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"The Core program is one of the reasons why Houston is known in the art world," says art consultant Joan Brochstein. Local galleries eagerly await the new crop of fellows each year, she says.
Running on less than a tenth of the Glassell School's budget, the Core program has put Houston on the map as a hotbed of contemporary art. Glassell, formerly the Museum School, was established in 1927 as the teaching arm of the MFA, offering classes to youths and adults alike. The Core program began in 1982, awarding residencies to eight visual artists. Each resident receives approximately 450 square feet of studio space and a stipend for nine months, from September through May. (It will be $7,500 for this year, plus $1,000 for materials.) Residents can stay for a second year. In 1998 the program also added two positions for critical writers.
The rare combination of a residency that offers a stipend and studio space and lasts for years makes it highly coveted. More than 200 people apply each year. (Because most fellows stay for two years, their terms overlap in such a way that some years six slots become available, and other years only two.)
Houston offers other prime conditions for artists: It is affordable and home to a thriving community of galleries as well as alternative spaces like DiverseWorks and Project Row Houses.
"Houston is a much better place to make work than New York," says Erlich, who moved to New York in 1999 for personal, not professional, reasons. "I have huge respect for the program, but the program is not just one program. It's the people who are supporting it, the collectors, the MFA. It seems to be that everything works like a team together. It's very organic."
And it doesn't hurt that Core alumni remain in town, lending support, says Francesca Fuchs, a Core resident from 1996 to 1998.
"There is a strong connection between past and present Core fellows. It's a historic line that continues," she says.
Some of Houston's more well-known and active artists are former fellows, like painter Aaron Parazette, sculptor Sharon Engelstein and Bill Davenport, who creates offhand yet charming sculptural projects. One unusual art space that has generated substantial national buzz is the Aurora Picture Show, a microcinema in the Heights devoted to showing cutting-edge film and video. It just celebrated its third birthday, says founder Andrea Grover, who is, you guessed it, a former Core fellow.
While Core has not achieved the prestige of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, making it less well known abroad, its reputation is growing rapidly.
When former Core fellow DeWitt Godfrey went to Scotland to study at the Edinburgh College of Art, he inadvertently sparked a steady stream of artists from that school to Houston, including Robert Montgomery, Katrina Moorhead, Fuchs, Mailena Braun, Maggie Hills, Duncan Ganley and Fraser Stables. Core also has traded artists with other countries. For three years it swapped artists with the Taller de Barracas in Buenos Aires, an exchange that brought Erlich to Houston. This academic year, Core starts an exchange program with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
Glassell brings foreign artists over on the F-1, or student visa, which allows them to work for Glassell and other parts of the museum but not elsewhere. After completing their residencies, artists can stay for a third year (called practical training) as long as they continue to work in the arts. After that, though, they have few options if they want to stay.
"I think it's the correct and natural way to do it," Havel says of using the F-1 visa. Glassell can't do more, he says, because immigration regulations do not allow the school to continue sponsorship once the artists finish their residencies.
Even wildly successful artists like Sikander and Erlich must navigate complicated immigration laws. While Erlich has had an easy time, Sikander's fate has been up in the air for years.
A year after Leandro Erlich unveiled his swimming pool in Houston, he made rain indoors at the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Erlich sealed two window panes together, leaving a small space between them in which he created a simulated thunderstorm -- lightning and all -- so that the viewer stood outside looking in at rain.
That show may have been his ticket to staying in America. Erlich finished Core in spring 1999, and in December he moved to New York to be with his girlfriend, another Argentinean artist whom he later married. Around that time, he also learned that he would be included in the biennial and filed for an O-1 visa.
The O-1 visa for "extraordinary ability" was created by Congress a decade ago for overachieving scientists, educators, businesspeople, athletes, actors and artists. Las Vegas regularly brings top-notch chefs from Europe on O-1 visas.
To qualify, a person must win a significant award (the INS lists the Nobel Prize and Academy Award as examples) or meet three of seven qualifications, such as showing national or international recognition through critical reviews and media articles, a record of major commercial success or participation on a panel judging the work of others. The applicant also needs a petitioner and a written opinion from a peer group.