At Houston's Project Row Houses, Art Is a Way of Life

Brent Humphreys

How a single piece of social sculpture transformed an entire neighborhood.

Rick Lowe is known chiefly for a single artwork, which takes up a six-block stretch of Houston. Project Row Houses, as it’s called, is America’s longest-standing example of Social Practice art—a movement that engages directly with communities in hopes of not just reflecting audiences’ lives but also bettering them. The houses are located in the city’s Third Ward, a scrappy, working-class enclave once best known for its high crime rate. Today, the predominantly African American neighborhood has recovered sufficiently to attract real estate speculation, which represents an all-new challenge for Lowe.

Project Row Houses began in 1993, when Lowe and a group of artist and activist friends took over two dozen derelict shotgun houses, pooling money and resources from, among other sources, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, and Houston’s own Menil Collection, whose director gave his staff Mondays off so that they could pitch in with the renovations. The initial concept was simply to mount an art show there, but the project developed a life of its own. Almost a quarter century later, Lowe and his collaborators have transformed those buildings—and some 50 others, including affordable rental units and a school—into a thriving cultural hub that offers exhibitions, artist residencies, and, most notably, housing for single mothers. For those not clear on where the “art” comes in, one mother’s epiphany provides an answer. “She was initially perplexed about the relationship between the artists and herself,” Lowe says. “Then she said, ‘I get it. My life is a work of art too.’”

Lowe, a youthful 56-year-old originally from Russell County, Alabama, recalls a time before Project Row Houses when he was also searching for meaningful answers. “I was making painting and installation work related to political and social issues,” he says, “but I was skeptical about the idea of making art about low-income people that would then find its way onto the walls of wealthy individuals. One day, a student approached me and said: ‘Mr. Lowe, I appreciate that your paintings and sculptures show what is happening in our community, but we don’t need that. We know what happens here. If you’re an artist, why can’t you create a solution?’”

That eureka moment “turned things upside down,” Lowe says, leading him to consider how to make art that is symbolic and poetic but also has practical applications. “Eventually, I ran into a term coined by the German artist Joseph Beuys, ‘social sculpture,’” he recalls. “The idea that politics, neighborhoods, the environment could be the medium for art made me realize that this was exactly what I wanted to explore, which led directly to Project Row Houses.”

Twenty-four years into its existence, Project Row Houses is not just an important symbol of sustainable urban renewal. It’s also the world’s greatest social sculpture, and one of the most original, ambitious artworks produced anywhere this century. It provides proof, in Lowe’s words, that “life itself can also become art, that art can be the way people live.” projectrowhouses.org