State of the Arts 2011
The Arthropologist

Karen Farber explains UH Mitchell Center's bold ideas to shake up Houston's arts scene

Karen Farber explains UH Mitchell Center's bold ideas to shake up Houston's arts scene

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Karen Farber, executive director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston Photo by © David A. Brown/2011 dabfoto creative
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Jonah Bokaer in "Why Patterns" Photo by Robert Benschop
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Suzanne Bocanegra’s "When a Priest Marries a Witch" Courtesy of the artist
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Jonah Bokaer in "Recess" Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima
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Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston
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In November 2006 I sat in front of Karen Farber at a performance of the Neo Futurists in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Farber is the director of the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. After the show I knew for certain that I needed to get to know anyone who would bring in such a subversively wonderful theater troupe, and that I had great hopes for the Mitchell Center, a truly unique cultural institution.

Since then, I have hardly missed a Mitchell Center event. Farber and I talk often, about our favorite artists, trends, and the upcoming season. I thought I would let you all listen in this time. 

CultureMap: Sometimes I have trouble describing exactly what the Mitchell Center for the Arts does. What's your two sentence elevator speech?

Karen Farber: In a nutshell, the Mitchell Center for the Arts is dedicated to ground-breaking, transformative collaborations across the performing, visual, and literary arts. From our base at the University of Houston, the Mitchell Center commissions and produces new works, presents public performances and exhibitions, offers curriculum and scholarships, and hosts residencies with renowned visiting artists from throughout the world. We also work closely with our five departments at UH – the School of Art, Moores School of Music, the School of Theatre & Dance, the Creative Writing Program, and the Blaffer Art Museum.

CM: How would you say the mission has changed?

KF: Actually, our mission hasn’t changed at all over the years. But it’s true that we have evolved tremendously as an organization. I would venture to say that was only possible because our mission is so strong and specific. It has always been about interdisciplinary collaboration — the new artistic forms that emerge when different perspectives, aesthetics, and practices come together. 

We are interested in showing what art can be — a powerful, direct and personal encounter with something new.  We take on bold projects that provide new challenges for both artists and audiences. We are interested in the provocative artists who defy conventions and challenge the status quo.

 Since I arrived at the Mitchell Center in 2005, some very clear programmatic themes and commitments have emerged. We are interested in showing what art can be — a powerful, direct and personal encounter with something new. We take on bold projects that provide new challenges for both artists and audiences. We are interested in the provocative artists who defy conventions and challenge the status quo. Genres like spoken word poetry, graphic novels, dance-theater — the commonality among these is that they are often not accepted in traditional artistic circles.

CM: It seems there's less presenting, and I miss that. How do you see presenting in the hierarchy?

KF: When we work with an artist, we always present some aspect of their work. Often the presentations do not happen in traditional spaces with set times and set ticket prices, which may be what you are missing.  We love to present full scale performances when it makes sense. When we do present, it's usually work that would otherwise not be seen in Houston.

Often, though, we are drawn to site-specific projects that take us out of traditional spacesAn example of this is the upcoming fall series Communograph. It includes a range of events in and about the Third Ward, organized in partnership with Project Row Houses. The series will include well-known artists with local ties, such as Mel Chin, combined with many Houston personalities.

In contrast, we are also presenting When a Priest Marries a Witch, a one-time performance by the extraordinary visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra, which will happen in the Brown Auditorium at the MFAH. Different as they are, both of these projects are site-specific. While we love the unexpected, we are in fact setting more structure to our future seasons. Each fall and spring you can look for a major public program of some kind from us. Often these will be performances in theaters or exhibitions in galleries, but not always.

CM: You and I have often talked the role of the university in the support of the arts in a general way. Let's get specific.

KF: Universities are actually the country's largest donors to the arts. Just as universities are dedicated to research in the sciences, they also support creative development in the arts. The notion of a “creative laboratory” is not an imaginary one. Our studios and classrooms are laboratories for artistic experiments that are vital to the artistic process. Most institutions don’t support that part.

