The Changing Face of the Houston Art World

September 1, 2004 by  
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In mid-July, along Colquitt Street near River Oaks, several galleries participated in ArtHouston, a celebration of art ultimately spanning 38 galleries over two days.

ArtHouston, annually held on the weekend following July Fourth, usually doesn’t have much competition for attendance. This year was different, however: Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities were capturing the city’s attention just two miles away.

A weekend of open houses and artist conversations would seemingly attract an older demographic regardless, especially for galleries aiming to sell works during the weekend.

Yet, in each gallery, young professionals gazed at works alongside an older, more traditional age group. Even with the All-Star Game, art was garnering an audience, and a diverse one at that.

“A Period of Stress and Malaise”
David Gockley is one of the most respected men in the Houston cultural world. As the general director of Houston Grand Opera for more than three decades, he has overseen its rise from a regional company into an organization attracting international praise.

Sitting in his office atop Wortham Center, you can’t help but notice the countless awards hanging on his walls, or the numerous pictures with celebrities and Houston luminaries. You can’t help but listen to his articulate and reflective words, either.

“Culturally, the city underwent a three-year period of stress and malaise,” says Gockley, “following three major events: Tropical Storm Allison, 9/11 and the fall of Enron.” Indeed, facilities citywide – especially in the Hermann Circle museum district area – were submerged because of Allison. Ann Lancaster, director of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, suffered through Enron as well.

“In our first year, we had this big party,” recalls Lancaster. “I just remember about one-half of that party being tied with Enron. Some things certainly changed after that.” Joel Bartsch, the new president of Houston Museum of Natural Science, is a jovial man who is proud to say he “grew up in the museum,” attending their programs since his childhood. Bartsch looks as if he might be more comfortable playing football than running a museum, but his tone conveys a complete love and understanding of the city’s art world.

“With 9/11, I don’t know if we suffered specifically from a financial standpoint,” notes Bartsch, referring to HMNS. “Nonprofits in general suffered because people were channeling their money into relief efforts, and businesses became more conservative with their donations.”

Bartsch pauses in front of the entrance to the popular Mars show before adding:

“One thing those events did was to make museums rethink their business plan. You can either be all things to all people, or you can try to attract one core audience.”

A New Core Audience
“I think we all get the feeling that the worst is over, and the dark time is past us,” said Gockley, of HGO.

With the addition of the light rail system this past winter, Houston residents have easier access to the museum district and downtown – both artistic centers. Construction on U.S. 59 has created an offramp into the museum district, and the city has gained international recognition for its cultural programs. The Financial Times of London recently referred to America’s fourth-largest city as “culturally driven,”? while The New York Times has run several articles in the past four years about the Houston arts culture.

It’s understandable that Bartsch would speak of museums attempting to attract “one core audience” because HMNS – while still appealing to all age groups – did just that last year, beginning the Mixers and Elixirs program. On weekend nights, a live band and IMAX shows awaited the city’s young professionals, who turned out in droves.

“It speaks to the idea of “Museum as Plaza,” which makes the experience of coming here more social, in turn creating a dialogue and interaction between people,” explains Bartsch.

“We were pretty overwhelmed with it the first year,” he continues, admitting that Mixers and Elixirs may return, albeit in a slightly different form, sometime in 2005. “It was earlier in the evening, but I think it was a good alternative to bars and a chance to meet people for that age group.”

Arts organizations around the city have been catering to this young professional audience for the past several years. At Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, membership director Kristina Bergeron oversees The Art Crowd, a nearly three-year-old project targeting audiences in their mid-20s to early 40s, with an average age of “about 30.” The Art Crowd hosts five or six annual cocktail functions related to exhibition openings, as well as a large-scale Members Dance.

“I think in the last five years, arts groups have been targeting younger people,” says Bergeron. “For us, it’s a chance to cultivate leadership and donors at an early age, and for them, it’s a sophisticated, nice way to meet people. Almost everyone has a young professional group now.”

The Alley Theatre established 1st Act almost five years ago, and it attracted 220 members in its original year. This year, they hope to surpass 250, according to Kristen Loden, Alley’s director of development. 1st Act members attend pre-performance cocktail receptions and post-performance “talkbacks” with actors and artists, as well as numerous other social events during the year. Perhaps more importantly, 1st Act members are given leadership opportunities within the steering, marketing and development committees of the Alley. This year, 1st Act members organized a Progressive Dinner on their own, which netted $7,000 for one of Alley’s young playwright programs. “We are really, really pleased with the work of 1st Act,” says Loden. “It enhances everyone’s experience by having our board integrate with 1st Act members in committees. It has helped us to cultivate new audiences and leadership.”

