This past Sunday I was able to catch the second half of a talk given by an artist named Rick Lowe at the Open Engagment Conference held here this past weekend. Mr. Lowe’s conversation was about his work around the country employing art as social change and his twenty year work called Project Row Houses (PRH). I’ve heard great things about Rick Lowe for a long time and particularly wanted to get some ideas and inspiration that could go into the Hill District Arts Plan. However, I would’ve stayed in the family Sunday space and wouldn’t have made it if not for dope, new arts directer of the Hermera Foundation, Tatiana Hernandez checking on me, so thanks Tatiana!
I have never been to PRH and have only met Rick Lowe once and so this post should not be seen as anything like an authoritative account on that work. We actually have artists in Pittsburgh like Alisha Wormsley who have worked with PRH and so look them up for a deeper Pittsburgher understanding.
In my case I have heard more of the excitement around the work than really know it (Rick Lowe won a $250,000 Heinz Award, somewhat akin to the MacArthur “Genius” Award), but I do know that he has done an incredible job attracting resources for art to the 3rd Ward of Houston, TX and I love the mission statement that talks of employing African American culture in the development of the neighborhood. That’s right in line with Hill Master Plan’s 1st principle “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy”. So, I am feeling that for sure. Shouts also to Kilolo Lucket who is working with Alisha on implementing an interpretation of Lowe’s ideas in Homewood in a project supported by the Advancing Black Arts Initiative.
I left the talk inspired, but it wasn’t all simply “rah rah Project Row Houses” and, much to his credit, Lowe wasn’t looking to convey this message and I appreciated this as well. There were some obvious tensions that Mr. Lowe is wrestling with around art, funders, developers and justice in the ALAANA (African, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American) communities he is often working in and a couple times he expressed concern that his work could become a pawn in the hands of developers. There was actually this very interesting moment when Lowe was talking of art and revolution and he mentioned being criticized as a college student by activists further on the left for not being revolutionary enough as he was discussing the need for artists to continue to use the word revolution in their work. In this vein, Lowe ended the talk defining revolution as the “continual empowerment of the powerless” and encouraging the audience to continue to also use the words justice in their art work in communities. Here I didn’t agree. Can we turn revolution into a word that could co-exist inside of an oppressive state and economic system and never have to confront it? Is that just taking artistic license or co-opting the word to be something less threatening? I left thinking we have to add “capitalism” to the list of words we can talk about.
However, I don’t want to leave this post on that note because Lowe has accomplished so much of what he has imagined and there is a lot we could learn for the Hill District and the work we are doing on the arts plan. One of things he said that I dug the most was how he has looked for ways to pay community members for work that consultants would normally get paid to do in his residencies
as well as his stories of how PRH has created other avenues for community members to realize dreams inside of the 3rd Ward. I like this because its the idea that art should develop community & community members, rather than be used as a tactic to draw outside capital and increase the dollars that developers can get for selling property in the neighborhood. This, again, is raises the question of what and who is community development really developing? I say this because as someone who is paying a mortgage on two homes in the Hill, increasing the property value of our homes happens not to be our family’s first priority and yet we represent a population supposedly community development orgs and city governments want –professional class African Americans. Not having housing value as a first priority is unlike city government and city fathers /mothers which are much more narrowly focused on the property taxes of neighborhood, particularly African American neighborhoods with a lot of vacant property. Safety, enjoyment, a sense of community, things to do for my children. Those things matter more to me.
So, how do we take these ideas of community development actually developing community into the art plan? A couple of nights ago Bonnie and I spent part of the evening working on the next step of the the planning process: artist focus groups. I won’t reveal the questions here because the streets is watching (of course they’re absolutely not watching, but apparently good focus group practice is to let the questions be responded to spontaneously), but I note from the PRH website that the idea came from a vision of artists, so I am starting to get excited about what could come out of these conversations. Not thinking we need to “replicate” PRH, but rather be inspired by it and create something that makes sense in our own space and time. For example, what would a mission focused on providing a voice and platform for Hill District artists look like in action? How might that deal with issues of justice, power, racism, markets and capitalism? What else might be needed? What other visions might folks have for art and culture in the Hill? We’ll learn more next Tuesday at the Hill District artist focus group meeting starting at 6 pm. If you know folks who are Hill District artists please ask them to come out and for more information please call 412.697.4692 or email at email@example.com.