The Composition/s of Community: An Interview with Rick Lowe

Project Row Houses, ongoing, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Row Houses.
Project Row Houses, ongoing, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Row Houses.



By Jessica Borusky



Rick, thank you so much for participating in this interview. This issue of Number: focuses on differing aspects within larger cultural ecologies, with insight from established artists and professionals toward navigating the industry. While Number: has an online platform, its printed matter situates itself within the American South, and I think your practice will render well for its readers who wish to consider community-engaged practices and thoughtfully operating within, and outside of, one’s identified community. I would like to begin with a few definitions, because terms fluctuate and it may be important for readers to grasp your understanding of the following words: how do you identify community/ies, social- practice, public art, sustainability, and education (as this is an inherent component of public-facing programs and projects)?



First, I must admit that I’m often skeptical of labels. There have been many different labels used over the past 30 years or so attempting to define or describe work that seeks to challenge the lines between multiple dichotomies, i.e., art/life, institutional/community, public/gallery/museum art, etc. Because my work has been subject to being discussed using many of these terms, I’m comfortable enough with them. But from the art side, my preference is Josef Beuys’s term, social sculpture. This term best defines the work I’m interested in because it has the potential of encompassing so much from public art to museum institutions. From a community side, I prefer social- and community-engaged art. The “community” in this phrase is very important to me because social practice and socially-engaged art has become popular in terms that omit any connection to community. Not that these forms can’t address community, but it’s my opinion that it took many years of artists working to bring community into the periphery of the art context to allow it to just slip away by omission.



Due to this issue’s focus, can you discuss the seeds for your dialogically-entrenched practice? Meaning, instead of offering a “trajectory-narrative” of your work, how has dialogue, community, and art-as-impetus for public and social reflexivity interweave into your processes and production? Was there a concrete instance that allowed your work to respond to site/community/conversation; or, was this organically connected through materiality, place, cohorts?



The thing that forced me into dialogical ways of working was scale. I didn’t go into dialogical work based on some philosophical directive. It was out of necessity. The scale of Project Row Houses and the lack of resources forced me into conversation with others. Because I didn’t have all the skills and resources it took to pursue the project, I had to engage with others seeking their ideas on approaches of real estate, historic preservation, architecture, legal, construction, education, and social services. Having to do this opened my eyes to the creativity, richness, and resourcefulness that was all around me at any given time in any location. It also helped me understand the value of artist leadership in exposing broad sectors of society of its creative potential and how empowering that could be for individuals and communities. This really helped me understand Josef Beuys’s proclamation that “everyone is an artist.” I understood that this proclamation is about human potential and that artists are natural leaders in helping “everyone” realize this essential part of their being.



Project Row Houses is an incredible project/model that has expanded to other communities. Can you speak about how that project came to fruition; identify a particular  or contingent of challenges that arose and how your team unpacked that; how you and your team contend with the nuances of bringing that model into other cities? What components allow communities to rise and glow? What about the concept needs to be further developed?



The thing that I learned early on with Project Row Houses was the need to listen. I believe that, in most circumstances, answers are never too far from the questions. We just have to practice the art of listening hard. Listening with our ears, eyes, heart and all, is the way I learned to meet the challenges the work brought forth. Obviously, the big challenge for Project Row Houses was familiar to most startups: funding. Quickly, my answers to the funding question repositioned my thinking from funding to resources. We realized that, while we didn’t have funding, there were many resources around us. Prior to social media, we skillfully used print and television media for putting pressure on the municipality and for engaging with populations outside the neighborhood. We instrumentalized museums, churches, universities, and a wide range of social groups. We rarely focused on what the challenge was but who could likely bring resolution to it.



I don’t generally think of Project Row Houses as a “model.” But I do think that its development was based on a set of principles that are easily transferred to other places. The top principle is to believe in the local. There is so much intelligence within the local population about the context and value of a place. So, I always start there. Another principle is creating space for free flow of ideas among as diverse a population as possible. This allows for ideas to grow and to extend networks. There’s a lot more I can say here but everything stems from rootedness in the local context with a space for free-flowing ideas. The challenge that I’ve found for most of my work that I continue to develop is sustainability. I think short-term work can meaningfully add to community goals. But the work I seek aims at long term relationships and impacts. This is a major challenge. It took 25 years before Project Row Houses made it to a point of sustainability. This is the question that my nearly 30 years of social- and community-engaged work has brought me to. I’m confident that the answer is close by.



Project Row Houses, ongoing, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of Row Houses.



Having had the opportunity to work with you in the artist selection process for the Greenwood Art Project, I was impressed with your facilitative capacities in aligning polyvocal needs within the Tulsa creative community. Can you talk about your ethics when entering into a community as a project artist: how do you identify cultural vision and desires within a community; how do you navigate myriad histories, opinions, voices, stakeholders, viewers/participants, outcomes, cultural and social growth, and differing narratives within a diverse constituency?



I’m happy that you were impressed with my facilitation. In general, I’m not very sure about this aspect of the work because it’s so difficult to stay true to the form of allowing the voices around you to truly set the direction. As I said earlier, the most important thing for me is to make sure the local voice is primary. This does not mean I’m not willing to challenge the local. The intention is to have dialogue and growth. I hope that through dialogue I can elevate the locals’ understanding of certain things, and, certainly, the local folks help me understand the reasons behind their positions. It also helps build confidence when you establish interest in the local community in substantive ways.



In the context of the Greenwood Art Project, I hope that, in making it public, we were targeting artists from Oklahoma and Tulsa and, through those efforts, we established trust. Once we have trust, then we can move on to being in dialogue about how to make the best project we can for the Centennial. The way that I work, I’m careful not to try not to tell the narrative of a community. I mostly try to create platforms for those narratives to be told and expressed. For me, what becomes important about telling narratives is to make sure there are enough diverse voices in the mix. For instance, the challenge with Tulsa is getting the White narrative into the conversation about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I’m convinced that there is are meaningful perspectives from that point of view.



Author Adrienne Maree Brown discusses the importance of developing holistic and responsive (emergent) strategies toward equipping communities to thrive well beyond their nonprofit’s initial work, thereby generating sustainable ways of organizing. While Brown primarily operates within social-sector nonprofit work, I think this concept applies to cultural organizing: how do you equip those you work to engender sustainable outcomes? What are ways in which readers can begin cultural organizing that responds to their community in thoughtful, dynamic, and sustained ways while acknowledging that the terms of each community (its needs and definitions of sustainability, in fact) are vastly different depending on identification/locale/context?  



This is the question that is guiding my interest in social- and community-engaged work going forward. For me, exploring what sustainability really means is important because I’m not convinced that sustainability means that an initiative continues forever. I’m thinking this somehow means de-centering the work or the project from the idea of sustainability. Maybe it means focusing on the sustainability of the drive to continue to enhance the core values of a particular context rather than the project itself.



Jessica Borusky is an educator, writer, and independent curator working throughout the American South.