After two summers without live shows, Houston Shakespeare Festival is back – in person and online

Kyle Clark, Kenn Hopkins, and Laura Frye in Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Cymbeline” / Courtesy of University of Houston

After canceling shows in 2020 due to COVID-19 and curating a Shakespeare film festival in place of live plays in 2021, the Houston Shakespeare Festival returns to Miller Outdoor Theatre for the first time since the pandemic. It runs July 28 – August 6 with free performances of King Lear and Cymbeline.

“We’ve assembled a cast of amazing actors as well as a truly outstanding design team. This year’s dynamic productions of King Lear and Cymbeline will make audiences feel that HSF is back at full force,” said Rob Shimko, the festival’s executive director, in a statement.

The longtime Shakespeare festival has been produced by the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance since 1975, when it was founded by the School’s late director and professor emeritus Sidney Berger. Shimko is the School’s current director.

This summer’s production of King Lear – the festival’s first of this play in more than 20 years – will be directed by Stephanie Shine, who directed 2019’s As You Like It, and feature HSF Artistic Director Jack Young in the title role. In a press release, Young said the set design evokes a “mythical Game of Thrones world” for this tragedy with themes of family loyalty, betrayal, and madness.

Starring Kenn Hopkins as King Cymbeline and Laura Frye as the king’s daughter Imogen, Cymbeline will have a “fairytale Princess Bride ambience” in its production design, according to Young, to help convey this tale of forbidden love, secret plots, and mistaken identity.

King Lear performances are July 28, 30, August 1, 3, and 5, and Cymbeline performances are July 29, August 2, 4, and 6. More information is available here.

With livestreaming now a regular offering by Miller Outdoor Theatre, festival performances can also be watched live online and will remain available for 48 hours on YouTube, according to Miller’s website.

“Both of these plays have a large number of wonderful roles, which is giving all of the performers great lines to say and events to experience – big battles, some of Shakespeare’s most resonant lines,” said Young in statement. “These plays will be a great way for us all to return to Miller Outdoor Theatre.”

What will be the impact of Alley Theatre’s historic $25 million grant?

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars, and Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” / Photo by Lynn Lane

With its recent $25 million matching grant from an anonymous donor, Alley Theatre announced the largest gift in the company’s 75-year history.

The grant, received once its matching challenge is met, will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign, which aims to support the Alley’s endowment, artistic initiatives, building repairs after Hurricane Harvey, and reserve funds for the Theatre.

We at the Alley are so honored to receive this generous gift. Especially after these years of recovery from the pandemic, it is the perfect way to ensure that the Alley is in a strong financial position for years to come. It also means that the art will be supported at a very high level and the work on the Alley stages will continue to have the high production values that we know and love. It comes at a particularly exciting time. We are in the middle of our five-year strategic plan and this gift really put wind in all of our sails to imagine new vistas for the Alley. Anything is possible. I’m extremely excited about the Alley’s future.

Rob Melrose, Artistic Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal

In recognition of the grant, the theatre’s downtown building has been renamed the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center to honor the Alley’s late, longtime Chairman Emeritus, who passed away in 2020. Long served on the Alley’s board for 31 years and was an influential art dealer, fundraiser, and community leader.

“I was lucky to get to know Meredith during my first years at the Alley,” said Melrose. “I was so moved by Meredith’s love of art and decades long commitment to the Alley. He was a truly great man with a generous spirit, and it will be wonderful to think of him every day as we make great theater for the city of Houston.”  

Alley Theatre Building at 615 Texas Avenue is now known as the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center / Courtesy of the Alley

The Alley says the new building name is effective immediately, with an official unveiling being planned for September.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Dean Gladden, the Alley’s Managing Director, for the following interview on the impact of the record-setting grant on the future of the company – and potentially the Theater District:

This $25 million matching grant will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign. Can you tell me a little more about that Campaign and its significance? When do you expect to meet the $25 million challenge, which will kick in this matching grant – and surpass the $80 million goal?

The Vision for the Future Campaign began after Hurricane Harvey. The campaign has four objectives: $31M for the Alley Endowment; $19M for Artistic Investment Fund ($1.5M a year for 10 years to support artistic initiatives, $3M for new Christmas Carol, and $1M for extra marketing expenses over the next 3 years to help us recover from COVID); $20M for renovation and mitigation of the theatre after Harvey; $10M for operating reserves and building maintenance fund. The campaign has raised $55M, and we have up to three years to meet the $25M match and finish the campaign.

