Discovery Green announces a new President to lead the management, growth of the downtown park

Kathyrn Lott / Photo by Julie Soefer

Twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit and arts world, Kathryn Lott has been named President of the Discovery Green Conservancy, the nonprofit that runs the 12-acre downtown park through a public-private partnership with the City of Houston.

Lott will begin her leadership role on July 1, 2023, succeeding longtime President Barry Mandel who is retiring after serving as President since 2010.

Since its opening 2008, Discovery Green Park has welcomed more than 20 million visitors, according to its website. Located across from the George R. Brown Convention Center, the urban green space includes a one-acre lake, fountain, playground, public art installations, gardens, and on-site restaurants. The Discovery Green Conservancy works with hundreds of community partners to program family-friendly, arts and culture, and wellness events annually, most of which are free to the public.

As President, Lott will spearhead efforts behind the care, maintenance, and programming of the park, as well as raising more than $6 million toward its annual budget.

Discovery Green’s free movie night series, Bank of America’s Screen on the Green, returns May 27 and June 3. / Photo courtesy of @DiscoveryGreenHouston on Facebook 

“The role of president at Discovery Green encapsulates everything I ever dreamed of in my career,” Lott said in a statement.

“I look forward to caring for a beautiful and respected green space while fundraising for programming and performing and visual arts,” she continued. “I am eager to incorporate Houston’s technology into the landscape of the park and continue to make an impact in the community.”

Lott joins the Discovery Green Conservancy from her role as Executive Director of Southern Smoke Foundation, the Houston-based nonprofit that provides emergency relief funding and mental health services for food and beverage industry workers.

In addition, Lott has previously worked for Houston Grand Opera, Performing Arts Houston (formerly Society for the Performing Arts), and the Children’s Museum of Houston. She has also managed her own production company, Lott Entertainment, which she co-created in 2014.

Retiring President Barry Mandel, whose own pre-Discovery Green experience included leadership roles with the Houston Downtown Alliance and the Theater District Association, served as Lott’s mentor when both of them worked together in the downtown arts community, according to a press release.

“You do not know how much joy it gives me to turn over something I love to someone I love,” said Mandel in a statement. “I know she understands the essence of this place and how much it means to me, the team, and the community.”

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft names a new Executive Director

Leila Cartier / Courtesy of John Carlano

Leila Cartier was announced this week as the new Executive Director of Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. She will begin the position on July 17, 2023.

According to a press release, “Cartier will work closely with the board and staff to begin a new strategic planning process that will emphasize expanding the local and national presence of the organization.” She will aim to enhance educational offerings, advance HCCC’s artist residency program, and strengthen community partnerships.

“With HCCC’s existing networks and excellent programming, I look forward to broadening our reach as a welcoming, imaginative, civic-minded destination and setting a standard for exceptionalism in contemporary craft,” Cartier said in a statement.

Gallery view of “Philippine-Made: The Work of Matt Manalo,” on view February 11-May 13, 2023 at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft / Photo by Katy Anderson

Noted by HCCC for her “wealth of strategic and administrative leadership experience” and “deep understanding of and connections in the world of contemporary craft,” Cartier comes to Houston from CraftNOW Philadelphia, where she served as Executive Director. She holds an MFA in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as degrees in art and art history. In addition, she maintains a personal studio practice.

Cartier succeeds Perry Price, who led HCCC as Executive Director from 2016 – 2022. Perry left the position in December 2022 to become the new Executive Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine.

Cartier’s appointment comes after a months-long national search, contracted through Sorrell, an executive search firm. The search committee was co-chaired by HCCC’s Board President Judy Nyquist and Founding Board President and Sara Morgan.

“We are thrilled to have Leila as our new executive director. She brings an entrepreneurial spirit, a deep connection to the field of contemporary craft, and an eagerness to expand our reach,” said Nyquist in a statement. “We are confident that she has the experience, expertise, and vision to lead HCCC in realizing its full potential in the years to come.”

Cartier joins the HCCC team at a time when the organization also welcomed a new Curator and Exhibitions Director in recent months. Sarah Darro was appointed to that role last fall.

