote that brother Jesse told me about five years ago when I was stressing about something. He said, “If it’s not hard, then nothing new is happening.” That has been the calm to many stormy moments.

Looking ahead to 2023, and PRH’s 30th.

I have many goals for the organization, but I think it is important for us to stay in the moment. I want to make sure that in 2023, we are still here, that we have preserved the neighborhood, and the residents that have historically called Third Ward home and established Third Ward as an official cultural district.

Personal pursuits, projects, inspirations.

In my off time, I enjoy hanging with my dearest friends, plotting, and scheming; practicing self-care/preservation; eating good food; being in nature to restore and connect deeply with myself; writing and researching and spending time with my family; and, of course, traveling.

What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

I sing my sentences when I am feeling really good, I love interior design, and I practice yoga and meditation religiously.

Regina Agu, 2018 University of Houston Center for Arts and Social Engagement + Project Row Houses Fellow

Regina Agu’s “Sea Change,” 2016, the installation at Project Row Houses that was responsible for winning the artist an Artadia Award.

When you first became first aware of PRH.

A year or so after I moved to Houston, so probably in 2004 or 2005. I lived in Southwest Houston at the time, and had not really connected with any creatives yet in the city. A few local poets and DJs invited me to a weekly poetry event that used to take place in the two-story building that’s Row Houses office.

From there, Project Row Houses became on of my first creative homes in Houston. As a young artist, my peers and I would host and participate in poetry reading, film screenings, and other activities there. I then participated in the Project Row Houses block parties as a muralist in 2006.

First Row Houses formal exhibition.

Round 35 in 2011. I was one of the artists that collaborated with Ashley Hunt in the Communograph house, and I had my own house during that round as well. My second round was Round 45 in 2016. I am currently a 2018 University of Houston Center for Arts and Social Engagement + Project Row Houses fellow.

On how you see PRH’s role in the Third Ward, greater Houston, and beyond.

Project Row Houses is unlike any other arts organization that I’ve experienced in the U.S. PRH truly demonstrates the transformative abilities of the arts and artists in working towards community development and social change.

As an artist, I’ve learned so much from the organization about how to approach and sustain socially engaged work and projects with integrity and thoughtfulness.

Typical day.

As a fellow, I’m able to work with mentors at Project Row Houses such as Ryan Dennis as I develop my research around Emancipation Park and other green spaces in the neighborhood. Project Row Houses serves as a hub for many of my connections to the community members that I’m in conversation with as part of my fellowship and other work.

Project Row Houses is also a space where I continue to learn from the Third Ward community, test new ideas, and deepen my relationships with activists and other artists. During the summer, I was fortunate to serve as a mentor for the Summer Studios residents, and so Project Row Houses also served as a direct connection for me to engage the next wave of dynamic art students at multiple universities in Houston.

On propelling the PRH vision forward.

As an artist living and working in Third Ward, and as a community member, it is important to me to be involved in community-based work where I am able to make meaningful contributions of time and resources in support of my peers and fellow residents.

Through Project Row Houses I have been connected with an incredible community of artists and change-makers, and I am able to help move the vision of the organization forward through my art and by being involved in multiple initiatives.

Reason for being at Row Houses.

I have grown so much as an artist and thinker through my involvement with Project Row Houses over the years. When I first moved to Houston, I had just finished up my studies in policy analysis with hopes of working in community development.

With Project Row Houses, I am able to contribute my work and skills as an artist, and continue to learn and grow as a person with a deep commitment to community development, learning, and collaboration.

My biggest challenge and greatest reward at this time is my fellowship research. The fellowship is challenging in the best ways, as I have taken on a big project with the support of so many people who believe in my work and push me forward in new directions.

On what’s next.

I’m so thrilled to contribute to Project Row Houses’ 25th anniversary gala and art auction. I’m also very excited to share my fellowship work-in-progress with the public during the final week of November.

Favorite anecdote.

It’s hard to select one after being around PRH for close to 15 years. I still have fond memories of walking into Project Row Houses during the day for the first time (the poetry events were held at night) and encountering Rick Lowe and community members playing dominoes in the two-story.

I’ve come across that scene so many times over the years at this point, but every time I watch the dominoes games going on, it takes me back to those early days and conversations when I was just learning that a life as an artist was possible for me.

Looking ahead to 2023, and PRH’s 30th.

I’m looking forward to continuing to grow with Project Row Houses over the next five years. I’m amazed by the range of initiatives being spearheaded by the organization in the Third Ward community, and I want to contribute my skills and capacities as an artist and community member.

Personal pursuits, projects, inspirations. 

I love to write, dance, and travel, and I’m a huge film buff. In addition to my work as an artist, I also work as a freelance writer.

What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you? 

In a former life, I used to teach Latin social dances like salsa and merengue as a dance instructor in Houston. These days I dance for my own enjoyment and self-expression, and I’m hoping to spend more time in the social dance community in the spring.

I’m very inspired by music and sound and I miss performing on the experimental scene, so stay tuned.

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