Can you go into more detail about what this grant can do for the future of the Alley, such as in terms of programs, initiatives, improvements, etc.?

The campaign will enable us to double the size of our endowment to continue to support the Alley into the future. The Artistic Investment Fund will enable the all the resources to produce shows that we would otherwise not be able to produce. Harvey is self-explanatory. The operating reserve will enable us to always have three months of cash available for cash flow and not have to use a line of credit. Maintenance reserves are self-explanatory. 

What “dreams” of the Alley might this grant help fulfill?

Dreams: The Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, and Houston Ballet all will still have larger endowments than the Alley. Our dream is to match them in size to support our operations. Another dream is to fully recover from COVID and have the same subscription base as we did pre-COVID. Another dream is to continue to expand our offerings to serve both the Houston community and the national theatre movement.

Morgan Marcell as The Wife, David Guzman as The Husband, and Adam Kantor as The Neighbor
in Alley Theatre’s production of “Noir” / Photo by Lynn Lane

What have been some of the Alley’s greatest challenges, which this grant might help the company overcome or address?

Greatest challenges: Tropical Storm Allison, stock market crash of 2009, renovating the theatre on time and on budget in 14 months, Hurricane Harvey and COVID. These monies will address Harvey, COVID and financial stability to grow in the future.

How will this grant help the Alley recover from the pandemic?  Would you be willing to share a figure for the Alley’s financial losses during the pandemic to help us understand what you’ve been through?

This campaign will definitely help the Alley succeed in the future, as I mentioned above. During the first year of COVID FY 2020 – 21, the Alley was forced to reduce its budget from $19M to $11M. We had no earned income that year, everything was contributed. This past year our budget increased to $18.6M, as we performed during COVID. Thanks to generous gifts throughout COVID and grants from PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant], the Alley has operated in the black throughout COVID. In fact, the Alley has generally operated in the black for the last 16 years.

By helping the Alley, what wider impact do you think this grant might have indirectly? How could this grant potentially impact the greater Houston arts community – for example, could it give the Alley the capacity to hire more local artists or make other opportunities available?

By strengthening the Alley’s balance sheet, it will be able to better reach out to the community with its programming and do productions of national scale. It will enable us to hire more actors, theatre artisans and technicians, and expand our education and community engagement programs.

There have been some big announcements in the Theater District recently – such as the $50 million Jones Hall renovations over the next couple of years, the historic $10 million donation to Houston Ballet this past spring, the rebranding of Performing Arts Houston, and now the Alley’s historic $25 million grant. What are your thoughts – and what kinds of conversations are happening – about the future of the Theater District? How does this particular grant fit in with the larger landscape of the Theater District post-pandemic and beyond?

It is very exciting to see all the changes in the theatre district. After our $46.5M restoration of the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center, we were able to give Houston one of the most advanced theatres in America. Now Jones Hall is being renovated, the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance has been named, and the Lynn Wyatt Square is being finished, we are seeing a refreshed Theater District in Houston. The support in Houston of the arts has always been strong, but this new resurgence shows you how vital the arts are to the city of Houston. The future is definitely bright for Houston’s Theater District.

Maureen Zoltek is the latest hire in a year of new leaders at Houston Grand Opera, with more to come

Maureen Zoltek / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has spent this past year recruiting new talent, and the latest is Maureen Zoltek – with another new hire expected in August.

The company recently announced that Zoltek has been appointed Music Director of the HGO Studio, its highly competitive and acclaimed training program for rising opera artists. She begins her role in September 2022.

The position was formerly held by Miah Im, who served from mid-2020 until she passed away in September 2021 after a battle with cancer. HGO’s 2022 Concert of Arias was dedicated in Im’s honor.

HGO describes Zoltek as an “active proponent of new works” with a “commitment to emerging artists.” She is currently assistant conductor, vocal coach, and orchestral keyboardist at San Francisco Opera, as well as a faculty member at the Music Academy of the West.

Zoltek has served on the music staff for world premieres operas by Mark Adamo, John Adams, and Bright Sheng. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and Master’s Degree in piano performance and musicology from Roosevelt University.