ROCO launches its 1st musical children’s book, part of continued efforts to increase access to classical music

Courtesy of ROCO

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in China, The Nightingale by Kevin Lau is a piece that Alecia Lawyer, ROCO Founder and Artistic Director, calls “seriously Peter and the Wolf worthy.”

ROCO commissioned Lau’s trio for violin, clarinet, and piano and debuted it in 2018, along with commissioned illustrations by artist Amy Scheidegger Ducos, which were projected during the World Premiere performances.

“It was such a good piece that we performed it multiple times, and I realized that it could be an amazing children’s book,” said Lawyer.

Composer Kevin Lau / Courtesy of ROCO

That idea was realized when The Nightingale was released this past December as an interactive, multi-media storybook, featuring music and adapted text by Lau, illustrations by Ducos, and narration by Emmy Award-winning Houston journalist Miya Shay. ROCO will officially launch and celebrate the book with a free performance on Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30am at Houston Public Library.

While Lawyer says that ROCO did not initially set out to create a children’s book, Lau’s piece naturally aligned with the organization’s passion for fostering collaboration and access to classical musical.

“All of our art is purposeful but based upon relationships,” Lawyer said, alluding to the personal collaboration between Lau and concertmaster Scott St. John, whose love of Disney led to the fairy tale-inspired commission.

“Our number one value is access,” she added. “We love multi-generational audiences. What better way to encourage this than a children’s book?”

In its book format, The Nightingale combines music, art, literacy, and technology through the use of QR codes that allow readers to choose-their-own reading experience. Through three different QR codes, adults and children can listen to narration and music, music with page-turn prompts, or music only, while reading.

ABC13 news reporter Miya Shay / Courtesy of Twitter

ROCO has long-utilized and experimented with technology in an effort to increase accessibility to concerts and recordings of classical music.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, which led many arts groups to develop virtual performances, ROCO had already begun live streaming orchestral concerts on its website in 2013, expanding to Facebook in 2018. It continues to live stream performances, and to archive audio for on-demand listening, on multiple platforms.

Other initiatives to increase classical music access have included the ROCO App, launched in 2018, and ROCO on the Go, pioneered in 2020 with Buffalo Bayou Park “as a response to the pandemic and reaching audiences who were spending more time outside,” according to Amy Gibbs, ROCO’s Managing Director.

The only music project of its kind in the city, ROCO on the Go has curated playlists for numerous Houston landmarks – essentially creating a site-specific soundtrack, accessed by using a smart phone to scan a QR code at that location. Its most recent QR code was placed at James Driver Park in Harris County Precinct 2 and was created in collaboration with Spectrum Fusion, which serves neurodiverse adults.

“Their members curated a playlist of their own favorite pieces from ROCO’s library for the fully inclusive park, which is designed to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities,” said Gibbs.

Courtesy of ROCO

The release of ROCO’s first children’s book, The Nightingale, is a continuation of such efforts to take classical music outside the concert hall and to offer listeners multiple entry points for enjoyment.

When asked if ROCO hopes to publish more music-inspired children’s books or a book series, Lawyer says there are no definite plans at the moment.

“I am always open to new music and new ways to connect young and young at heart,” she said. “I won’t say ‘no,’ but it isn’t necessary to make it a new endeavor.”

Instead, she says that ROCO aims to continue to engage the community through both book and musical versions of The Nightingale. The ensemble will premiere a new arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra in a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on September 29, as well as turn it into a coloring book – an idea from a Kinder HSPVA student, said Lawyer. ROCO has also added Braille to the book’s pages, with plans to bring that edition for visually impaired readers to The Lighthouse of Houston in coming weeks.

At the book’s April 1st launch at Houston Public Library, the first 50 children in attendance will receive free copies, and ROCO says it will donate copies to library branches citywide and to the Barbara Bush Houston Literary Foundation.

“Let’s dig deeper and not bigger with this one as a through line to as many communities as we can,” said Lawyer.

Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean rounds out his tenure with projects that honor Black history and stories of Houstonians

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean / Photo courtesy of the artist

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean is a poet and more.  He is a poetic “producer of experiences,” as he calls it – from his artistry as a champion slam poet to his roles as festival producer, creator of Five-Minute Poems (in which he creates custom poems on-the-spot), collaborator with Houston Ballet, and mentor to the next generation of performance poets by coaching the Meta-Four Houston Youth Poetry Slam Team.

