Posted 9/29/2010 7:29 AM CDT
I grew up in Sugar Land. There, I grew up with a handful of talented dancers, musicians, writers, visual artists, and performers. I have friends and acquaintances playing in popular rock bands, producing and editing films, starring in movies, starring in Broadway musical tours, and dancing with international dance companies. And that's just from my high school, not to mention the larger Sugar Land area. The fact is that incredibly talented kids grow up in Houston's burbs. And a lot of them think they have to leave Houston to have a career in the arts. It took my finishing grad school and starting a rag-tag theatre company for even me to realize it. But why is that?
Ask the average person in the suburbs about performing arts groups. They will likely know the Alley Theatre, Theatre Under The Stars, Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, and all the big boys downtown. But do they know about Dominic Walsh Dance Theater or Main Street Theater or Opera Vista? Probably not. Ask the average person in the suburbs about visual art. They will most assuredly know the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and perhaps the Contemporary Arts Museum... but would they know Lawndale Art Center, DiverseWorks, or even the Menil? There's a good chance they won't. So why is THAT?
Well, two things: geography and finances. It's certainly easier for those of us in close proximity to these things to hear the buzz they generate. And secondly, it's the bigger institutions who have the marketing budgets to reach their audiences in the suburbs. Some inner-loop snobs suggest that people out in the burbs aren't as interested in the arts, but I cry foul― it's a question of what people are exposed to. That's like saying a kid doesn't like green beans before he or she has even tasted it. That said, I'm not suggesting there aren't artistic outlets and organizations out in the suburbs- not at all- just that it's difficult to get a comprehensive view of our thriving art scene when living outside the loop.
How did I become acquainted with Houston's underground art scene? Fresh Arts Coalition and Spacetaker. It sounds like nepotism, since I now work for Spacetaker, but the reality is that once I was introduced to these two organizations, the Houston art scene opened up to me in a way I couldn't quite imagine. And I was by no means sheltered― my mother exposed me to a lot of interesting organizations, like the Orange Show, as a kid. Furthermore, I was a former member of the Houston Dance Coalition, so I was familiar with some of the fantastic dance companies around town... but even that didn't give me the full picture. I was vaguely familiar with the theatre scene, but I had no idea there were theatre companies in town writing rock operas or organizations showcasing performance art. I read both Fresh Arts and Spacetaker newsletters like a menu and was constantly dragging around my friends for "tastings." Admittedly, whenever you're trying something new, you're not always going to love it. But with every taste, like it or not, my confidence in Houston as an arts community grew. Whatever you may say about Houston, we've got a smorgasbord to try. But I wish I had known about it earlier... when I had lived in Sugar Land.
Not so long ago, I asked the marketing director of a very prestigious art organization in town when they last targeted the suburbs for any kind of marketing effort. He said he couldn't remember. And that makes me sad. Sounds like a missed opportunity to me!
The big question a lot of arts groups have when they consider reaching out to the suburbs is the ROI. Will they really drive in to see our performances or exhibitions? The answer is YES! When I worked at Theatre Under The Stars, we had a healthy number of subscribers that lived outside the loop. Granted, it's musical theatre and very accessible... but I'd bet if you looked at the MFAH membership, you'd see a similar picture. There will certainly be those who aren't up to the drive, but I imagine there's plenty that would be. Case in point, I just sat down with a group of artists and musicians in Sugar Land called Amplify. Turns out they regularly drive in to see exhibitions. And I think it's funny that we don't think twice about the cultured people in New York, who ride trains to New Jersey or Connecticut where they live. They can make up a good portion of the subscriber base for the arts organizations in NYC, but that can't possibly ring true in a place like Houston. Really?
Half of the greater metropolitan area lives in the burbs and commutes into town every day. They already DO make the drive... so why aren't more arts groups start trying to capture suburbanites before they leave? The New York Philharmonic figured this out with a series of commuter concerts. And this is just one idea! I imagine the programming innovator at River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Alecia Lawyer, has probably thought about this... if she hasn't done it already. So that's my challenge to my arts colleagues: find ways to make it easier for those who prefer cheaper real estate and manicured lawns to consume our indie art scene.
Here's the biggest reason I think arts groups need to think outside the loop: the suburbs are our biggest untapped audience and embracing the Houston-area in its entirety may be the first step for Houston's art scene to receive the recognition and support it deserves. We all gripe about Houston being a cultural underdog, but perhaps we play into that stereotype all too well. We need to find our cultural allies in the burbs and work together to spread the good word.
This has all been the wind-up for the pitch: Fresh Arts and Spacetaker have decided to try to do something about it. We are hosting the ARTernative Festival out in Sugar Land's Town Square this Saturday. We are bringing a handful of Houston's most innovative arts groups to Sugar Land's doorstep. There will be children's activities (like live screen-printing and painting), performances by some of my favorite performing groups (lots of dance!), workshops on everything from mural painting to creative writing, an arts exhibition... and lots more. It's been a labor of love that's been made possible by a generous sponsorship by CultureMap, as well as the Texas Commission on the Arts, and community stakeholders in Sugar Land (Bridget Yeung, Kathy Huebner, Donna Hine, Harish Jajoo, and David Wallace, SL's former Mayor). Furthermore, Town Square has opened its arms wide for us and our efforts... we are very lucky!
We have to put our money where our mouth is, right? So, here goes! I'll be shocked if at least a healthy handful of Sugar Landers don't leave the festival on Saturday with a little better awareness of Houston's art scene and the curiosity to dig deeper. And that, my friends, is the goal. Wish us luck.
For more info about the ARTernative Festival this Saturday, October 2nd and the full schedule, visit www.arternative.org.