While I love art for art’s sake, I also love an art project that crosses boundaries and tries to improve peoples’ lives in ways beyond aesthetics, inspiration and giving “voice.” It was a conversation around those topics that led to this column because, while all those goals are worthwhile, they are notoriously hard to measure in terms of impact and long-term effect.

But, put a roof over someone’s head, provide resources for single mothers, open a neighborhood laundromat…those things have visible, measurable impact. For example, one of my favorite charities, Habitat for Humanity, has made a strong position of the impact of home ownership among low-income families, identifying increases in the homeowner’s sense of stability and benefits to their children’s educational performance and self esteem. Habitat’s mission statement, however, is laser focused on solving the global housing crisis. It is not, obviously, a community arts program.

Project Row Houses (PRH) in Houston, however, is a neighborhood-based nonprofit art and cultural organization that just happens to have also reclaimed six blocks in the city’s Third Ward. Starting in 1993, the group renovated the exterior of 22 Depression-era row houses. Today, PRH has 40 properties and has spun off a sister organization, Row House Community Development Corporation (RHCDC), which has been providing low-income rental housing in the Third Ward since 2003.

According to the 2010 census, about a quarter of the Third Ward’s residents live at or below the poverty level; more than 50 percent are children. It was, in fact, one of those kids that inspired the entire project.

PRH founder Rick Lowe moved to Houston in the mid-’80s to pursue his art career. He shared the inspiration behind PRH with The New York Times in 2006:

In 1990, “a group of high school students came over to my studio,” he recalled. “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

He tried to think afresh what it meant to be a truly political artist, beyond devising the familiar agitprop, gallery decoration and plop-art-style public sculpture. He considered what the German artist Joseph Beuys once described as “the enlarged conception of Art,” which includes, as Beuys put it, “every human action.” Life itself might be a work of art, Mr. Lowe realized: art can be the way people live.

The resulting project, which started out only a block and a half in size, split the properties between residential homes and spaces dedicated to art, photography and literary projects. Today, there are a dozen artist exhibition and/or residency spaces and nearly 270 local and national artists have visited the community for periods of five to six months. It’s an amazing flow of creativity and, accordingly, the project has received much national attention and funding from The Ford (2004) and Kresge (2010, 2012) foundations. This month, Lowe was appointed to the National Council for the Arts.

Those accomplishments, though, seem to be so small in comparison to this: One of PRH’s programs involves seven homes set aside specifically for young, single mothers. Along with a rent subsidy, they receive mentorship and educational workshops. According to PRH’s web site, “To-date, over fifty (50) participants have “graduated” from the program. Some are still pursuing their degree; others are professional artists, college professors, accountants, pharmacists, interior designers, teachers, bankers, business professionals and lawyers.” One of the first mothers to participate in the program was Assata Richards. She went on to teach sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and has since returned to Houston; today, she manages the program that helped her succeed and is running to represent District D in Houston’s City Council. Richards perfectly sums up PRH success as an art project to the NYT:

“I had heard Rick was an artist when I got there,” she said, “but I thought, what kind of art does he do? Then I realized we were his art. We came into these houses, and they did something to us. This became a place of transformation. That’s what art does. It transforms you. And Rick also treated us like artists. He would ask, ‘What’s your vision for yourself?’ You understood that you were supposed to be making something new, and that something was yourself.”

View the trailer for the Third Ward/PRH documentary:

Author Angélique Weger

Angélique Weger (@miscellaneaarts) is a Baltimore-based web designer and mixed media artist. She studied journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and museum communications at University of the Arts in Philadelphia before discovering Baltimore in 2003. She makes outstanding pierogi and guacamole and is an avid DIYer/crafter.

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