In 1993, artist Rick Lowe purchased a row of abandoned shotgun-style houses in Houston, Texas’, Northern Third Ward district, a low-income African-American neighborhood that was slotted for demolition. He galvanized hundreds of volunteers to help preserve the buildings, first by sweeping streets, rebuilding facades, and renovating the old housing’s interiors. Then, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and private foundations, the growing group of activists transformed the blight-ridden strip into a vibrant campus that hosts visiting artists, galleries, a park, commercial spaces, gardens, and as well as subsidized housing for young mothers, ages 18-26, looking to get back on their feet. Called Project Row Houses, the effort has restored the architecture and history of the community, while providing essential social services to residents. Now functioning as a non-profit organization, the project continues to be emblematic of long-term, community-engaged programs, and has been exhibited around in world in museums, and other art venues.
Since Project Row Houses’ inception, Lowe–the 2010 recipient of Creative Time’s Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change–has privileged art as a catalyst for change, a word that he has considered carefully: “It used to be that you could assume a progressive agenda when you heard the word ‘change,'” he says. “But language is shifting. Clarity is missing.” The project first took root after a conversation he had with a high school student who questioned the efficacy of making art objects in the quest for social justice. Inspired, Lowe looked to the work of artist John Biggers, who believed that art holds the capacity to uplift tangible social conditions, before intervening in the Northern Third Ward.
Project Row Houses has grown from 22 houses to 40, and includes exhibition spaces, a literary center, a multimedia performance art space, offices, low-income housing, and other amenities. In 2003, the organization established the Row House Community Development Corporation, a low-income rental-housing agency.