Since April 2021, Outspoken Bean has served as Houston’s Fifth Poet Laureate, a cultural ambassador position that aims to foster appreciation of poetry and expression through words among Houston residents. The role was created by former Houston Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 and is coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Houston Public Library.

A performance by Outspoken Bean in response to Ganzeer’s “It Takes A Village,” an installation at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, June 2020 / Produced by Brandon Martin, Rice University

Houston has one of the longest-running poet laureate programs among the five largest cities in the U.S. (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix). Chicago will inaugurate a Poet Laureate this year, while New York City does not have a Poet Laureate for the city as a whole – though four of its five boroughs have individual poet laureates, with the oldest program established in Brooklyn in 1979. Phoenix began appointing a Poet Laureate in 2016, and Los Angeles started its program in 2012.

Houston’s long-standing tradition of Poet Laureates, as well as Youth Poet Laureates, points to the city as a literary hub – supported by other enduring literary institutions, such as Inprint, now in its 42nd season of literary readings, and Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Houston’s Former Poet Laureates, L-R: Robin Davidson (2015-2017), Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton (2017-2019), Leslie Contreras Schwartz (2019-2021), and Gwen Zepeda (2013-2015) / Photo by Pin Lim

As the City of Houston begins its search for the next Poet Laureate (to be announced in April 2023), Outspoken Bean culminates his two-year tenure with a community outreach project called Space City Story Tape, described in a press release as “a mixture of spoken word narratives of Houston residents set to music by [Houston composer-producer] Russell Guess.”

Bean’s Space City Story Tape will debut at an official Release Party on February 13 at Assembly HTX, free and open to the public.

In another form of community outreach, Bean will also produce the Woodson Black Fest on February 2 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, in celebration of Black History Month. The free festival will showcase spoken word, film, music, fashion, and a panel discussion.

“This is the second year of the partnership between Outspoken Bean and CAMH that brings together different art disciplines for a social night of community connection,” said Michael Robinson, Marketing and Communications Manager at CAMH.

Woodson Black Fest takes its name from the “father of Black history,” historian, journalist, and scholar Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) – who, among many groundbreaking advancements, created Negro History Week in February 1926, which inspired and evolved to Black History Month by 1970.

According to the article “How Negro History Week Became Black History Month and Why It Matters Now” by Veronica Chambers in the New York Times, “Dr. Woodson and his colleagues set an ambitious agenda for Negro History Week. They provided a K-12 teaching curriculum with photos, lesson plans and posters with important dates and biographical information … He and his colleagues also engaged the community at large with historical performances, banquets, lectures, breakfasts, beauty pageants and parades.”

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Outspoken Bean to learn more about his culminating projects as Houston Poet Laureate. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve described the Woodson Black Fest as “a small festival about enlightenment, creativity, and innovation, which celebrates Black artists and artisans’ contributions.”  Why did you think Houston needed a festival like this?  How were you inspired to start it?

Houston needs a festival like this because there’s always an opportunity to showcase Black art and Black artists in their many forms. I feel that our intelligence and creativity should be broadcasted and amplified. I was inspired because the CAMH came to me with an amazing offer to build a festival, and I thought of my former creation, Plus Fest, and made it Black-focused.

The festival is named after American historian, author, journalist, and intellectual Carter G. Woodson. Can you say a little a bit about what he means to you?

Well, originally, I was going to call the festival Douglass Black Fest. And I was talking with my friend Candice D’Meza about the idea of the festival and where I wanted to go and whom I wanted it to honor. And I learned through that conversation from Candice that there is a misconception of Black History Month. What’s usually shared is February is Black History Month because Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays are in February, and also that Frederick Douglass came up with the idea of Negro Week at the time. Which is not true. What’s true is that it was Woodson’s idea. And I think that there is a sense of sharing and informing and reminding that comes with this festival. Also, it gives an opportunity to spread Carter G. Woodson’s name and to give him proper credit for what we know as Black History Month.

