Blighted Structures Get New Life As Artists' Studios
Houston artist Rick Lowe had a dream. The transforming power of the arts would be used to rebuild an impoverished neighborhood and, in the process, help rebuild the lives of its citizens. That was back in 1993. Since then, a predominantly African-American, underserved community in Houston, Texas has become home to Project Row Houses.
This unprecedented model project began with $25,000 in seed money from the National Endowment
for the Arts. "Without the initial NEA money, Project Row Houses would still be just an idea. It helped
validate the project, attracting other corporate and foundation support," according to Founding Director
Rick Lowe. With the federal dollars in hand, local businesses and arts groups stepped forward with
financial and personnel support. Residents from around the city came to help clean up the site and the
sheriff’s office cooperated by sending volunteers to pitch in.With this unique partnership of neighborhood
residents, local volunteers, arts organizations and area businesses, Lowe's vision began to take
shape. Previously uninhabitable residences were transformed into artist studios and exhibition spaces
for local, national and international artists - a place where neighborhood children, Houston residents
and visitors from all over the country and the world could interact and experience the arts firsthand.
Before long, Project Row Houses expanded to meet other crucial neighborhood needs - developing
after-school and adult education programs, summer courses, an infant care facility, a parenting class
and housing for teenage mothers and a neighborhood garden. Throughout the project, Lowe says,
“artists are encouraged to partner with the general community, such as parents, churches, youth programs
and senior citizen groups.” Many of the young people who benefit from the project return later to
contribute their time as mentors.
In the process of transforming the spirit of its community, Project Row Houses also has become a major
player in the economic development of the area, making a substantial impact on real estate and
tourism. The success of Project Row Houses has not gone unnoticed. Other cities are exploring how to
replicate its vision, described as a successful blend of culture and community service. So far, more than
100 artists, more than half from outside the Houston area, and countless citizens have enriched their
lives through this exemplary project. As Lowe sees it, “Artists are the visionaries of our community.”