Interview: Linda Shearer

by Sasha Dela

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      Project Row Houses’ back courtyard
      Round 34: Matter of FOOD Opening Reception, March 26, 2011

      I was able to catch up with Linda Shearer, Executive Director of Project Row Houses (PRH), upon her return from the ArtTable 30th Aniversary Celebration in New York, where she was recognized as an ArtTable Honoree. Her work in Houston has been invaluable. First arriving in 2007 to serve as the interim director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, she became the executive director of Project Row Houses in 2009. She has recently co-curated PRH’s Round 34: Matter of Food with Ashley Clemmer-Hoffman, which remains on view through June 19th.

      Sasha Dela (SD): How did you and Ashley Clemmer Hoffman develop Round 34: Matter of Food at Project Row Houses?

      Linda Shearer (LS): As you know, PRH has grown and flourished because of its responsiveness to the needs it has identified within the community. I have been at PRH since September 2009, and it quickly became clear that PRH is located in a “food desert” without any accessible, affordable or healthy grocery stores. Many of our residents do not have cars and rely on public transportation to get to the nearest HEB or Fiesta. Parallel to that issue, artist Elia Arce devoted her art house to the cultivation of wheatgrass during the Round 31 exhibition at PRH in the fall of 2009, which in turn spawned a group of artists and local residents to form the Greenhouse Collective (GHC).

      The GHC has continued to develop and has expanded to include two aquaponics gardens, as well as a community garden with raised beds for herbs, vegetables and flowers. PRH is incubating the GHC, which is housed in one of the studio shotgun houses on Division Street; they even now have chickens! So the idea of organizing a Round on the subject of food seemed clear and obvious to Ashley and me. Round 34 includes artists from New York, Salt Lake City, Austin and Houston; we are pleased that Chef Tarsha Gary and Ecotone, her community garden on St. Charles Street, across from PRH, is participating. So there was a lot that contributed to the great turnout at the opening-- not the least of which is that everyone has a fundamental interest in food.

      SD: What are your challenges at PRH? How has your professional relationship with Rick Lowe influenced your direction at PRH?

      LS: PRH is now in its seventeenth year. It’s become established, highly regarded and well known. At this stage, the challenge for an organization that started so spontaneously is how to be fiscally and administratively responsible without losing the fluidity and vitality that characterized its beginning years. I think the key is to remain sensitive to the needs of the immediate community and to not be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. That’s easier said than done, especially in these precarious economic times. Like any non-profit, financial stability is a key goal; if your finances are solid and secure, you can afford to be bold and take chances. Fundraising is a priority for PRH, and I hope we can ultimately build an endowment.

      Rick is the founding director of PRH, and never seems to lose his inner compass. He stays in close contact with the other founding artists— Bert Long, Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith, all of whom have ongoing relationships with PRH. The seventh founding artist, James Bettison, died in 1997. I have learned a lot from Rick, and love to hear him talk about PRH. He firmly believes that art can be a catalyst for change-- something I have always believed, but am now seeing put into practice in a way that hardly ever happened in my past experiences in art museums. He is committed to a balance between artistic creativity and community issues. This balance can take many forms and cannot be taken for granted.

      SD: How do you see the future of PRH and the organization’s shifting relationship with the neighborhood?

      LS: PRH is located in a very historic part of Houston’s Third Ward. It blends historic preservation, community/neighborhood development and public art with educational and social services. But PRH has not accomplished all this on its own; it has relied on important partnerships and collaborations – Rice University’s Building Workshop, SHAPE Community Center, Chevron, Trinity United Methodist Church, Friends of Emancipation Park, the Third Ward Community Cloth, IKEA, InPrint, FotoFest, Aurora Picture Show, DiverseWorks, University of Houston, Texas Southern University, to name just a few. In 1993, the Menil Collection spearheaded a group of organizations to each adopt one of the seven art houses and to renovate them with their volunteers.

      PRH wants to continue to revitalize the neighborhood, preserve its history and traditions, and help build new resources for the community. In response to the rapid gentrification that took place in the historic Freedman’s Town or Fourth Ward, State Representative Garnet Coleman warned that “we want to find people who will make this community (the Third Ward) better by becoming part of the fabric, not by changing its fabric.” I think that is why PRH has been successful. No one suddenly parachuted into the original block and a half of shotgun houses, but rather PRH has grown out of them. It has also been successful because of the caliber of the staff and the fact that we really do function like a team; it is a pleasure working at PRH.

      Right now the issue of sustainability and sustainable communities is of special interest to PRH, and we are exploring some ideas around that. We are also focused on maintaining the more than fifty structures that PRH owns; a recent grant from the Kresge Foundation enabled us to start a Building Reserve Fund to help us do that.

      SD: Do you feel there are any similarly structured projects or organizations?

      LS: PRH is sometimes compared to Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, a program of Auburn University in Alabama, but a closer equivalent is the Coleman Center for the Arts in York, Alabama. Rick is frequently invited to consult with individuals and communities in depressed areas that are looking for improvement and development through the arts, but PRH remains very unique in the interaction that takes place between its Public Art, Arts Education, Young Mothers Residential and Affordable Housing programs. There is a give and take between visiting artists, PRH residents and students that is remarkable and truly transformative.

      SD: Tell me about the artists you engage with now at PRH.

      LS: Well, I’ve been around art and artists for a long time now, and the one constant is the extraordinary creativity and resourcefulness of artists. While many of the artists at PRH are several generations younger than mine, they continue to inspire me and reinforce my belief in the power of art. When I worked at the Guggenheim, Artists Space and the Museum of Modern Art, all in New York, I spent a great deal of my time going to studios. I no longer do that with the same regularity or intensity, but I love to make a studio visit whenever I can. I rely enormously on Public Arts Manager Ashley Clemmer Hoffman, and of course Rick, who is constantly traveling, meeting artists and seeing new art. When artists are in residence at PRH, I get great pleasure talking with them about their work and can often provide some history or context that might be new to them, so I feel I also play somewhat of an educational role with younger artists.

      One of the most satisfying aspects of engaging with artists at PRH is to witness their unabashed enjoyment and appreciation at living and working in the PRH community. All artists stay on the PRH site in one of our houses and they have both formal and informal opportunities to interact, exchange ideas, and work with members of the PRH community.

      Sasha Dela is an artist and the co-director of Skydive Art Space in Houston.

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