Visual Vernacular: Stephanie Schumann Mitchell
El Franco Lee II, “HypeBeast,” 2015
Standing tall amongst the major museums in our district, Lawndale Art Center represents a variety of art including visual, musical, and performance based works. Stephanie Schumann Mitchell, Executive Director of Lawndale Art Center, has gracefully and heroically taken over the reigns at the institution, following and improving programing, while also cultivating new opportunities for the Houston arts scene as well.
From their most current and artistically iconic Día de los Muertos programming to their new local show “Lawndale Live,” Schumann Mitchell has taken the time to apply her energetic and rounded vision. In addition to the excellent exhibitions, important studio program and other initiatives from Lawndale Art Center, “Lawndale Live” will be a live show filmed weekly in front of a studio audience. Schumann Mitchell took the time to answer some questions about her journey through art and to Lawndale along with more information about this upcoming series.
Free Press Houston: How was art revealed to you in your childhood years and how did it progress thereafter?
Stephanie Schumann Mitchell: My great-grandmother Ruby was an artist and art teacher and I grew up surrounded by her paintings and mosaics. She began teaching art in Abilene in the 1930s and from 1957 through the early 1980s, she taught at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Texas. Towards the end of her life she was the resident artist in Estes Park, Colorado.
Despite having warm memories of Ruby and her artworks, I did not grow up with a strong background in or a clear understanding of the visual arts. My family rarely ventured to museums and while I took some basic art classes in school, Art History was not part of the curriculum. So, in a sense, I stumbled into my career simply by following my interests and making the most of the working opportunities that presented themselves.
My first experience working in the visual arts was born out of my participation in Wendy Ewald’s Literacy through Photography course while I was a junior at Duke University. I fell in love with not only the medium of photography, but also its power as a tool for storytelling. The summer after this course I interned at the Aperture Foundation in New York. The second day I was on-site my superior left and I ended up with a load of real responsibility. I jumped at the opportunity to step into my enhanced role and was later able to parlay this experience into positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This experience in turn led to the fulfillment of my Master’s in the History of Art from Williams College and further work engagements on both the non-profit and commercial side of the art world.
FPH: During your time in NYC, what were some of the strengths you gained as an advocate and leader in the arts?
Schumann Mitchell: Where to begin? I learned many lessons — some of them the hard way — but the ones that have proved to be the most valuable involve being authentic in the ways in which one engages with and communicates about art. In New York I learned that it is important to respect every individual who works to make the visual arts a vital part of the human experience and to not take their work and sacrifice for granted. I also learned not to take opportunity for granted, knowing that there are very few fields that inspire examination and reflection on a day-to-day basis. It is my intention as an advocate and leader in the arts that we should not take art and artists and the institutions that support them for granted.
During my time in New York and in graduate school I developed a pretty thick skin that allows me to argue passionately while appreciating other points of view. This strength is particularly valuable, I think, for the leaders of alternative institutions like Lawndale. I believe that these institutions should be brave in the ways that they approach difficult aesthetic and cultural matters. I do not mean that they should necessarily be politicized, but rather that they can function as a sort of town hall whereby individuals can come together to address contemporary topics and to express different theories, emotions, and points of view.
Finally, having worked at the Whitney and The Drawing Center during times of leadership transition, I know first-hand how difficult this can be for an institution, much less for the community-at-large. I have been trained to take the long-view, and while I know that I will always have room to improve my leadership skills, I wake up every day thinking about where Lawndale will be in 5, 10 years. When I find myself rushing to get there I try to instill patience and to remember that patience served me well when I was in the trenches with my junior colleagues many years ago.
FPH: What lead you to Lawndale in Houston? What are some of the ideas you hope to flourish at Lawndale?
Schumann Mitchell: My husband and I decided to move to Houston for various reasons, the primary one being that it was in our best interest from a career and family standpoint. In doing so, I turned down an opportunity to serve as Director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art so was pleased when the Lawndale opportunity came to light.
Lawndale is unique in that it functions as a nexus of creative voices and is uniquely capable of broadening the public’s appreciation of contemporary art while nurturing a creative dialogue among artists working within and without the visual arts (i.e. performance, literary arts). I believe that Lawndale’s distinct stature, vast network of artists and public accessibility primes it to tap into the incredible diversity that has come to define Houston in the 21st Century, and that that alone sets us apart from other arts organizations in the city. Further, we operate a nine-month artist residency, the Artist Studio Program, that is a real gem and an under-recognized facet of our programming here.
Houston is truly a city of opportunity and I view Lawndale as very much taking part in that “can do” attitude. For over 36 years, Lawndale has served as an important platform for thousands of emerging, mid-career and established artists to experiment with new forms and ideas. Not many organizations can claim that feather in their cap! When I think about Lawndale’s next chapter and my role in shaping it, I think very much about Lawndale serving as a laboratory of ideas and experimentation for artists working in all media but also for other creative voices such as curators, writers, musicians, etc. I believe that the beauty of being an alternative art space — especially one with such a fabulous building as 4912 Main — means that Lawndale can really be ambitious in the ways that we support the work of living artists and the interests of the community.
FPH: You have an upcoming series entitled “Lawndale Live.” What is the format and how will it evolve over time?
Schumann Mitchell: Lawndale Live is a live show filmed weekly in front of a studio audience and directed by Phillip Pyle, II and hosted by Maurice Duhon, Jr.; Stephen Wilson serves as set designer and Jawwaad as music director. These gentlemen have been working furiously over the past weeks to build their set in our Project Space and to film scripted commercials to screen live between guests. I like to think of the series as a cross between Saturday Night Live and Between Two Ferns, but I am leaving this assessment open until I see the shows. All of the shows are open to the public and will live online; guests include Lawndale’s local celebrities including Mayor Anise Parker, Toby Kamps, GONZO, Fat Tony, and many others.
FPH: How has the arts scene in Houston been in comparison to other places you have worked and lived? How do you see it shifting in the next 5 to 10 years?
Schumann Mitchell: I have lived and worked in only a few other places: New York City, Paris, and Williamstown, MA. I began my career in New York City and lived and worked there for almost 15 years so the City holds a very special place in my heart. The New York art world is different now than it was when I began to forge my career; like the City, the art world changes and adapts to various pressures. At first I found the experience to be very intimate and that has changed over time with the incredible emphasis on the market. This intimacy pervaded my experiences in Paris and Williamstown; in Paris, I worked closely with the Whitney’s then curator-at-large Joan Simon on shows she was organizing not only for the Whitney but also the Addison, the Pompidou and alongside independent ideas that she was developing, and this working experience was magical. The Williams program in the History of Art is unparalleled, I believe, in the access that it provides its students to great curators, scholars, directors, and artists.
Before moving to Houston, I was very familiar with the Menil and MFAH and was aware that the arts had a strong and significant presence here. I was not expecting the depth or range of small organizations — Lawndale included — that form the cultural landscape, nor the warmth and generosity of the artists and patrons that make the art scene so lively. Further, I am discovering among my colleagues in the field that there is great enthusiasm for collaboration and for developing new approaches to our efforts to cultivate new audiences and donor bases. So, there is real opportunity here not only for artists, but also for arts administrators. I love the idea of Houston being known throughout the nation for its support of artists and institutions, and for contributing some really radical and productive ideas on how art organizations can truly enhance a community.
As for the shift, all I can say is that it is going to be interesting. There is of course a new class of leaders, the majority of whom cut their teeth outside of the Houston art world. I envision that there will be some friendly competition and some really fun and dynamic collaborations.