University of Houston isn’t just a research university, though, it's a major metropolitan university. Our student body has the kind of diversity most arts organizations can only dream about. Combine that with our surrounding neighborhoods including the Third and Fifth Wards and downtown, and we have a very rich environment in which to make art. The Mitchell Center has become increasingly interested in bringing artists to Houston to work directly in, with, and about our neighborhoods, such as the Communograph series and our many years of activities with Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

CM: Let's bring Bamuthi into the conversation.  This fall we finally see what he is up to with red, black and GREEN: a blues on Nov. 4 and 5, which the Mitchell Center helped commission. What drew you to his work?

KF: Bamuthi exemplifies so many aspects of what we do. His work is deeply interdisciplinary, combining poetry, choreography, music, and much more. Yet that very quality is due to its roots in hip-hop, which makes it easily accessible to a broad audience. In addition, he is a quintessential collaborator, always bringing other artists and students into his process.

red, black and GREEN: a blues was largely developed in residence with us and includes tons of poetry, imagery, and choreography from his time in Houston. This was an experiential research residency in partnership with Project Row Houses, which provided Bamuthi with an ideal place to stay in the Third Ward. The Mitchell Center fully funded and facilitated the residency, including the Life Is Living Festival we held in conjunction with this project last fall. Bamuthi was profoundly inspired by Houston. As this piece tours to major venues throughout the nation, it will carry with it these images and narratives of Houston. 

CM: Can you describe the relationship between the Mitchell Center and UH's students? 

KF: When the Mitchell family made the $20 million gift in 2003 to form the Mitchell Center, they made a statement that the arts at the University of Houston could be a major force in the city. We began with collaborative programming and now our arts departments and colleges are working together to develop an integrated, navigable arts district on our campus that reflects the great work being done here. We also are always striving to better connect our many arts students with the outside world. Sometimes that means professional artists from other places and sometimes it means Houston’s arts institutions.

CM: I'm curious how each artist defines their own time with the Center. For example, with Jonah Bokaer's residency coming down the pike, can you talk about the kind of freedom in these relationships, and how you work to make something of meaning happen.

KF: Because often our projects are such significant investments of funds, time, and energy, we always need several reasons to work with a particular artist. As for Jonah, I have been interested in his art for several years. The way he integrates technology to serve a specific purpose in his work, not as a gimmick, has always captured my attention, as has his gorgeous choreography and refined aesthetic. 

You’re right – there is great freedom in the early stages. When we begin talking with an artist, we like to hear all of their current ideas and needs, and we listen for ways that the Mitchell Center can help them achieve their objectives. Do they need space? A research fellowship? Or a presentation? With Jonah, we are still in the planning stages, but it will probably be a combination of the above.

CM: When is collaboration at its best?

KF: When everyone involved is transformed by the experience, from artist, to audience, to institution.

CM: In thinking about your own career, from working in development to leading a major Houston arts organization,  what in your background prepared you for what you are doing now?

KF: Every day I get to help artists take bold new risks and make things happen. It’s not difficult to stay dedicated to that. Plus, we are serving so many constituencies through what we do — students, the university community, the public, and these amazing artists. Doing development is a great primer for this kind of work, because to do it well requires an extensive understanding of the organization’s mission and what makes it tick.

I’ve been fortunate to always work for outstanding organizations and have had many great mentors along the way. I began my career working for a production, management and booking company for artists including Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Spalding Gray, and many others. I used to stay at the office late watching videos from the archives. I was also influenced by my time at the Kennedy Center managment fellow working with Michael Kaiser who is truly an arts impresario. He treats arts management as a serious endeavor that requires skills and experience. Without well managed institutions artists will not have the support structures they need to survive. Michael helped me to clearly understand that equation.

CM: What don't we know about you?

KF: Being a mom of two young kids, I don't have much time to decompress. But I must admit, I'm a Top Chef addict. I love watching the creative process unfold and I think the show does a great job of staying focused on the artistry of the food. 

See a video of Suzanne Bocanegra's piece, I Write the Songs: