Don't just sit there

Making Houston arts interactive: From beers with brass to tweet intermissions to more open artists, it's a new day

Making Houston arts interactive: From beers with brass to tweet intermissions to more open artists, it's a new day

It is all about making meaningful connections with the audience. Or at least, it should be.

In an age where artistic conventions seem more like a free-for-all, where technology has challenged and expanded creative mediums and web 2.0 has changed how we interact and share information, the task of attracting and keeping audiences engaged in art and art organizations is a heavy conversation at the forefront of the arts community.

Yes, art attendance is down according to the latest National Endowment for the Arts 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts report. Whether economic factors, graying audiences or a general disconnect is at fault, passionate artists, art administrators and organizations are implementing programs that work to keep art relevant.

But why is that even a question?

Conceptual age thinking should align with art's sense of play, meaning, design, narrative and connection. At the risk of making an art-language reference, has art syntax become so complicated that we are unable to recognize the parameters to interpret it?

Blame it on elitism, education, access or exposure, cliche “outreach” performances of yesteryear are ineffective if their sole and primary goal is audience cultivation. We see right through it. During outreach concerts’ formative years, the program’s importance was seen as secondary.

“The intent of any reaching out to an audience should be to show how to think and not what to think,” Anthony Brandt, Musiqa co-founder and artistic director, explains. The goal of art is “to allow everyone to be an eyewitness to an experience.”

A much needed change to the present-good-art-and-they-will-come philosophy, savvy arts organizations are abandoning old conventions and implementing interactive strategies. Below is a list of thriving organizations in Houston’s non-profit art sector that are actively and successfully achieving the art of meaningful connections.


Musiqa concerts are engaging at their root. Although contemporary classical music can overwhelm a listener, integration with other art forms and short pre-performance listening talks open different access points into the piece.

“The human brain relates to things by labeling and looking for patterns,” Brandt explains. “We look for schemas to interpret every aspect of the world. We recognize a handshake as a social convention due a pattern of behavior. We seek the same structures when experiencing art.”

When unable to find such schemas, the experience can be overwhelming, bewildering and uncomfortable.

“Art’s function is to break schemas and new music allows us a medium to safely explore this," Brandt says. "Nothing is at stake physically.”

Brandt believes that imposing views on what the pieces are “about” is violating art’s principles. Short introductions prior to each piece explain these frameworks, while interpretation is left to the listener, evoking a sense of play.

Musiqa performances are addicting and successfully establish new music as not only relevant but necessary.

Not to miss? Inaugural performance of the 2010-2011 “She Told me This...” on Oct. 16 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and the Loft Concerts at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), "Music with Camera"  on Sept. 23 "and "Ben Patterson: Born in a State of Fluxus" on Nov. 7.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH)

Although one tends to think of art discourse as academic, cold, and inaccessible, it is none of those things at CAMH’s Art Essay Reading Group.

“One of the main reasons we started the Art Essay Reading Group over three years ago was to help people get over their fear of art jargon,” Paula Newton, director of education and public programs, says.

“Essays are chosen around general conversations about contemporary art and aesthetics, and are often geared toward issues brought up in the current exhibition, although not specially about the show.”

The group is very diverse and personalities are colorful. A mix of students, art lovers and skeptics of all backgrounds engage in lively, sometimes passionate and somewhat rowdy conversations. It is this passion that encourages thought, connection and relevance. A little wine doesn’t hurt either.

“What we hope is that each of us will go away with a greater understanding of art.”

When? First Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. Discussions last 90 minutes and essays are available at the front desk of the museum.


It is quite plausible that anyone exposed to Spacetaker’s offerings will find themselves having a cultural affair with them and their Artist SPEAKeasy program. An organization dedicated to “taking the starving out of starving artists,” Spacetaker is in touch with contemporary artists doing groundbreaking work now.

The Artist SPEAKeasy is an informal monthly happening at the Artist Resource Center at Winter Street Studios, where personalities of all disciplines engage in active dialogue with an inquisitive audience.

“I love the SPEAKeasy because you're able to get inside the artist's head,” Spacetaker executive director Jenni Rebecca Stephenson says. “People frequently complain that they can't understand art or don't find it accessible.”

The ambiance is informal and non-intimidating allowing an eclectic guest demographic to talk to presenters and amongst themselves. You will find camaraderie between the regulars, while first-timers are welcomed and feel right at home.

The art world can be intimidating.

“But knowing the how and why frequently changes that perception. It's not just a great entree for the uninitiated — it's a great way to get the inside scoop on the projects of our local artists.”

Interested? The Artist SPEAKeasy takes place the third Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. The next one is on Wednesday and features dancer, choreographer and director of Frame Dance Productions Lydia Hance and visual artist Pablo Gimenez Zapiola of the collaborative group BandArt.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO)

“We get in trouble by labeling concerts as outreach,” Alecia Lawyer, founder, executive director and principal oboist, explains. “Everything should be interactive.”

Attending a ROCO performance is indeed an interactive experience. Part of ROCO's success is in finding the musicians aligned with its mission, vision and philosophies.

“It is hard to find musicians who are at a high performance level and let go of themselves at the same time," Lawyer says. "One of the things that has been lacking is engagement of the actual artists. This generation was never taught about to talk about art, but I feel that’s changing.”

ROCO encourages music to be a conversation starter. Whether texting or tweeting questions, comments and reactions during their “take five” intermission, ROCO strives to create real interaction by breaking down the imaginary fourth wall: That between the stage and the audience.

“Music is not something we need to survive, but we do to survive," Lawyer says. Interaction is essential.

A new initiative begins this year in partnership with the American Festival for the Arts. The Pro-Am Chamber Music Program will encourage closeted musicians to dust off their instruments and participate in regular chamber music rehearsals and coachings, culminating in a recital in the spring.

Meet ROCO on Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. at St. Arnold Brewing Company for “Beer and Brass Music Tasting,” enjoy their trombone trio and sign-up for the Pro-Am Chamber Music Program. It’s the most fun you can have with serious music.

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Merging music and film in Musiqa composer Pierre Jalbert/Jean Detheux's "L'oeuil ecoute." Courtesy of Musiqa
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A captive and inquisitive audience interacts with presenters at Spacetaker's SPEAKeasy at Winter Street Studios. Courtesy of Spacetaker
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Discussions at CAMH's Art Essay Reading Group are always lively. Wine helps, too. Courtesy of Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
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The Artist SPEAKeasy is one of Jenni Rebecca Stephenson's favorite Spacetaker program offerings. Courtesy of Spacetaker
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Artist SPEAKeasy features artists of all disciplines and mediums. Courtesy of Spacetaker
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CAMH's Art Essay Reading Group helps people get over their fear of art jargon. Courtesy of Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
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Anthony Brandt believes that reaching out to an audience involves showing them how to think and not what to think. Photo by Beryl Striewski
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Alecia Lawyer carefully chooses musicians who are not only at a high level, but believe in ROCO's philosophy. Courtesy of Alexander's Fine Portrait Design