What will be taking place at the festival on Feb. 2?  I’m also curious what the panel discussion will be about.

We will have performance by Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton and a performance by me as the current Houston Poet Laureate. We will be showcasing Marlon Hall’s Visual Poems Series, entitled Folklore Films, through a video montage, and hearing him speak on his inspirations for his storytelling medium. And the panel discussion, which will be led by Danielle Fanfair, will conduct moving conversations with Black style icons who are the based here in Houston, Texas. The beauty of their fashion genius is that they get their works and inspirations out to the world, out to the public via social media, podcasting, pop-up events, what have you. So this panel discussion will give a lot of insight into Black, creative fashion forces.

The festival is also described as “a family reunion for Black artists” – can you say little bit about that idea of “family reunion” and why that matters? Is this something you want both the artists involved and the audience to feel?

Last year was the first year we had the Woodson Black Fest. And the goal was to make sure that the festival happened. There was no theme for the festival. So this year I wanted to have a theme that is steeped in Black American culture. And that will be changing from year to year, so this year the themes is Black Family Reunion, hence why the family tree, the style of font, and muted color palette. And just like a family union, we want everyone to come and have a good time.

Another project you have as you wrap up your term as Houston Poet Laureate is the Space City Story Tape.  Back in 2021, you described the project to me as “a community spoken word album,” which would feature stories collected from everyday Houstonians – kind of like “mini-memoirs” set to music.  Can you describe how the project turned out?

Yes! The Space City Story Tape is complete. February 13 at Assembly HTX at 6 PM, I will be hosting a mixtape release party in celebration of my city-sponsored Poet Laureate project. Russell Guess and I have been working relentlessly in the studio producing, mixing, writing poems, and listening to the stories to bring Houstonians a unique audio experience.

I couldn’t use all of the stories because I got so many, but a story that is on the project that I am moved by is about the Black Panther Party in Third Ward and how it has shaped the Third Ward today.

L-R: Russell Guess and Outspoken Bean / Courtesy of Outspoken Bean

What will take place at the Release Party?  How can people access the Tape?

Everyone who comes will scan the QR code so they can download the album or listen to it on any streaming device that they choose. Then there will be refreshments and a performance by me and a talkback with myself and Russell Guess. It’s going to be a good time. I invite you all to come. The Tape will be available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube music, Youtube, etc.  It will be available everywhere.

What did you learn from being Houston Poet Laureate?  What would you like to say about your experience?

The amount of people, who take up the well-deserved space that they take in Space City, is really miraculous. I also got a chance to hear so many stories through the Houston Public Library and MOCA (Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs) when it came to getting prepared for this project and learning about what this role could be, and can be, and how to improve it for the next Poet Laureate.

Applications to be the 2023-2025 Houston Poet Laureate will be accepted through Sunday, January 29, with more information available here.

Art League Houston announces a new Exhibitions and Projects Manager

Zhaira Costiniano / Photo by Lukas Costiniano

Zhaira Costiniano was recently appointed Exhibitions and Curatorial Projects Manager at Art League Houston, effective February 6, 2023.

“I look forward to working with local and national artists on their upcoming ALH exhibitions and public art projects from ideation through completion,” said Costiniano in an email to Houston Arts Journal. “I am also excited to collaborate with ALH’s Education and Community Engagement departments to explore new ways that exhibiting artists can connect with the Houston community.”

A Filipino-American arts professional and curator, Costiniano focuses on “accessibility and diversity in the arts, placemaking through public art, and contemporary arts at the varied intersections of gender, race, and queer theory,” according to a press release.

“I’m confident her passion for community engagement, paired with her talent and experience as a collaborative curator, and arts administrator, will ensure success in our strategic direction to present innovative and ambitious exhibitions and public art projects that support bold new ideas and spur public discourse around important subjects,” said Jennie Ash, ALH Executive Director, in a statement.

Costiniano, who studied art history at the University of North Texas, comes to Art League Houston from ArtWorks in Cincinnati, where she was Creative Project Manager and Gallery Director. She has previously worked for the Dallas Museum of Art, Ro2 Gallery, and Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas. During her last year at UNT, she founded ARThaus Denton, a grassroot arts organization that provided opportunities for local student artists and the community to create art, collaborate, learn, and network.

