Back in 2009, while writing a newspaper article for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I had a chance to interview artist, Rick Lowe. He was visiting Amherst, MA to work with Wendy Ewald, a professor at Amherst College who teaches a community-based art class. The elderly in that community had seen a decline in home-care services as a result of state-wide budget cuts. The two artists said their local project was designed to help replace those services. When I spoke with him, Lowe said he hoped the result would be “a practical vehicle that benefits people.”
More than 20 years ago, Lowe founded Project Row Houses, a community art initiative that revitalized a portion of Houston’s Third Ward, a depressed inner-city neighborhood. In this article, Lowe reflects on some of the lessons he’s learned:
When I founded Project Row Houses in 1993, I was working on a purely intuitive basis. I began by talking with a group of six other artists about how to do something that was more than just symbolic—something that had a practical application. Once I identified the houses that became Project Row Houses, I was able to pull other people in, together with local arts groups, community groups and churches. At the time, I didn’t know that we were going to be a community-engaged project because I didn’t really know what that meant. But after I started to work on site, it became obvious it was going to be a community project because people in the neighborhood were desperate to see things happen, and they started to come out and support it.
After he decided what the artists’ projects would be, he chose the other initiatives based on what would best serve the community. The artists let the people around them set the agenda: “That’s our role as artists: to think about how to make things interesting, and conceptualize them in ways that add value and meaning.”
Lowe gives an example of the way a community speaks:
There are a number of ways that people can tell you what their needs are: as individuals, as groups, with their voices or through actions—if you’re observing. You have to listen on multiple levels. When we developed an after-school education program, it was because community members told us that they needed it, not so much through their voices, but in their actions. Basically, as we worked on the houses every day, and welcomed volunteers every weekend, children were pouring in because they had nothing to do. We had to figure out a context to address that need. So we came up with a program that would offer something like the aunts, uncles and grandparents of yesteryear, who used to look after the children when their parents were at work, until they were no longer able to do that for whatever reason and the kids just started running free.
The arts community wanted artists residences: “But we weren’t trying to do something to serve the arts community; we were trying to figure out how the arts community could serve this community.”
He concludes with a discussion of place-making and urges community artists to be careful about scale:
As a piece of art, the form of Project Row Houses reveals something that you lose at a larger scale, when a project is not as thought through and collaboratively produced. We’re trying to create a framework—a form in which questions of creative economies and community housing can come about from within a community—as we provide programs and space to a neighborhood in need.