(National Council on) Art Talk with Rick Lowe

by Paulette Beete
Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe

Rick Lowe. Photo courtesy of the artist.

"We have to figure out how to increase the value that people put on the arts. We have to figure out how to show people that it's important in everybody's lives… " -- Rick Lowe

Long before creative placemaking became a buzzword, thanks to Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, it was becoming a reality, at least in Houston's historic Third Ward. With the collaboration of fellow artists and community members, in the early 1990s Project Row Houses transformed two blocks of dilapidated houses into a place to make art and celebrate community. For the past two decades, Lowe has continued to work on the project, not only growing the Project Row Houses campus and programs, but also, as it says on the project's website, being a visionholder for "the social role of art as seen in neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, community service, and youth education." Lowe has received many awards for his work, and frequently collaborates on placemaking projects across the U.S. This March, Lowe takes on a new role: member of the NEA's National Council on the Arts. The following interview was conducted when Lowe visited the NEA for his initial orientation in mid-February.

NEA: What’s your 10-word bio?

RICK LOWE: I'm Rick Lowe. I'm an artist from Houston, Texas.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with or experience with the arts?

LOWE: My earliest engagement with the arts was probably drawing the U.S. map, and drawing the birds for each state.

NEA: The most recent NEA Arts magazine focuses on inspiration. How do you define the term?

LOWE: Inspiration to me is what spawns desire and passion. And I've always looked for things that impact communities as my source for inspiration.

NEA: Can you tell us about your art practice?

LOWE: Formally, I was trained as a visual artist so it has shaped and defined me as an artist although I don't produce a lot of visual arts now. My work now leans much toward [what’s now called] placemaking, which instrumentalizes the many aspects of creativity for the making of place. [The work] includes the visual arts, performing arts, design… and all other aspects of what goes into building a better community.

NEA: Was community always part of your arts practice?

LOWE: Communities have always been the source of inspiration and I've always tried to figure out how to utilize my creative efforts to impact community. And I would say my work over the past 20 years has been more directly related to community.

NEA: What is it about the idea of community that's so rich for you?

LOWE: When I first was introduced to art as a potential profession or discipline of work, I was introduced to it as something that had an impact on human lives. And so I've always been interested in that, and how do we impact the lives of people that are less well-off, disadvantaged [and] how to utilize my work to impact that.

NEA: What was the original spark for Project Row Houses?

LOWE: The "aha!" moment for Project Row Houses came in a series of revelations. One revelation about making art about community [came after I] was challenged by a teenager who said that while the work I was making about community was accurate, it wasn't important for him. He said people in the community knew what the issues were, and they didn't need people to tell them. He said if I was an artist and I was creative, why couldn't I create a solution? So that was the first step in the "aha," which was, "Maybe I'm not doing as much as I could be."

And then the second one was actually connecting to the artist Joseph Beuys, a German artist, who coined the term "social sculpture," which he defined as the way in which we shape and mold the world around us. So that idea of being challenged about making work that was reflective of community and then next getting to a point at which someone had articulated how you could do work that was actually changing community. Those two things were the foundation for even thinking about or imagining that something like Project Row Houses could come into being.

NEA: Is there something you've accomplished in the arts—other than Project Row Houses--that you're proud of that you wish someone would talk about?

LOWE: Actually, no. I think I also feel a little guilty about being an artist and working within communities. I think we have an unfair advantage in the sense that there are people who are doing great community work all the time, creatively, and it's transformative, but they don't have the platform of art as this kind of dynamic thing.

People don't do newspapers so much now but in yesteryear in every newspaper there was always the lively arts section but you never had the lively social work section or the lively social activism section where people who are doing great work get the opportunity to be acknowledged. So consequently most of the work I've been involved in [has] been well talked about or documented within the field. But, of course, none of it has gotten the broad range of acknowledgement of Project Row Houses. It has gotten its fair share.

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the National Council on the Arts?

LOWE: We have to figure out how to increase the value that people put on the arts. We have to figure out how to show people that it's important in everybody's lives… and a hopeful outcome of that would be more resources to the Arts Endowment. But that would be my focus--figuring out how do we leverage the great work that's happening on the community level, the great work that's happening in the traditional arts, the contemporary arts, and all those things that show that the arts are very diverse in terms of its goal…. There's something for everybody and we have to just make sure that people know about it.

NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?

LOWE: There are two sides of it. People make work; they have to work to make it. And also when the work is made it works in the world, and it impacts people's lives, it transforms people's lives. We often think of art as play, and it is, but it's serious play. And play can actually be work.

The public session of the next National Council on the Arts meeting will be webcast live on Friday, March 28. Stay tuned to the NEA News Room for more details on how to register for the free webcast.