There are some radical things going on around the world. People, artists, communities, and organisations seem to produce some of the best work when they are stuck staring at the face of adversity. I wonder if the social projects that come out of this adversity are more art than art?
One such radical thing is a project that was established the year I was born—serendipitous I reckon, 1993— in Houston’s North Ward district called Project Row Houses (PRH). This project was founded by artist and community activist Rick Lowe. They sought to establish a positive, creative, and transformative presence in this historic community. Inspired by American artist Dr John Biggers and the German artist Josef Beuys, PRH is a unique experiment in activating the intersections between art, historic preservation, affordable and innovative housing, community relations and development, neighborhood revitalization, and human empowerment.
PRH was conceptualised and realised as the community was on the verge of demolition. The City of Houston had slated an entire row of housing for demolition with no plan to re-house the residents. Artist Rick Lowe managed to purchase the row of housing before demolition began, convincing an over 500 strong group of volunteers to immediately start work on the houses and neighbourhood. The vision was to restore the houses to retain the architecture as part of the social fabric of that neighbourhood’s African-American history and culture. As a physical asset, the row has played a crucial role in the revitalisation of the community, all before taking into account the individual projects that have been undertaken within the active, creative, and community spaces. They cleaned streets, painted facades, renovated interiors. The volunteers of this project re-established a foundation on which a strong and sustainable community could be built.
PRH gained funding, and with an initial 20 houses built a vibrant campus of galleries, artist residencies, commercial spaces, gardens, and subsidised housing and childcare for young mothers looking to advantage themselves. The project continues to grow as it receives more and more funding, already having doubled the number of houses owned to 40+. This is all I want my art to do! To take arts funding and use it for good! To propose alternative ideas, histories, and ways of sustaining communities. This is people-centric art. Art that mutually benefits the maker and the audience. The work is both beautiful and inclusive, social and aesthetic. It is not one art object, but the sum total of its parts: the people, the events, the social initiatives, and the community engagement. One whole social artwork. I propose that it is more art than any art I could find in a gallery in Wellington.
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Although you don’t have to look too far elsewhere in Wellington to find projects working for social justice. Like I say, you just probably won’t find it in the galleries is all. Peoples Coffee’s Arohata Project is one near and dear to me. The Arohata Project was initiated by Peoples Coffee owner Matt Lamason and it started in 2013 with a comprehensive barista training course at the Arohata Women’s Prison. The vision being that there would be the capacity to grow the project to the point where prisoners being released would leave with the means to be able to find meaningful employment with the hopes of aiding rehabilitation and reintegration. Three years later and they are still working hard at it, with Lauren Tennent on the ground training at Arohata, as well as working closely with Matt to build the project and grow its impact. Imagine a program that could train prisoners whilst in prison, then on release be able to offer further training, support, and the potential for meaningful employment and reintegration. Not just with coffee, but with anything! I have been thinking about all sorts of industries that could use this model in a way that would be mutually beneficial for the industry and our society. The quicker we kick the prejudices towards prisoners, the quicker and easier reintegration becomes.
I think that art—and I do think about these projects as art—can be a real catalyst for change. Especially when it is taking real-world steps to making a difference on both an individual and a public level. Certainly these projects are not specifically artworks, but they do operate in all of the ways that art intends to. They engage and improve the audience’s quality of life, they bring people together, they educate, they encourage community, and they challenge and / or reflect our society. Where there is art for art’s sake, I say this is art for people’s sake. Social justice for the win.