Art and Values An Interview with Rick Lowe

Rick Lowe
Rick Lowe | Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The Goethe-Institut is committed to public funding of international cultural exchange, and is publishing voices from its host countries, particularly from people and organizations that have made exceptional contributions to the arts and humanities. Rick Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses, a non-profit arts organization in Houston and was recently named a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation. Through Project Row Houses, founded in 1995 in Houston's Northern Third Ward, one of the city's oldest African-American neighborhoods, Lowe has been providing comprehensive and consistent arts, social, and education programs including a support system for low-income young mothers, the Young Mothers' Residential Program. Lowe references German artist Joseph Beuys' notion of social sculpture as a concept that he has adapted for Project Row Houses, using arts and humanities as a way for everyone to actively engage with the world. In our interview, Lowe speaks about the importance of public support for the arts and humanities.

Mr. Lowe, considering the experimental aspect of the concept of social sculpture, what are the ways in which art and artists can be relevant to public discourse and our contemporary social challenges?

I consider social sculpture to be a catalyst for galvanizing the broader creativity of communities or social context. Supporting that kind of work is a challenge, because it doesn’t fit within the traditional commercial framework. Oftentimes it is most important in communities where a tradition of patronage and support is not existent. So, for artists like myself, organizations that work in communities, it’s very challenging to get support, get public funding.

Do you feel that public funding for arts and humanities is important to reach a greater and more diverse audience? And in what ways has Project Row Houses benefited from public funding?

I think that in the US we don’t have near the commitment in public funding as we should. I know the impact of public funding, because when I started Project Row Houses it was the funding from the National Endowment for the Arts that we were able to utilize to get ourselves off the ground, because there are not a lot of resources in the communities where Project Row Houses exist, so where else were the resources going to come from? It was through initial public sources that we were able to leverage private resources later. And so, I attribute the entire formation of Project Row Houses on its having access to public funds. And there are cases like that around the country—different organizations, and different artist projects that could have not—would not have existed without public support. So, with that said, there's so little of it on the federal level. There's very little. And some cities are pretty good, but—in most states, though, it barely exists.

You're on the advisory committee for the National Endowment for the Arts—the National Council for the Arts. How has your experience been, and what do you hope to accomplish?

We want to give the new chairman, Jane Chu, the opportunity to take a leadership role in terms of how she wants us to support her and her vision. But certainly from my perspective having a lot of experience, being on the ground and knowing the challenges, it’s great that the National Endowment for the Arts is there, and every dollar that goes out into the community is very much so needed, and we’re very grateful for it, but it’s really pretty sad that the level of funding is where it is. It’s around 30 million dollars or so below where it was when it was at its peak in the early ‘90s. That’s twenty years ago. What I’m hoping for is a way to reenter the conversation—reintroduce the conversation about the value of art, and the value of art within our society, and try to change the thinking and dynamics around support for art.

Sometimes there is a sense that public funding for the arts benefits only a small group of people that are interested in the arts. How can we best communicate public value of the arts?

I don’t think there has been a legitimate conversation nationally about the arts since the early ‘90s. The early ‘90s conversation was just what you described—it was the conversation about the arts allegedly supporting an elite, narrow section of society.

Not just elite, but arts were considered offensive, culture wars were fought in relation to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for instance.

Yes. But it was a small group that had these important conversations that contributed to greater diversity in the arts.

That brings us to our point regarding the Goethe-Institut's concerns that a free trade agreement such the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) could erode the EU mandate to protect and promote diversity of cultural expression within the 2005 UNESCO Convention by limiting the ability to publicly fund cultural goods and services under commercial pressure.

It’s a good thing that there are forces that are standing up for culture and for public support of it, because while there are great projects that are taking the arts into communities and working collaboratively with communities—broad, diverse communities in ways we have never seen before—this potentially could set up a slippery slope where people start to feel that public support is not necessary. If they’re doing great stuff in our communities, and they’re doing it through the market, why not just let the market do it? The truth of the matter is they are doing it, and we are seeing some successes. But it’s happening in ways that are not sustainable. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not scalable.

And there is also a question of accountability that’s important for the arts as well. With public funding comes public accountability.

Yes. I think if we really care about things, we have to figure out how to support them with a broad vision of what we want from them, what we feel the value we can get from them, and how do we sustain them. Rethinking our attitudes about culture and what we want from it becomes critical.

It is important to be able to pursue experimental projects. It seems like the cycles of financial pressure are getting shorter, and scrutiny is increasing. There are artists or projects that are very successful, like you were saying, for a short time. But how much space and time does that leave for experimentation and longer-term engagement?

I think one of the challenges right now, and the way that a lot of arts are positioning themselves within the framework of building communities and dealing with identity questions has been designed through the approach of what a lot of people are calling creative place-making. But the challenge with creative place-making is the resources available—the funding that’s available is generally somehow associated with private development. And that greatly kind of restricts or limits the kind of experimentation and exploration that the work that artists or arts groups might have a tendency to want to do. They may see things a little bit different that may not reflect the value of an upcoming development, but it may be critical to the context of an existing population. And so having that kind of freedom to both work closely within the structure of changing communities and developing communities, but also work on the edge of that to be able to push things that are not—that may not fit properly within the status-quo way of thinking, but also promote alternative ways of living.

Thank you, Rick.

The interview was conducted by Kirsten Weiss.