Strong Community Partnership Makes Philanthropy Succeed

By Joelle Carson


On February 16, 2017, members of Project Row Houses, UH faculty and staff, and the surrounding community gathered in the historic Eldorado Ballroom in Houston’s Third Ward to celebrate the recipients of the first two Project Row Houses Fellowships. The fellowships were awarded to Carrie Schneider and Carol Zou, two Texas artists who will build upon the practice, research and implementation of socially-engaged art projects and the impact these projects have in transforming communities.

The fellowship is funded through a $100,000 gift from Texas philanthropist Suzanne Deal Booth, which also supports future public programs to promote community engagement. But, it is through actively pursuing and maintaining strong partnerships within the communities surrounding UH that such generosity is effectively put to work.

Project Row Houses (PRH) is a community-based arts and culture non-profit organization in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods. PRH was founded in 1993 by a group of Houstonians that included Rick Lowe, who won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for the project in 2014. UH and PRH have had multiple collaborations over the years, particularly through Mitchell Center for the Arts. This is the first multi-year partnership that examines the process and practice of PRH.

Professor Lowe recalled the announcement of the MacArthur award: he was receiving a lot of “pats on the back,” but he felt that something was missing from the dialogue. “One of the challenges we faced was getting universities and large cultural institutions to join forces with Project Row Houses in a meaningful way to push the work forward,” he explained. He commended the Project Row House Fellows program and UH for bridging the gap. “I’m excited to be here with a concrete example of that kind of support coming together,” he said. “Thank you to the University of Houston for listening, hearing, and for stepping up to the plate.”

Andrew Davis, Interim Dean of the McGovern College of the Arts, spoke about the College’s mission and core principles: to educate the best students with the best faculty; to emphasize interdisciplinary work in the arts; and to make an impact in the community. “We wanted to do more: we wanted to do something special, something different, something important to our city, our culture, our nation,” he remarked. “Given our geographic location, we think that community impact — and training students in what that means, how to do it, and how to do it right — is one of our most important opportunities.” This goal, he noted, naturally led the College to seek out Project Row Houses and Rick Lowe to find out how to make these kinds of partnerships work.

Data collection and analytics are also a crucial part of this goal, which led to the founding of the Center for Arts and Social Engagement (CASE) at the College. CASE, led by Director Sixto Wagan, is a key partner and the UH administrator of the Project Row Houses Fellowships. The research and the creative projects developed by the fellows will play a vital role in analyzing the concrete effects of art in communities.

Dr. Elwyn Lee, Vice President for Community Relations & Institutional Access at UH, gave remarks on behalf of President Renu Khator, and noted the fellowships’ relevance in the University’s overall goals across all colleges. He recalled taking President Khator on a three-hour tour of the Third Ward: an experience that paved the way for her Third Ward Initiative. “The Third Ward Initiative focuses on partnership in education, health, and economic empowerment,” he explained. “What the College of the Arts is doing is an important complement to that effort.”

The fellows will have studio space and offices at Project Row Houses in the Third Ward. Carrie Schneider, who grew up in Katy, Texas, focuses on the concept of “survival creativity” in her work, and how it applies to whole communities experiencing trauma, not just individuals. She lauded Houston’s community for supporting her art and art advocacy over the years, noting that she has audited classes at UH and worked with affiliated artists. “I am deeply touched, as the invitation to this Fellowship feels like an ‘I see you, and thank you. Here’s exactly what you need to write that down, present this concept, and support the launch of your next work’ from the city I’ve been working so hard on and in,” she said. “It also allows me studio time, which is a major gift after several years working mostly in arts advocacy and the intersection of art and activism.”

Carol Zou currently works at Trans.lation in Dallas, Texas, which has a similar mission to PRH and uses them as a best practices model. Originally from Austin, she lived in California and New York before returning to Texas. “I look forward to connecting with a national network of practitioners whom I admire greatly to learn more about their work and to create a supportive network that provides the basis for amplification and resource sharing,” she said. “I think PRH has been a wonderful hallmark of how we can sustain a neighborhood for 20 years, and I look forward to answering how we can sustain it for 20 more.”

To conclude the evening, Sixto Wagan, Director of the Center for Art & Social Engagement (CASE), reminded attendees that this is only the beginning for the Project Row Houses Fellowships — and that creating meaningful change necessitates strong partnerships. “There will be many other opportunities for us to come together and go through this process with the Fellows — learning opportunities for the University, for the artists, and all community members,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of support and participation to make this as full of a project as it can be. That will take your help, but I know we will make it happen together.”

With leadership, partnership and sponsorship, strong programs like the Project Row Houses Fellowships won’t be the last to emerge from the University of Houston. For more information about the fellows and their work, read the full press release.