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Houston at 175
New building, new programs

With stunning new Asia Society Texas Center, Houston's future looks to the Far East and beyond

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The new Asia Society Texas Center will provide an exceptionally serene and elegant environment for performances, lectures, exhibitions, classes, and more.  Photo by Paul Hester/© 2011 Hester + Hardaway
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A view from the stage of ASTC's 273-seat Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, which is expected to be in demand as a medium-sized performance space for smaller Houston arts groups. Photo by Paul Hester/© 2011 Hester + Hardaway
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The Houston-based Kaminari Taiko drumming ensemble performed at last year's Asia Society TIger Ball. Courtesy of Jeff Fantich Photography
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Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire Hugh Hargrave Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
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Korean mellons at 99 Ranch Market in Spring Branch Photo by Joel Luks
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Editor's Note: In celebration of Houston's 175th anniversary, we asked leaders to imagine the city's future. In this essay, Asia Society Texas Center executive director Martha Blackwelder discusses the new center's expanding role in establishing Houston's links to the Asia Pacific.

At Asia Society Texas Center we are all about Houston’s future. In April we open our new 40,000-square-foot headquarters, located in the heart of the Museum District and destined to be an enduring Houston landmark. Stunning though the building is as architecture, its greatest value lies in its mission and what that can mean for Houston. We want it to be a place where Houston forges its future.

We already recognize Houston as an international city. In the future, we think, that increasingly will mean an Asia Pacific city. At Asia Society Texas Center we want to be Houston’s window on the fastest-growing region in the world.

 We already recognize Houston as an international city. In the future, we think, that increasingly will mean an Asia Pacific city. 

 Houston already has longstanding ties to Asia. Roy M. Huffington, the independent oilman who, together with former first lady Barbara Bush and other visionary Houstonians, founded Asia Society Texas Center in 1979, was a pioneer natural gas producer in Indonesia in the 1970s. U.S. oil and gas companies have had extensive operations in Asia for decades.

But the momentum has really picked up. East Asian trade is the fastest-growing market for the Port of Houston, showing a 250 percent increase between 2003 and 2010. The Asian and Asian American population in Harris County totals more than 280,000, according to the 2010 Census, an increase of 45 percent from 2000. In Fort Bend County Asians make up some 15 percent of the population.

In far west Houston a vibrant East Asian commercial district has exploded along Bellaire Avenue, while the Harwin Drive Shopping District off the Southwest Freeway is home to dozens of South Asian shops and restaurants. Two large Asian grocery stores have popped up in Spring Branch in the last three years. Houstonians — to say nothing of people elsewhere in the country — probably don’t realize the extent to which we are an Asia Pacific city right now.

Asia Society Texas Center, with the opening of its new building, is uniquely placed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and cultural experiences that will deepen Houston’s presence in Asia and Asia’s presence here. From its founding in 1956 in New York by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society has sought to bring Asians and Americans together for a shared future.

We accomplish that primarily by hosting public programs across the range of human interests, from arts and culture to business and policy to education. We are pan-Asian in geographic reach. More than 30 countries, from Japan to Iran and from the Central Asian republics to New Zealand, fall within our area of interest.

Expansion of programming

For more than 30 years Asia Society Texas Center presented programs at various venues around Houston. But the extent and sophistication of our programming will grow exponentially after we open our center on Southmore at Caroline.

Designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, the renowned Japanese architect best known in this country for his renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the building is a monument to elegant design and the highest standards of materials and workmanship. The first floor houses the 273-seat Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, which will be the finest medium-sized performance space in the city. On the second floor the Louisa Stude Sarofim Gallery will house temporary and traveling exhibitions of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian American art.

 The extent and sophistication of our programming will grow exponentially after we open our center on Southmore at Caroline.

 The Edward Rudge Allen III Education Center, which looks out over a Green Garden, provides an airy, light-filled venue for luncheons, business briefings and lectures. Movable walls allow the Education Center to be divided into as many as three large, AV-equipped classrooms.

A second-floor lounge looks out over the Elkins Foundation Water Garden, an infinity pool, as the skyline of downtown Houston looms in the distance.

In short, the center provides an exceptionally serene and elegant environment for performances, lectures, exhibitions, classes and more. And, yes, the spaces will be available for rent by appropriate groups, and we hope the center will be a resource for the whole of Houston.

We look forward to bringing to Houston prime ministers and poets, policy experts and performers. Our education department will host a robust schedule of school tours, educator workshops, family days, classes for children and lifelong learning courses for adults.

From the vibrant sounds of Indonesian gamelan to the lyricism of Indian dance to thought-provoking cinema from China, our state-of-the-art Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater will be graced by illustrious and emerging artists from around the globe.

To reflect the reality as Houston as the hub for national and international business, we will host a diverse range of business and policy roundtables, seminars, and conferences featuring some of the foremost leaders of the day.

All of these activities will enable us to strengthen existing partnerships as well as to connect with new constituents. Ultimately through these endeavors we seek to deepen our role as Houston’s bridge to Asia . . . and to the future.

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