Nestled in Houston's Third Ward are six blocks chock full of art. Art you can touch, art built with slats and nails, art that people live in and live with. It's work that takes the shape of a neighborhood. And though it's the work of many people, including the residents who live there, this art is principally the vision of Rick Lowe, who was named one of the 2014 winners of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant this week.
Project Row Houses is of a piece with several trends in contemporary art practice today, yet it's also a project that offers transitional housing for young single mothers. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the program—or artwork, or conceptual project—has grown from 22 houses along a block-and-a-half to more than 70 buildings spread around the neighborhood. "Social sculpture" is the term Lowe uses to describe Project Row Houses. It's as good as any. Project Row Houses defies easy categorization.
"In Houston, we’re continually trying to build up on the experiences we have here," Lowe says. "We're working within a community context and sharing that with young artists. Young artists have the opportunity to work with us in a hands-on way."
While Lowe received one of the highest recognitions any artist can hope for this week, the climb was long. ("You have to bang your head against the wall a lot," he says.) Born in rural Alabama, Lowe studied at Columbus College in Georgia and Texas Southern University in Houston. (He didn't graduate.) He fell in with a crowd of artists and advocates working in Houston in the 1980s—modern, figurative artists like James Bettison and abstract painters like Floyd Newsum.
This community would be transformative for both Lowe's work and Houston, as Lowe has explained to the Houston Chronicle. In 1993, with a group of artists, he acquired 22 derelict houses in one of Houston's oldest black neighborhoods. The move came at a time when both Lowe's practice and the market for contemporary art were changing. Japanese buyers were paying unimaginable prices for paintings by artists like Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel. Lowe was trained as a painter, but he took his work in a different direction.
"Project Row Houses is an art project. I always tell people, creating anything, it’s art, especially if it’s something experimental. If it’s new, it’s always hard," Lowe says. "To bring a painting into being on a blank canvas—if you think about it, that’s impossible. How can that happen?"
Project Row Houses serves in part as an arts incubator. Since 2004, it's hosted a joint program with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, called the Glassell Core Fellow Artist residency, which offers one- or two-year residencies to an artist. Ecuador-born, Bronx-based artist Ronny Quevedo currently holds the post. Eight artists, seven of them women, are currently participating in the Summer Studios program. Elsewhere, Project Row Houses reserves tons of space for exhibitions.
At the same time, the shotgun homes serve as actual homes for some. For example, single mothers between the ages of 18 and 26 with children under the age of 17, who are willing to find employment and actively seeking to further their education, can apply for the Young Mother Residential Program—essentially, subsidized transitional housing. Project Row Houses launched a community development corporation in 2003, a separate nonprofit entity whose mission is "strengthening, sustaining and celebrating the life of the Third Ward community," according to the website.
Somewhere in between its visual and social missions, Project Row Houses also fosters new architectural and historical preservation. Lowe admires the form of the shotgun house, like the 1930s homes that make up the core Project Row Houses properties. The program has taken this vernacular style and applied it to new projects, including a tiny-house outpost (the XS House) and prefabricated affordable housing (the InHouse OutHouse).
"Houston is not a place that is accustomed to preserving its history. Or having a high cultural identity in its neighborhoods," Lowe says. "Project Row Houses at least gives Houston an example of how that can happen."
Even administrative housing programs are no stretch as an art practice within the woolly world of contemporary art. While he was reared by Houston's black artist community, Lowe owes as much to conceptual artists Gordon Matta-Clark and Joseph Beuys. He bristles at the suggestion, however, that what he's doing with Project Row Houses might be considered part of the trend known as social-practice art.
"I'm not a big fan of the term 'social practice,' " Lowe says. "It’s a little bland for me."
Lowe cites Mel Chin as an artist working today who has his respect. Chin is an innovative Houston-born sculptor who saw his star rising in the 1990s, right around the time that Lowe left painting to devote himself to Project Row Houses. Like Lowe, Chin largely abandoned the contemporary market; he's devoted almost a decade to Project Paydirt, a lead-soil remediation project in New Orleans. (In fact, Lowe says that in the past he's nominated Chin for the very prize that he just received.)
"I don't know if it's going to change the work that we do or anything," Lowe says of the prize, though he expects it to lead to new opportunities. Project Row Houses isn't exactly lacking for those. Lowe has lent the Project Row Houses formula to a bunch of cities: the Watts House Project in Los Angeles, Transforma Projects in New Orleans, and most recently, Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow in Dallas (where he's teaching a seminar at Southern Methodist University). He's also leading the Pearl Street revitalization program in Philadelphia's North Chinatown neighborhood.
Lowe says that winning the MacArthur Foundation grant, which comes with $625,000 and no strings attached, might grant Project Row Houses a bit more respect. Project Row Houses, which draws as much from visionary art as from conceptual practice, isn't universally admired in the art world. After the MacArthur announcement, some critics questioned the priorities of the awards. "There must be a convincing nominator at Rice," tweeted The Dallas Morning News's Mark Lamster. Visual art critic Tyler Green complained about the "staleness" in the MacArthur's artist selections. (UPDATE: Both critics took to Twitter to object to my original characterization of their tweets after this story went live. I changed some wording to better reflect that they were discussing the whole class of awards, not Lowe specifically.)
Lowe says it took him a while to digest the news that he received the prize. Now he can get back to work. In Houston, Project Row Houses has probably acquired all the property that it will (or can), and is turning next to food issues. There's also a "little small museum thing we’re playing around with"—something to improve the circumstances under which artists working in Houston can make their work. Being declared a genius won't change his focus.
"Hearing about it, and being sworn to secrecy—it’s actually a great process," Lowe says. "They tell you but you have to keep it to yourself. You have to live with it, and get comfortable with yourself."