Art League Houston’s next round of exhibitions, opening Feb. 24, will include works by artist Violette Bule / Courtesy of Art League Houston

Costiniano joins Art League Houston during its milestone 75th anniversary year. One of Houston’s oldest arts organizations, ALH was founded in 1948, and its mission is “to connect the community through diverse, dynamic, and creative experiences that bring people together to see, make, and talk about contemporary visual art,” according to its website.

As Exhibitions and Curatorial Projects Manager, Costiniano succeeds Jimmy Castillo, who left the role in October 2022. Bridget Bray, an independent Houston-based curator, has served in the interim and will work alongside Costiniano to facilitate her onboarding.

Art League Houston tells Houston Arts Journal that Costiniano will be involved with ALH’s next round of exhibitions opening on February 24, which will feature works by:

  • Violette Bule, exploring unplanned connections and physical proximities that happen through ride-sharing in a car-dependent city like Houston
  • Alexander Squier, looking at the tension between the built and natural environments in Houston and the ceaseless flux of the city’s urban landscapes
  • Sallie Scheufler, scrutinizing the nature of crying as a physical manifestation of human emotions, and the cultural norms around trying to contain or control those emotions
  • Royal Sumikat, engaging with the processes of grieving the loss of a parent and the communities that can cohere around shared loss

“I am honored and humbled to be joining ALH’s dynamic team and look forward to building off the organization’s commitment to inclusivity, creativity, and service,” said Costiniano in statement.

A new public art commission contemplates the fraught history of Vietnamese shrimpers in the Texas Gulf

Diane Severin Nguyen, Not in this life, 2023. Billboard. Commissioned by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Photo by Michael Robinson.

In Houston’s Midtown, a new piece of public art by New York- and Los Angeles-based artist Diane Severin Nguyen is visible from US 59 near the San Jacinto onramp and from street level at the intersection of Caroline and Barbee Streets.

Commissioned by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Not in this life (2023) was unveiled on January 2 in the form of a commercial billboard and will remain on view through January 29, 2023.

Depicting two shrimps and text rendered in a calligraphic font, which reads “If Not In This Life,” “Then In Another,” and “Hẹn Kiếp Sau,” Nguyen’s billboard is inspired by the history of Vietnamese immigrant shrimpers in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Galveston Bay, according to CAMH.

As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “armed Klansmen cruised Galveston Bay and practiced guerrilla tactics at secret paramilitary camps,” in an effort to destroy Vietnamese-Americans’ fishing businesses and eliminate competition to white fishermen. The KKK burned boats, terrorized families, and used intimidation tactics like cross-burnings and figures hung in effigy. This led to the 1981 court case Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association v. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – a significant win for the Asian American community, ending the KKK’s violent and racist harassment of Vietnamese fishermen.

Nguyen’s billboard draws upon this history [of Vietnamese shrimping] and the polarized political climate in which we find ourselves. Employing a popular romantic Vietnamese phrase, “hẹn kiếp sau,” which loosely translates to “we will meet in the next fate,” Nguyen’s work is equally mournful, hopeful, and comical in its pairing of image and text, which suggest two shrimps as those fated for love on another astral plane.

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Not in this life was made specifically for the billboard as a site,” said Rebecca Matalon, Senior Curator at CAMH, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. “The image was created with the context of Houston in mind, and of course the context of a commercial billboard located along a major highway.”

Drawn to Nguyen’s “stunning, surreal” photographs in exhibitions in LA and New York, Matalon says that CAMH invited the artist to create the billboard as way for her to experiment with a very different scale and context.

Nguyen’s billboard is presented in conjunction with her first solo museum exhibition, Diane Severin Nguyen: IF REVOLUTION IS A SICKNESS – featuring a video installation, photographs, and a site-specific architectural intervention – on view at CAMH through February 26.

“Her work across spaces and mediums really asks us, as viewers, to consider states of transformation, including those associated with diaspora and transnational Asian identity,” said Matalon of Nguyen’s artwork.

“But her works are also fundamentally about what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a subject under capitalism, and the immense power and potential held by youth,” Matalon added.

