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Happy 30th

As Lawndale reaches maturity, the Houston art community waxes nostalgic.

For the uninitiated, Lawndale began at the University of Houston when a fire damaged the university's art studios. The painters and sculptors had to be relocated, so the administration apologetically offered Surls, the sculpture instructor, an old warehouse on Lawndale for his students.

The Lawndale space became available at the perfect time. As Surls recalled, the arts community was upset with the Museum of Fine Arts and its director, William C. Agee, who "really had a reputation of not showing local artists." Surls said Houston needed a site for trial-and-error experimentation, "a laboratory for young artists."

There wasn't a budget for the warehouse space. "Students literally painted the floors, they painted the walls. They mopped the place, they lit the place, they did everything," said Surls. Other support came from the community and university, both wittingly and unwittingly. For one show, Lawndale needed some pedestals, so Surls sent some students over to talk to William Robinson, then-­director of UH's Blaffer Gallery. "They came back like in 20 minutes with a pickup full of pedestals. I said, 'Man, that's great! He's really generous,'" recalled Surls. "Well, they didn't ask Bill. They just went over and got them."

Despite the lack of budget, Surls, along with his students and other Houston artists, put together exhibitions and performances pretty much by any means necessary, from the epic "Pow Wow" show with work by more than 500 artists, to the legendary, police-raided Black Flag concert that almost got Lawndale shut down. Surls moved on in 1982, burnt out after a frenetic three years (and having spent thousands on Lawndale from his own pocket). Others took up the torch, and Lawndale became a nonprofit in 1989, moving to its current space in 1992.

The Lawndale "creation myth" speaks to the Houston art community's sense of self — raw, do-it-yourself, unbeholden. In 2009, Houston's art scene is definitely on the national and international radar, but it isn't a city that draws calculating careerists. Artists are still taking the initiative and starting their own spaces. Box 13, Skydive, Optical Project and the Johanna Gallery are several recent examples. Cheap raw warehouse space isn't available like it was 30 years ago, but artists are resourceful. Box 13 is located in an old storefront on Harrisburg, and the Johanna and Optical Project operate out of their founders' homes. Skydive is housed in cheap office space in a down-at-the heels building on Montrose. In 30 years, people will be reminiscing about these places, and maybe some of them will still be around. It's a good bet Lawndale will be.

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