The Center of the Universe
To move to New York or not to move to New York -- that is the eternal question for artists. But while New York remains the epicenter of the art world, it is also becoming more and more feasible for Houston artists to pursue their careers at home and still be connected to the national and international art scene.
Witness Artadia and Mixed Greens, two New York-based organizations that represent different approaches to broadening the focus of the art world. Artadia is a nonprofit group that gives unrestricted cash grants to artists to "directly fund individual creativity and help relieve some of the pressure artists feel to relocate." The altruism is informed by a practical agenda: Artadia's press materials cite studies indicating that "when artists are an integral part of communities, education is improved, public institutions are strengthened and corporations become more innovative."
Mixed Greens is a for-profit company that seeks to connect artists all over the country with an equally diverse group of collectors and curators. The Mixed Greens art team has produced exhibitions in many cities outside New York, including Houston. And the company's Web site (www.mixedgreens.com) allows for global access to original contemporary art, bypassing the formal gallery structure, which many nascent collectors find intimidating or geographically inconvenient.
At the hip, concrete-floored Chelsea offices of Artadia, director Alexander Gray and Eleanor Williams of Mixed Greens talk about their perceptions of the Houston art scene. The former director of Houston's Lawndale Art Center, Williams is a member of the Texas Mafia, the loose network of Texas art expats in New York. Gray, formerly with ArtPace in San Antonio, just returned to New York from Houston, where his organization recently gave away $100,000.
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Fifteen finalists were chosen from more than 200 applicants for the Artadia grants. After an intensive round of studio visits with a panel of judges, five winners were given $20,000 each at a Hotel Derek awards dinner.
"I found that in Houston, community transcended competition," says Gray. "You had 15 artists going through an inherently competitive process, but they were supportive of each other."
But there was some backlash after the winners were announced. The fact that four of the five finalists were current or former Glassell Core Fellows generated a lot of heated discussion and conspiracy theories on the bulletin board of the local cultural Web site Glasstire.com. Gray thinks the high percentage of Core winners is owed to the fact that the extremely competitive Fellows program, which brings young artists from all over the world to Houston for a one- to two-year residency, is already a rigorous filter.
Of course, the argument against Core Fellows winning grants designed to build the local art community is that they have fewer ties to Houston and thus might be more likely to take the money and run. While many grants have a paternalistic structure, controlling how the artists spend the money, Artadia's grants are admirably unrestricted. Winners can use the money to make new work, pay for day care, buy a truck, pay off a 23 percent interest credit card -- or leave town.
On the lack of restrictions, Gray says, "We decided to err on the side that the artists make the best choices for themselves." But, he adds, "We have gotten feedback from various sources, and residency requirements may be a factor in the 2005 award cycle."
While it's true that some Core Fellows move on when their residencies are over, many end up becoming integral and dynamic members of Houston's art community. Both Gray and Williams feel that the Core Program, which also regularly brings in visiting artists and critics, has had a huge impact in increasing Houston's national profile as well as stimulating the local art scene.
But Williams also cites the strengths of Houston's museum and nonprofit spaces, as well as the commercial galleries. She says Inman Gallery's presence at the prestigious Armory Show has helped raise the New York profile of Houston artists. According to Williams, it also didn't hurt that Inman brought in New York curator Franklin Sirmans to organize a show last October. "That he was going to Houston was on everybody's radar," she says.
Clearly, Houston's scene is developing by leaps and bounds thanks to a complex mix of factors, not least of which is the commitment and talent of its artists. Increasingly Houston is being recognized as the third-best contemporary art scene in the country, after New York and Los Angeles but before Chicago. It shouldn't come as a big surprise: Houston is one of few cities that offer artists a vibrant scene that's also affordable to live in.
Still, many do make the move to Manhattan, as evidenced by a recent New York Times story about fast-rising New York artists who spent their formative years in Houston. Susie Rosmarin was one of the former Houstonians profiled. Rosmarin says she came to New York for love, but the personal move had big repercussions for her career. "When she moved to New York, she suddenly started showing everywhere but New York," says Williams. It seems that Rosmarin's new location generated a momentum that led to more shows around the country, and that in turn led to shows in the city.
"It is hard to get shows here," Rosmarin says. "The competition is fierce and there's a lot of good work that never gets shown."
Four years later, Rosmarin is represented by Danese Gallery in New York, but she maintains her Houston ties. Her new paintings at Texas Gallery are optically vibrant riffs on fabric patterns. Red X is a standout; its taped-off and crisply painted overlapping diagonal stripes of color have a hypnotic visual pulse that borders on the painful. Think plaid on steroids.
According to Rosmarin, living in New York has made her realize how interconnected the art world is. "I think I am more aware of the importance of staying on top of things -- but that can both help and hinder you," she cautions. "You can see so much work in the course of one day that you get back to your studio and feel overwhelmed. There are just so many ideas floating around out there. You think, 'How am I ever going to compete with this? How will my work stand up to this?' Being in Houston can make you a lot freer to develop on your own. In a place like Houston you may be aware of what is going on in the art world, but you're not as inundated with what's going on in the art world."
But Rosmarin has a pretty sage take on the way things work. "I think a lot of the people you see becoming 'art stars' move to New York on a wave of success," she says, citing former Houston artists and Core Fellows Jeff Elrod and Shazia Sikander as examples of the phenomenon.
Of course, Texas artists with a potent enough blend of chutzpah and talent have also moved to NY cold. "Erik Parker is a good example," she says. "He's from Texas, and moved up straight out of school. He's just extremely driven. He moved here and got his career going from New York."
There are no set scenarios, and Rosmarin emphasizes the diversity of people's experiences. She knows many artists who live in New York and show only in other cities or in Europe. She points out that the same thing happens in Houston, where "an artist like Bernard Brunon shows a lot in Europe but rarely in Houston." Meanwhile, an artist like Trenton Doyle Hancock continues to work in Houston and has been included in two Whitney Biennials.
Thedra Cullar-Ledford is a Houston artist who moved to New York last February when her husband, a graphic designer, was laid off from Dynegy. Sitting outside on a sunny, unseasonably warm May day, Cullar-Ledford confides, "It's horrible to say this, but we were really able to move here because of September 11." The resultant drop in housing prices made it feasible. Still, she has less space. She left behind a studio full of big heavy sculpture in Houston, and now she's making smaller works on paper in their one-bedroom apartment.
Even when artists leave the Bayou City for the hypercompetitive Big Apple, they try to carry with them that sense of freedom and unconcern that has marked local creativity. As Cullar-Ledford says, "If I can retain some of that 'I don't give a shit' attitude, I'll be okay."
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