CAMH will present the panel discussion, “Difference and Diaspora: Transnational Asian Identity in Art,” featuring Diane Severin Nguyen and local Houston artists Anh Hà Bùi, Matt Manalo, and Preetika Rajgariah on Thursday, January 26. Moderated by Dr. Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, Assistant Professor of English at Rice University, the event is free and open to the public.

Not in this life marks Nguyen’s first public art commission – and continues CAMH’s engagement over the decades with public art, which has included a work on a blimp in 1972 by the late Michael Snow, a billboard by Marilyn Minter in 2015, and a project with Nathaniel Donnett along the fenced exterior of CAMH in 2020.

MFAH’s Glassell School of Art has a new director – Paul Coffey, Chicago arts educator and leader

The Glassell School of Art / Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has appointed Paul Coffey, a longtime educator and administrator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as the new director of its Glassell School of Art.

Coffey begins his role on July 18, 2022. He succeeds Joseph Havel, who retires on June 30 to return full-time to his studio practice, after serving as director for 30 years. During that time, Havel is credited with expanding Glassell’s curriculum, increasing student enrollment, and raising the profile and reach of its Core Residency Program.

“I know that [Paul Coffey] will bring thoughtful leadership to the Glassell School, which is so essential to the Museum’s educational and artistic mission and which, under Joe Havel’s direction, became a center of creativity,” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH Director, in a press release.

“Paul Coffey brings to the Glassell School of Art and to Houston an extraordinary commitment to art, education and community, one that he has demonstrated over two decades in leadership roles at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Tinterow said.

Since 2011, Coffey has served as Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the historic and highly ranked training ground for artists, designers, and scholars at the graduate, post-baccalaureate, and undergraduate levels.

He has created and led community engagement programs in Chicago, such as: SAIC at Homan Square, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s campus in the underserved local neighborhood of North Lawndale; summer intensives for military veterans with PTSD, now in its seventh year as a collaboration with CreatiVets; and the College Arts Access Program in Continuing Studies, a free 3-year college-bridge program for Chicago Public Schools students with artistic talent and financial need.

Paul Coffey, incoming director, Glassell School of Art / Photo by Cosmo Coffey

Coffey’s relationship with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago goes back to earning his own BFA there in 1989.  He also holds an MFA in art and design from the University of Chicago (1992), and he completed the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2018.

As he begins his new chapter in Houston, Coffey says he brings with him a connection that he has long felt to the Bayou City through its acclaimed art institutions, like the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the MFAH – and through the connection that other artists, like Cy Twombly, also felt to the city – according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

As head of the Glassell School of Art, Coffey will oversee the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school serving pre-K through post-graduate students.

Founded in 1979, the Glassell School opened a new 93,000 square-foot building in 2018. Its programs include a Studio School for adults, a Junior School for children and teens, and the Core residency program for artists and writers. According to the MFAH, it serves more than 5,000 adults and children each year.

Ernie Barnes’ iconic painting ‘The Sugar Shack’ goes on view at MFAH ahead of Juneteenth

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Collection of William O. Perkins III and Lara
Perkins. © Ernie Barnes Family Trust

A 1976 painting by American artist Ernie Barnes – widely recognized for its use on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You and in the credits of the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom Good Times – will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, thanks to a loan by Houston collector Bill Perkins.

Last month, Perkins purchased Barnes’ painting The Sugar Shack – a work that Perkins called formative in his own artistic consciousness, in an interview with the New York Times – for a record-setting $15.275 million from Christie’s auction house.

The MFAH will display the painting in the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in time for Juneteenth celebrations, from June 15 through December 31, 2022.

“Lara and I are thrilled to be able to share this phenomenal painting with all of Houston,” said Perkins in a statement.

“As I’ve said many times, acquiring The Sugar Shack was for me the realization of a childhood dream. I know that Ernie Barnes’ masterwork will be as inspirational for all those who will see it as it has been for us,” he said.

