This year’s class of MacArthur Foundation Genius Grants, which includes winning $625,000 with no strings attached, include an impressive offering of scientists, mathematicians and poets. But a Houston artist’s work on a small community — where an art experiment has led to economic revitalization over the last two decades — may be one of the more fascinating programs of note.
Rick Lowe, a Houston artist and recipient of this year’s MacArthur Grant, has been working on Project Row Houses since its inception in 1993. The conceptual project began began with just 22 houses in one of Houston’s oldest African-American communities and has grown to more than 70 buildings across the neighborhood, according to City Lab.
Lowe and a group of artists transformed the area into what he refers to as “social sculpture,” which includes housing for young, single mothers, an arts incubator for budding artists and a community support program. But that’s not all.
Project Row Houses also focuses on architectural and historical preservation, which include some of the 1930-era shotgun homes that comprise part of the properties.

“Houston is not a place that is accustomed to preserving its history. Or having a high cultural identity in its neighborhoods,” Lowe says. “Project Row Houses at least gives Houston an example of how that can happen.”

The Young Mother Residential Program, or subsidized transitional housing for single mothers between the ages of 18 and 26 with children under the age of 17, provides support to find employment and education.

The project launched a separate nonprofit in 2003. The community development corporation is a support center committed to “strengthening, sustaining and celebrating the life of the Third Ward community,” according to the site.

But more than anything, Lowe contends Project Row Houses is first and foremost an art project.

“Project Row Houses is an art project. I always tell people, creating anything, it’s art, especially if it’s something experimental. If it’s new, it’s always hard,” Lowe says. “To bring a painting into being on a blank canvas — if you think about it, that’s impossible. How can that happen?”

The project is also home to an arts incubator and has partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, since 2004 to host the Glassell Core Fellow Artist residency. The recipient receives a one or two-year residency while the Summer Studios program exhibits work from selected local college or university art students. The project also serves as an arts venue for other artists.

But how will winning the grant help the thriving community? Lowe isn’t sure, but says that the project will look to food issues next and a possible “little small museum thing we’re playing around with.”

Project Row Houses has informed several other projects across the country including the Watts House Project in Los Angeles, the Transforma Projects in New Orleans and more recently, the Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow in Dallas. Lowe is also heading up the Pearl Street revitalization program in Philadelphia’s North Chinatown neighborhood.

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