The aging process: As Houston arts organizations grow older, they, too, questiontheir purpose in life
"We are turning 35, it's time that we look at what we are up to," says Mary Lampe, director of SWAMP, while sitting across from me at lunch at the Houston Arts Resource Fair. Lampe has brought in a strategic planner to help plot out their future. They are also having a big ol' House Party to celebrate on Wednesday.
In my thirties, I cranked out a couple of kids. It's a meaningful time of life for people and organizations, a crossroads when your youth is beginning to fade and maturity can yield solid progress. By 30, organizations develop root systems beyond their founders.
Whether it's a milestone or year two, arts organizations are accessing where they are in their life cycles, just like people. Age asks us to question our purpose. At 25, you throw a party, at 38, you think, OMG, I'm almost 40.
Whether it's a milestone or year two, arts organizations are accessing where they are in their life cycles, just like people. Age asks us to question our purpose.
If only my imaginary team of interns would quit messing around and get some work done around here, I could tell you the oldest and the youngest arts organizations in Houston. So instead, I went to my favorite arts wonks (Jerome Vielman and Richard Graber) over at Houston Arts Alliance for the real facts.
Did you know that the Art League turns 65 next year? The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston goes back to 1900, the Houston Symphony to 1913, an outfit called Houston Choral Showcase was founded in 1932, Society of Performing Arts in 1966. And those wonderful singers at Houston Tidelanders are still adorable at 65.
Da Camera Houston is looking fine at 25, with a shiny new composition by Pierre Jalbert for their opening 25th Anniversary Celebration on Sept. 28. It's always a little weird when an edgy group like DiverseWorks gets older, a bit like an aging rock star. How do you keep your sass over 30? Maybe you get a new director (Elizabeth Dunbar) and move to new digs (4102 Fannin St.).
"Turning 30 never felt so good," quips Dunbar. "We're older, wiser, more professional--but we're still hip, cool, and kicking ass."
It's always a little weird when an edgy group like DiverseWorks gets older, a bit like an aging rock star. How do you keep your sass over 30?
Executive Director Rich Levy reflects on Inprint's 30th anniversary. "We are in a state of astonishment. To be honest, when I took this job 17 years ago, it was difficult to believe that the making and consumption of literature were compelling facts on the Houston cultural landscape—even with a great Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston (UH CWP), " says Levy.
"I don’t think the brave, visionary souls who launched Inprint ever imagined that the organization would grow as it has and would occupy as meaningful a cultural space in the city as it does. We’re grateful that Houston supports the written word like few cities in the country. I hope Inprint will still be at it 30 years from now."
You can still be a teen, but be senior in your field, like Houston Chamber Choir, who, at 17, is the oldest professional choir in Houston.
"We are still glowing after a successful tour to the Northeast, with performances in New York City and at Yale University last April," says executive director Becky Tobin. "In just a few short weeks, we are releasing our newest commercial recording – the world premiere recording of Giovanni Paolo Colonna’s Psalmi ad Vesperas (1694). As we grow, we aim to continue presenting a diverse mix of choral repertoire showcasing our talented core of singers while bringing in world renowned conductors and artists."
Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company is entering its tween years, and as you suspected, they are rough. "We are turning 11 and I still have never been paid," says Jennifer Decker, founder and artistic director. "I make sure everyone else gets something. I'm thinking that I sacrificed the last years of my youth, and my acting career, to keep alive a theatre company that I believe in. But at this point, we are just starting to get somewhere, so I'll keep on it."
Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company is entering its tween years, and as you suspected, they are rough. "We are turning 11 and I still have never been paid," says Jennifer Decker, founder and artistic director.
Sometimes, the age of an organization is murky; it depends when you start counting. Such is the case with University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
"The gift from the Mitchell family was pledged in 2003. We began programming in 2005," says Karen Farber, director.
"So it depends on what we are celebrating, but in essence we will have our 10 year anniversary in 2013. In honor of that, we will probably do a big artist project. But in 2015, we will probably do a publication to celebrate 10 years of programming. Two anniversaries are better than one. It's kind of like celebrating anniversaries for your first date and for your wedding."
At eight, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) is still fairly young, but in a stage of rapid growth. I would have guessed ROCO to be older, as they have covered so much ground in a short time.
"We compiled a fact sheet at the end of our seventh season that surprised even us. ROCO has performed over 800 pieces of music in over 200 concerts, commissioned/premiered 29 pieces, regularly reaches a nationwide audience of 1.2 million (via Performance Today), and achieved a national reputation as a first rank orchestra, " says Teri Golas, executive director.
"Reflecting on these seven years helped us see that ROCO is carving a niche in commissioning/performing new music and in bringing together world-class musicians and guest artists to Houston from all over the world. We're excited about the future, and looking forward to celebrating our 10th with a bang in a couple of years."
Classical Theatre Company is turning five, but to me they feel more like 15, because founder John Johnson is one serious theater chap.
Classical Theatre Company is turning five, but to me they feel more like 15, because founder John Johnson is one serious theater chap. CTC celebrates with a season kick off on Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Alliance Gallery at Houston Arts Alliance. They have grown and put down roots at Studio 101 and boast a season that includes Miss Julie, Ubu Roi and Shylock the Jew of Venice, the very play that launched the enterprise.
"Five means to me that we've been able to get traction in the local community," says Johnson. "Whether its with funders, artists, or audiences, we've achieved at least a bit of continuity. We're still pretty young, but we've got a foothold. If we can continue to grow at the pace we have been over the past few years, I'd say year ten might feel more like reaching maturity. But who knows, I'm 35, and I still feel pretty immature."
Don't let the age of Frame Dance Productions fool you. Founder Lydia Hance has made her mark in two years.
"It's feels like a whirlwind, we're in rehearsal for our eighth work. We're dizzy and excited," says Hance. "This year, I'm working on creating a healthy and stable organizational structure-- strengthening our artistic voice, and putting in a business plan to stabilize the organization. I'm doing this through mentorship, education and conferences, as well as my Dance/USA Institute of Leadership Training, and learning how to be a business woman."
Youngsters are all about energy and big plans. The new, multifaceted dance organization Vitacca Productions & Company, just out of the gate at 23 weeks, launched at a party Saturday night at Katsuya. Director Kelly Ann Vitacca has an ambitious plan, including impressive guest artists, choreographic fellowships, community outreach performances and open master classes.
"We do not have 'stars in our eyes,' rather, we are aware that a new business, especially a nonprofit, will bring many hurdles and challenges," says Vitacca. "It’s a thrilling time, and with our strategic plans in place, we have our seat belts on and are ready for the ride."
Champion swing dancer and Dance Houston founder Andrea Cody has started The American Social Dance Association. It's so young it that doesn't yet have a web site. "Starting a brand new organization is truly invigorating," says Cody. "After focusing all my attention on Dance Houston for nearly 10 years, I can't tell you how refreshing it is to have something new to work on. This time around, I feel like I know how big the mountain in front of me is. I also know how far I'll go." .
I wish every arts organization a happy season at every age. Courage to youngsters and oldsters both. This is the arts; you will need it.
Sneak peek of the two-year old Frame Dance Productions newest work, The Black Space, Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sept. 2 at Fresh Arts.
The Black Space from Frame Dance Productions on Vimeo.