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Friday, September 22, 2023

Fine Arts

Directing change in Houston art scene


The Leadership in the Arts Summit discussed issues and concerns within the community to understand the Houston art scene.  |  Courtesy of Pablo Gimenez Zapiola

The UH Center for Arts Leadership brought together a diverse crowd of students, artists, administrators, scholars, philanthropists and other members of the art community for its inaugural Leadership in the Arts Summit on Friday and Saturday.

The goal of the summit was to facilitate meaningful dialogue in the art community, address issues and concerns within the community and understanding the current research being done to document the changes with the Houston art scene, with the guiding question of what it takes to be a twenty-first century art community.

The response from the participants was varied but succinct in its belief that Houston has many resources for the arts community.

“I must say, I was born and raised in New York City, but this is the most inclusive art environment of any city, anywhere,” artist Jennifer Von Holstein said. “It is so welcoming. There is no snobbery. You can’t get this anywhere else.”

Despite applauding the city and community for its diversity and inclusivity, there was also acknowledgement that Houston needs direction and increased integration of cross-sector industries.

“Houston is a great place to start from the bottom or work at the top, but with no clear path from the bottom to the top,” guest speaker, writer, performer and dancer Paul Bonin Rodriguez said.

Local philanthropist and alumna Beth Madison stressed that artists and art organizations need to focus on expanding their impact.

“Exposure to the arts can be very illuminating for the non-artists,” Madison said. “Look for youth in your audience. You are investing in the future of the whole industry.”

Other speakers added that the focus when applying for funding is often based on the largest clients, which in Houston means oil and gas, but investing in mid-sized sectors facilitates more engagement within the communities.

“I found that even without money, there are a tremendous amount of resources in Houston,” guest artist and panelist Carroll Parrot Blue said. “We started with the University of Houston, but there’s also Rice, there’s St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Prairie View and Texas Southern. I really think that this city needs to understand the role that a university can play in helping shape a community and working with residents.”

Data was shared that highlighted the issues being discussed and compared Houston as a whole to other metropolitan cities.

But while drawing numbers from large population samples, the speakers focused on sharing their personal experiences and the importance of building interpersonal relationships to create a larger community.

“I think arts play a critical role in stitching communities together,” Mexican-American studies lecturer Estevan Azcona said. “Communities who don’t think they have relationships or don’t know each other, the collaborations that are happening between different districts and artists are providing the platform for people to help each other and get to know each other. We need to know our neighbors. Art is a way of doing that.”

Rounding out the discussion on how students, artists and administrators can make an impact, speakers discussed how the community should see itself as an advocate for the arts.

“I would attach arts advocacy and arts contribution to every aspect of work that you do,” panelist and Head of Music & Theatre at Prairie View A&M Cristal Truscott said. “Try to find folks to collaborate with. Collaboration — it’s not about the I, it’s about the we. It’s about how do we build a relationship with the people in our community. Surprising success happens when we collaborate with our most unlikely partners.”

After two days of lectures, panels and small group discussions, Center for Arts Leadership Director Sixto Wagan thanked the audience for its participation and posed a question to hold the audience until the next summit.

“After hearing from these artists and speakers, the question now is, what do you want to do with that information?” Wagan said.

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