Ernest Eugene Barnes, Jr. (1938-2009) was born in Durham, North Carolina, at the height of Jim Crow. His family lived in what was then called “The Bottom,” a community near the Hayti District of the city. His father worked as a shipping clerk for Liggett Myers Tobacco Company in Durham. His mother oversaw the household staff for a prominent Durham attorney and Board of Education member, who encouraged Barnes to read art books and listen to classical music. By the time Barnes entered the first grade, he was familiar with the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens, and Michelangelo. Although initially not athletic, by his senior year in high school, Barnes became the captain of the football team.

Barnes enrolled at the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University) majoring in art on a full athletic scholarship. After college, he played professional football into the mid-1960s, before devoting himself fulltime to his painting, in Los Angeles.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A cultural landmark of a painting, Barnes’ The Sugar Shack depicts joyful dancers in a crowded Black music hall in segregated mid-century North Carolina.

The MFAH says that Barnes recalled being inspired by a childhood memory of sneaking into a local dance hall called the Armory.

“The vivid image, with its dynamic, elongated figures dominating the packed space of a dance floor and illuminated by a cone of light from a single bulb, reflects what became known as the Black Romantic tradition,” described the MFAH in a press release.

The artist painted two versions of The Sugar Shack – the first in 1971, and this second version in 1976.

New ‘Longevity’ mural is a sign of growing interest in public art in Asiatown

Artist Thomas Tran stands in front of his mural, “Longevity” / VCSA Facebook

Artist Thomas Tran’s new mural has an auspicious name – Longevity.

It references the blessing of long life that holds significance in many Asian cultures. The title is also a nod to the themes of community health and wellness contained in its images, which Tran conceived and developed with input from a public survey conducted earlier this spring.

Completed on May 22, Longevity is the latest mural in Houston’s Asiatown – a massively colorful 2-story painting located in Sterling Plaza at 9798 Bellaire Boulevard. 

Full view of Thomas Tran’s mural “Longevity” with artist standing in front / VCSA Facebook

It was commissioned by the nonprofit VCSA (Vietnamese Culture and Science Association) and funded with part of a grant from Houston in Action’s “Safer Together” Vaccine Equity Campaign.

“This mural … reflects the tradition of intergenerational care that is prevalent in Asian families,” said Teresa Trinh, President of VCSA.

“You will see an interaction between an elderly grandmother and a grandchild, in addition to the interaction between a parent and child. The mural also contains other traditional elements of the Asian culture including a tiger, dragon, and phoenix,” she said.

Even when the mural was still in its planning stages, there was one image that Tran knew he wanted to include – that of a loving Asian father hugging his son. 

“The theme is about community health, so I’d definitely want to include mental health,” said Tran.

That father-son hug is now a major focal point in the mural – the artist’s way to destigmatize the topic of mental health, which has faced barriers in the AAPI community. Recent studies indicate that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health treatment than other racial groups.

The mural’s official public unveiling will be on Saturday, June 4 from 10 – 11am with refreshments, speakers, and a lion dance.

It marks the culmination of hard work behind a project that took 2 days to outline with a projector, 5 days of painting, 1 day of touch-up work by the artist, and roughly 205 volunteers working together in the days leading up to its completion.

“Personally, it was grueling but rewarding work,” said Tran. “People seem to like it.”

One of those people is Matt Manalo, founder of Filipinx Artists of Houston and Alief Art House, who calls Tran’s mural “delightful,” “engaging,” and “thoughtful.”

“The new mural brings in the conversation of inclusivity in Asiatown, which breaks all the stereotypes of what or how Asians should be or look like, which I am truly excited about,” said Manalo.

The faces, clothing, and personalities captured in the mural aim to reflect the multiethnic nature of Greater Houston’s AAPI community – which include Vietnamese, South Asians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, and Asians from Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand, and numerous other ethnic groups.

Thomas Tran’s Alief Community Mural 2019 / Courtesy of Thomas Tran

Tran’s Longevity mural comes at a time when public art has been brewing in Asiatown and in neighboring Alief in recent years.

In 2019, Tran painted an Alief Community Mural located behind Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant at 11360 Bellaire Blvd, Suite 100.

Also in 2019, Manalo founded the Alief Art House – a shipping container set up in Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center to house free art exhibits and events for the neighborhood, and to support Alief artists.