The Menil Collection, dubbed a “mandatory stop on the art-world circuit” by Art in America in 2003, offers a similar group in The Menil Contemporaries. The Contemporaries, founded in 1996 by Dominique de Menil, recently returned from Site Santa Fe, a nationally-renowned contemporary arts festival. They have conducted several private visits with curators, held receptions at members’ homes and helped to underwrite an exhibition this past season.

“There’s a hands-on, close interaction with the curators,” explains Marta Galicki, Menil’s director of membership for the past six years. “The Contemporaries learn a lot and have a lot of fun – and they are very good at promoting the museum and its programs.”

Houston Grand Opera, one of the most established arts organization in the city, offers Opera Fusion, a program geared toward young singles. The Houston Symphony, another long-standing cultural institution, established Classical Encounters for Singles. While a spokesperson for the symphony did note the average age of participants is closer to 45, the pre-concert parties – which, during the summer, feature live jazz at downtown restaurants and frequently draw upward of 400 people – also are attended by a host of late 20-somethings.

Some groups have emerged specifically for a younger audience, notably OrchestraX – a Generation X approach to classical music – and Infernal Bridegroom – a theater troupe that recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

“Our society has become so much more immediate,” says Peter Jacoby, the new director of OrchestraX. “There are so many more options out there for young people in terms of arts entertainment. It’s important to provide a casual experience they can relate to and be drawn to.”

OrchestraX sometimes offers “surprise concerts,” announced at the 11th hour. “Young people tend to like that spontaneity,” remarks Jacoby.

Much as other arts groups use young membership groups as a bridge to the future, Jacoby views OrchestraX as a long-term musical building project, incorporating exciting young musicians into a symphony to provide them experience. “Ultimately, the players are what captivates the audience.”

Infernal Bridegroom doesn’t have a formal membership option catered to a younger set, but has talked about creating one. Their board of directors, however, is one of the youngest of any arts group in the city, and Managing Director Lisa Haymes admits, “We want to be as accessible as possible to those who might be afraid of the traditional theater.” Infernal Bridegroom shows feature a BYOB policy and casual dress while typically presenting original, nonlinear work by younger playwrights. In addition, the troupe hosts three or four preview parties each year.

Still, Haymes is quick to point out the give-and-take associated with cultivating a younger crowd. “If we had an older, more established board, we might be bringing in more money,” she concedes. “But we make up for it with sheer energy.”

A Disconnect?
As arts groups have reached out to a younger crowd in the past few years, has this alienated their traditional, older fund-raising base? “I saw quite the opposite of a disconnect,” says Sanford Dow, a Greenway Plaza area lawyer who was a founding board member of OrchestraX. “A more traditional audience was pretty receptive to what we were trying to do.”

HGO?s Gockley explains it as well. “I think our older, longer-tenured members are thrilled that these newer audiences will someday be taking their places.”

Lancaster, at Center for Contemporary Crafts, understands both sides of the question. In mid-September, the Center hosts a third birthday party featuring “etch your own martini glass” materials and a live DJ. Two months later, they will offer a more formal ball for patrons. “There’s a food chain associated with a healthy arts scene,” notes Lancaster. “The whole scene attracts a wide range of people. Younger people who get involved with the arts later emerge as leadership and a collecting and donating base, and they have that experience when they do so. There’s a natural progression of membership, and people understand that.”

The Future of Houston Arts
Susan Young, the administrator of the Houston Museum District, is positively ecstatic about future prospects for culture in the city. Recently, she notes, museums have undergone huge campus additions, and the museum district itself draws six million visitors a year – more than all the city’s pro sports teams.

“There’s something to do in Houston virtually all the time now,” boasts Young, “and a lot of that has to do with cultural opportunities. I think, in the future, you’re going to see Houston increasingly recognized as a city of amazing cultural resources.”

“People are stretching their budgets and going out more,” Gockley adds. “There’s a growth and a flowering of arts here. People are finding stimulating entertainment everywhere.”

It makes sense, then, that as the city rights itself from incidents during the past several years, arts organizations look toward a bright, promising future. And a workable plan has emerged for getting there: Cultivation of a younger membership base now, who will later provide fiscal means and leadership.

There’s no doubt, when considering current young professional outreach, that the future of arts in our city is spectacular. But don’t forget about the present.

“Houston needs to understand: Art is happening all over town, every day, all year,” proudly declares Lancaster.

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