“This is not a televised interview,” Rick Lowe reassured me as I stumbled over my words. The artist, who is serving as the Mimi and Peter Haas Distinguished Visitor to Stanford this quarter, has been working on art in the social context for over 20 years, most famously with his Project Row Houses, which has brought creative, community focused transformation to the long neglected Houston Third Ward. He’s a MacArthur Genius and was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Obama.
But for all his prestige, and for all my nerves, speaking with Rick Lowe is easy. He’s a natural conversationalist whose passion for his work comes through without overpowering his careful thoughtfulness. His communication has certainly helped him in his community based artwork, which puts him in contact with everyone from politicians and bureaucrats to corporate donors to single mothers seeking housing.
Project Row Houses, Lowe’s longest running project, is a non-profit organization fostering a self-sustaining artistic community in the historically African-American Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, Texas. In 1993, Lowe and his collaborators purchased nearly two dozen Third Ward shotgun houses, transforming them from landmarks of violence to creative community centers where local artists exhibit and live. Now, PRH owns over 70 houses, providing shelter for single mothers pursuing higher education, hosting artists in residence, and incubating other projects like a food cooperative and a radio station. The shotgun houses, and the Third Ward itself, were “negative points of entrance,” Lowe said when he spoke at the Arrillaga Alumni Center as part of his work with the Haas Center, but PRH took the houses’ location as an opportunity rather than a burden.
Lowe’s medium is social sculpture, a term coined by mid-century German artist Joseph Beuys for the way each person molds the world around them. By this logic, everyone is a social sculptor, but it’s the focus on fostering creative environments in surprising locations that sets Lowe’s sculptures apart. He describes himself as an artist who trespasses into other realms such as activism and community organizing, but because his art is practical, and not purely aesthetic or symbolic, he’s been accused of being a trespasser to the art world.
Lowe doesn’t consider his outsider status a problem. After working as a painter, he took his art into the social context after a high schooler visited his studio and pointed out that while the “activist” visual art that Lowe made addressed the problems of working class people, it did nothing to find solutions. By getting out of the object-focused gallery structure and into the action-focused neighborhood, Lowe has been able to push the boundaries of how art can directly impact society.
Because Rick Lowe’s work stands in such stark contrast to the elite world of visual art, even art that has activist aims, I wondered if he felt any resentment towards the heavily capitalist contemporary gallery and museum structure, which engages with a very different audience from Lowe’s.
“We’re all trying to build a better and more humane society, and art contributes to getting in touch with that. The wealthy folks in the world certainly need a dose of compassion and understanding and a sense of humanity, as much as poor people do,” Lowe said. He hasn’t lost faith in the cultural institutions, even though he’s decided they’re not the home for his output. “Those institutions are vehicles, and they’ll pick up the voices and the opinions of those who are leading them or participating in them. Everybody’s participating in social sculpture.”
But institutional change is difficult, and takes extended time, presence, and passion. For those of us who are not full-time social sculptors, it can be difficult to find ways to positively impact our own social contexts. “The big challenge is for people to figure out a scale of contribution that they can actually make as a person that’s moving through a place,” Lowe said. “There are always possibilities, but you have to find ones that are relevant and that fit into the context in which you exist.”
Project Row Houses, and Lowe’s other projects in locations like Dallas, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, are the results of Lowe’s attention to these possibilities. He employs a one step at a time approach, noticing the repercussions of each move he makes and responding to the ever-changing social context. When he started PRH in 1993, he had no idea it would still be active 20 years later, but the needs and the energy of the Third Ward have continued to allow PRH to serve as a vital part of the community. That’s not to say Lowe’s work hasn’t encountered problems. After he began working in the Vickery Meadow area of Dallas, a densely populated neighborhood the houses thousands of refugees, Lowe realized the area was suffering from its success. Property values were rising, and the threat of gentrification was present. Lowe scaled back, not wanting his actions to make the neighborhood unaffordable for the very people he hoped to empower.
Lowe welcomes institutional difficulties like the real estate market and bureaucratic red tape. His artistic vision and its feasibility are at odds “all the time, but that’s part of the work. That’s the beauty of the work, is to be able to rub up against things that provide friction and adversity. Those are the things that you move through, that give the art a kind of richness. It’s like when somebody is making paintings, and the paintings have become too easy. Then they’re not gonna be that interesting. The tension is not a problem, the tension is what gives the work value.”
Since starting PRH, Rick Lowe has seen his profile rise dramatically. The time demand of being a famous artist is now one of the difficulties he has to grapple with, but he’s solving this problem in a way philosophically consistent with his vision: by collaborating with more members of the communities in which he works. “Behind the whole concept of social sculpture is empowering people to use their creativity. You do that by investing in other people. A big part of that investment is letting go of authority and power, and allowing them to assume that.” Lowe prioritizes conserving the past of each community he enters, emphasizing individual and historical empowerment and pride. The neighborhoods Rick Lowe works within have been systematically devalued, and Lowe hopes his work will allow people living both in and outside of these communities to appreciate the voices of those whom the system has failed. The social safety net has slipped away, and underrepresented people are looking to other sources for empowerment and stability.
Rick Lowe is a famous artist, but in many ways he is a counterpoint to the archetype of the egomaniacal art world superstar. He’s pioneering a new art form, but he does so by listening to underrepresented populations, allowing them to become empowered through his social sculpting. Far from a brash, self-involved “creative genius” type, Rick Lowe is a more generous artist, creating spaces for others to find their voices. It’s a vital practice that transforms relationships, spaces, and our perception of what art can be.
Images courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.