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The MasterMinds 2014 Winners Revealed

A photographer who has decided to take a panoramic view of the world, a choreographer and a group of musicians are this year's winners.

The MasterMinds 2014 Winners Revealed
2014 MasterMind Chuy Benitez has a vision for Houston’s photography community.

In this, the sixth year of the MasterMind Awards, we're discovering that the process of selecting winners gets more and more difficult. It seems the variety and quality of nonprofit arts organizations and independent artists increase every year, aided and abetted by a thriving arts community.

The Houston Center for Photography, FotoFest, and the arts programs at the University of Houston and Rice University attract fans and students from around the world. Besides museums like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, there are dozens of alternative exhibition and performance spaces, from Lawndale Art Center, the Art Car Museum and El Rincón Social to university museums such as the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston and the University Museum at Texas Southern University as well as pop-up exhibit sites in any number of storefronts.

On any night of the week, chances are there are "must-see" performances at the Wortham Theater Center, Frenetic Theater, the Alley Theatre, Obsidian Art Space, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre, the Ensemble Theatre and several others. The increase in not only the number of artists and groups, but the excellence of the work they're producing, makes selecting MasterMinds harder for us each year, but it's a pleasant problem to have.

We're happy to report that each of last year's winners made significant gains, both artistically and financially.

The Karen Stokes Dance Company has won a General Operating Support grant from the Houston Arts Alliance. A three-year subsidy, the grant provides the company with assistance in developing its infrastructure and organizational systems as well as providing office space for the group. Stokes now has two staff people helping her with administrative duties. "I haven't seen my workload reduced yet — in fact it seems I have more to do than ever — but I'm sure that's going to happen at some point. Soon, I hope," Stokes laughs.

Opera in the Heights, led by Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo, presented a risky all-Shakespeare season of unfamiliar titles last year (think Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi instead of the more popular Romeo and Juliet). Now the group is trying to find a balance between providing audiences with a more recognizable repertoire and reaching for ever higher artistic standards and stabilizing its financial base.

Stark Naked Theatre mounted an award-winning run of Macbeth last season with co-founders Philip Lehl and wife Kim Tobin, who appeared as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The production had several significant moments onstage, not the least of which was the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plotting the murder of the king. "It was the two of us [Kim and I] in an iconic moment," Lehl tells us. "There we were, getting to do Macbeth because we worked really hard to build this theater company." He continues, "And the fact that our fund-raising is on track means that Kim and I can think about making good art instead of stressing about funding."

The winners of the MasterMind 2014 awards will be recognized at the Houston Press Artopia® 2014 party, scheduled for 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, January 25, at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter Street.

And now for this year's winners, each of whom will receive a no-strings-attached check for $2,000:

Chuy Benitez: A photographer who is equal parts artist, teacher and advocate, Benitez has changed his focus over the past few years. Originally calling himself a Chicano photographer, now he's an American photographer. Originally focused on Latino culture, now he's focused on world culture. Benitez believes photography can be an instrument of social change, and he has an upcoming project centered on the local cycling community. About to become a licensed rider and join a racing team, Benitez says he hopes his photographic project furthers the discussion surrounding the lack of legal protection for riders.

jhon r. stronks: A gay white man, stronks is often said to create dance works from the point of view of an African-American feminist. He disagrees, saying his point of view is that of a radical African-American feminist. He grew up in an African-American neighborhood, and most of his friends were black girls, who often invited him to church, where he would join them in the choir. Experiences such as those led to stronks's recent work B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd!, a provocative look at spirituality and reconciliation. "I put myself out there and say, 'This is who I am, this is where I'm from, this is who loved me. This is who taught me how to do this. This is who taught me how to do that.' There's no need to defend that."

The Apollo Chamber Players: A quartet of string musicians who studied at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, the Apollo Chamber Players recently made their Carnegie Hall debut. The program included "Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms," a commissioned work written for the group by composer and Rice University professor Karim Al-Zand. As is usual with Apollo, it was a program highlighting the intersection between classical and folk music. Delegations of dignitaries from the consulates general of Bulgaria and the Czech Republic in New York attended the performance, heaping praise on the group for its originality and expertise. As nice as those words were, the real compliment came from an older woman pumping her fist in the air as the group performed tunes from her homeland.

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