In the heart of the Third Ward, and deep set into a community, is a set of row houses acting as a creative circulatory system for its neighbors and the city of Houston. The style of houses originated in West Africa and eventually found its way to the US following the slave trade. The row houses are still seen today in local regions such as New Orleans and Houston. Clustered close together, and often times in disrepair, they’re often found in regions of poverty and segregation. But where most people saw buildings in disrepair, a group of visionary African-American artists saw the potential of them as a place of positive, creative and transformative experiences.
In 1993, an epic journey of community and unity began in Houston’s Third Ward through the efforts of artists James Bettison, Bert Long, Jr., Jesse Lott, Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith. At the location of Holman, what is now Emancipation Avenue, these seven artists began to explore the ways in which art and social engagement impact “place.” Working under these new parameters, the creative team began to investigate the ideas and concepts of art as a device for social transformation. How could they service the community through art practices? How could more conceptual vision act as a conduit for social transformation?
Dr. John Biggers was a Houston based artist, educator and advocate whose work challenged the African American stereotype. Through the spotlighting of place, architecture, and its importance to community, Biggers began to change the way we see. Conversations began with Dr. Biggers and artist Rick Lowe about the historical aspects as well as the beauty and symbolism of the row houses. In the Houston Third Ward there were 22 houses, and together this group of creative leaders cultivated what we know today as an internationally recognized institution Project Row Houses. For the next 25 years, Project Row houses created opportunities for the neighborhood, region and individuals across the country and around the globe. From residencies, workshops, neighborhood engagement initiatives, and its young mothers programs, to name a few, Project Row Houses carved into the bedrock of a city a pillar of sustainability. The projects and actions created change, the tools and resources needed for those around to expand upon. Experimenting in the activation of the intersection between art, enrichment and preservation, PRH became an exhilarating socially engaged institution of the region and beyond.
“Project Row Houses was founded with a mission to be the catalyst for the transformation of community through the celebration of art and African American history and culture. While the heart of this mission remains at the core of our work, Project Row Houses has always been adaptive and responsive to our ever-changing neighborhood,” says Executive Director of Project Row House Eureka Gilkey. “We have so much to celebrate as we continue our work in this historic community. We also see this milestone as an important opportunity to pause, take stock, and renew our vision for the future.”
After two-and-a-half decades, PRH has made its place within art history and social involvement through community. It’s created a movement of change and vision to empower. Now, the organization celebrates a new mission and year of intensely captivating events, discussions, exhibitions and neighborhood festivities. With an intellectual redesign and fresh reevaluation, PRH moves into the future with conviction, all the while paying homage to its founding principles. The organization has already started the year off with a bang, activating new and exciting projects not just around Houston, but across Texas, the US, and as far off as Athens, Greece. The events and summer-long series celebrates the last 25 years and highlights the history and culture of the organization as well as those involved in PRH’s continued success.
The future is bright for the local non-profit. Its powerful exhibition and programming history is staggering and awe inspiring. It holds to its original mission, which in this day and age of arts non-profits is far and few between. Project Row Houses is true and honest and values its direction beyond the common pitfalls of overpriced real estate, bait and switch administration, deficits, and has always put its creatives and community ahead of its own needs.
“PRH has become a model for how the power of art can be a catalyst for social change. PRH is seen as the leader and pioneer of the art movement now called Social Practice,” states former Executive Director Linda Shearer. “But when it started in 1993 there was no name for what those 7 Artists wanted to do: they saw a pressing need to preserve the architecture and culture of the northern Third Ward, and they were driven to ensure that art and artists were the driving force to do so. In the process they enhanced and grew the community to be the vibrant and thriving neighborhood that it is today, 25 years later.”
Project Row Houses is as undiluted as the day it was created, and that is very hard to come by. Even though the administration changes from time to time, the purity and its internal structure will always remain the same. Removing its core mission and vision would be as successful as removing ones nervous system from their body. It’s values are woven deep within its core and is as much as the organization as the ground it is built upon. Being invited to be part of it’s programming is not only incredibly rewarding, but drives the artists outside of their own structure and injects them into the lifeline of the Third Ward. Project Row Houses has created a lasting legacy and invited everyone to come and experience it all again this summer and throughout the year.
Founders Bus Tours | June 2, 9, 16, 22: Join PRH for a tour of public art created by the founding artists of PRH. Led by the PRH staff, this tour will feature discussions with founders Jesse Lott, Bert Samples, and George Smith as participants explore and reflect on their rich artistic practices.
Screenings with MFAH | July 13-15: PRH will collaborate with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to showcase filmmakers of color as we screen works that act as extensions of Black Life, explore various means of building community, and illustrate how art is subtly interweaved into everyday life.
DC Trip | August 2-5: Journey with PRH to the US capital for a special tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which houses a permanent display on Project Row Houses as well as work by founding artist Floyd Newsum. We will also be bringing 10 students from the neighborhood so that they can experience the museum and see themselves in the history.
Symposium | September 7-8: This thought-provoking symposium examines the intersection of art and community as well as the founding principles of Project Row Houses and the practices of socially engaged artists. Artists, curators, and organizers will come together to explore the issues that face contemporary art, the Third Ward and other, similarly marginalized communities.
Round 48 Opening + Block Party | October 13: Round 48 will investigate the storied connection between artists and activism within contemporary art. In conjunction with the opening, we’ll be hosting a block party that spans our expansive site with fun games, great food, and amazing performances.