In 2019, the International Management District, which is just west of Asiatown, gave a public art makeover to 22 concrete globes along Bellaire Boulevard. Local artist Armando Castelan was hired to paint the large spheres in the esplanades into mini murals depicting the district’s diversity.

Mini mural by artist Armando Castelan, located on Bellaire Boulevard / Courtesy of International Management District

In 2020, Tran painted the temporary mural “Crocodile Garden” for Alief Art House, which recently added a second shipping container to set up offices and workshops.

Other existing public art in Asiatown include the Vietnam War Memorial at Universal Shopping Plaza at 11360 Bellaire Boulevard, and various sculptures in public spaces, such as a small fish sculpture at the northwest corner of Bellaire and Ranchester.

Still – Tran, Manalo, and Trinh all agree that there is not enough public art in Asiatown.

“Hopefully, with the completion of this [Longevity] mural, it will spur other organizations to host murals throughout the area,” Trinh said.

Manalo believes that the impact of public art is not only economic but also educational, barrier-breaking, and personal.

“The mural … will not only draw more people to support Asian-owned businesses, but it will also draw attention to the stories and culture of folks who live and work in the area,” said Manalo.

“The mural and public art in Asiatown are so important because it also shows that Asians can also be creative,” he said. “It brings me back to the conversation I had with my parents about switching to pursuing art as my career. I believe that it is a discussion that needs to happen more.”

Father hugging son in Thomas Tran’s “Longevity” mural / Photo by Thomas Tran

The Southwest Management District, which worked with VCSA to find a location for the Longevity mural, considers public art a “key part of the beautification of the business corridors within its boundaries,” according to its Executive Director Alice Lee.

Lee says that for years her district, which encompasses Asiatown, has funded the removal of graffiti and litter, and has maintained landscaping of medians.

Now, she says, they are considering funding public art projects – and art is ever-present, if you look for it:

“From the lion sculptures in front of the Hope Clinic on Bellaire Boulevard to the bright pink edifice of the Reiwatakiya cosmetics store just down the street, businesses and institutions continue to provide visually attractive features that almost make the District a constantly changing piece of art itself,” said Lee.

Local museums offer free admission to military families this summer

Austin Street, Jefferson, 2018, oil on canvas, by Lee Jamison. “Ode to East Texas,” paintings by Lee Jamison, is on view through May 28, 2022 at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum / Folz Fine Art

Around 2,000 museums nationwide, including 10 in Greater Houston, will provide free admission to active-duty U.S. military personnel and their families through the Blue Star Museums program.

An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, and the Department of Defense, the program runs through the summer – this year, from Saturday, May 21 (Armed Forces Day) through Monday, September 5 (Labor Day).

Blue Star Museums is an effort to improve the quality of life for active-duty military families, especially focusing on the approximately two million children who have had at least one parent deployed since 2001.

Blue Star Museums was created to show support for military families who have faced multiple deployments and the challenges of reintegration. This program offers these families a chance to visit museums this summer when many will have limited resources and limited time to be together.

National Endowment for the Arts

Free admission is available to those currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Reserve, National Guard, U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps – and up to five family members. Qualified members must show a Geneva Convention common access card (CAC), DD Form 1173 ID card (dependent ID), or a DD Form 1173-1 ID card. The active-duty member does not have to be present for family members to receive free admission.

Local Blue Star Museums include:


Bryan Museum

Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Center


Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

Holocaust Museum Houston

Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University

Houston Maritime Education Center and Museum

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Health Museum


Sam Houston Memorial Museum


San Jacinto Museum of History

Several of these museums also offer discounts for military personnel throughout the year.

Outside the Blue Star Museums program, the MFAH provides free admission to military individuals plus one family member year-round – as does the Houston Maritime Center, which is currently available by appointment only.

HBU’s Dunham Bible Museum is always free to the public, but its director Diana Severance said that its participation in the program aids in outreach.

“Though the Bible Museum is already free, being a member of the Blue Star Museums is a way of letting the military personnel know of the existence of our museum,” said Severance. “Several areas of our exhibits also focus on the Bible in American history and Bibles in the military.”

A complete list of 2022 Blue Star Museums is available here.