In Houston, Zoltek will work closely with HGO Studio Director Brian Speck to lead the program, serve as a member of the company’s casting committee, and oversee programming for HGO Studio’s recital series.

“Artists compete to join the program because it provides personalized, intensive training that prepares them to perform at the highest levels, alongside the best in the business,” said Speck in a statement. “Under Maureen’s exceptional mentorship, our HGO Studio artists will be positioned for success on stages across the world.”

Zoltek is the fourth addition to HGO’s leadership this year. The company also announced a new Board Chair (Claire Liu), a new Director of Community & Learning (Jennifer Bowman), and a new Composer-in-Residence (Joel Thompson) in recent months.

While departures have left some of these positions open, HGO says the changes are also a sign of commitment to fostering talent in the industry and advancing the artform.

“It’s a new era at HGO!” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. Dastoor herself joined the company in August 2021 as she transitioned from her previous role at Opera San Jose, then fully taking over this past January.

“Since joining the organization our priority has been to sharpen our entire strategic focus,” she said. “A huge part of that is building the right team, and over the past year we’ve put everything we have into launching an exhaustive and wide-ranging recruitment initiative.”

HGO says it also plans to announce a Chief Marketing and Experience Officer in August – a newly created position (previously named Chief Audience Officer), whose search began earlier this year.  The role is crucial for the organization’s strategic focus and emphasis on creating lasting experiences for audiences, says HGO.

“It’s essential that we hire arts leaders who are not just the best the industry has to offer, but fervent believers in our mission of bringing world-class artistic experiences to everyone in this city,” Dastoor said.

Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate writes a poem after Uvalde, speaks out against gun violence

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans speaks with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

In the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, March for Our Lives Houston organized a rally at Downtown’s City Hall on June 11.

Among the approximately 600 people participating was Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans, who was appointed the city’s sixth youth poet laureate last fall. The writer, activist, and recent graduate of Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts performed her poem “A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet” at the event.

March for Our Lives Houston outside Houston City Hall, June 11 / Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Twitter

Since the Uvalde school shooting on May 24, there have been multiple mass shootings in the U.S., including one that killed 7 and injured dozens at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 320 mass shootings have taken place nationally so far in 2022, and Everytown for Gun Safety reports 95 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds this year, with 9 of those in Texas.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Avalon Hogans for the following interview and permission to reprint her poem written for March for Our Lives Houston. Note: Hogans is now publishing under the name Avalon Jaemes.

A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet

When I was a little kid,
I knew my ABCs
A, as in apple, the red fruit we eat.
A, as in ant, the small bugs by your feet.
A, as in alarm, the one booming through the intercom,
as you hear the principal yelling, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

B is for be, and
C is for calm.
Be calm,
because if you B as in breathe too loudly, then the B as in bad guy will find you.
So, be calm, and do so with C as in caution.
D is for drill,
as in, “It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a drill,
and when it’s all over you have that math test still.”

E is for eggs, elephant, elbow, and
“Everybody get down!”
F is for fear.
G is for “Get away from the windows and door!”
H is for how and happen.
How could anyone let this happen?
Because I, J, K,
I’m just a kid.

L is for look.
Like don’t look through the window, just look down.
M is for mommy,
who you miss and wish you were with, instead of here where
N, nobody is telling you what’s going on.
Except to say it’s going to be
O-kay.
But you know it’s not, so you ask your teacher if you can
P, please go home.
You’re shushed and told to just be
Q, quiet.

R is for rabbit, rocketship, rainbow, and
reform, a word you’re still too young to know
but will learn to advocate for as you grow,
because the S, silence is
T, too loud.
And twelve years later, when you’re older,
U as in Uvalde will be
V, very deeply grieving in that sound.

So child, I know you’re scared that you can’t even so much as
W, whisper,
ask questions, or even look around,
let alone X, the second letter in explain, how you’re feeling now.

Y is for you.
You will be okay because this is just a drill.
You are one of the lucky ones.

Z is for zebra, zucchini, and zoo.
You made it to the end of the lesson today, school is over,
how blessed are you.

Avalon Jaemes

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing this poem? What “inspired” it and its form? What were you thinking and feeling as you wrote it?

The form of this poem was inspired by the alphabet. I chose this as inspiration because growing up, I learned how to recite my ABCs around the same time I learned how to hide from an intruder at school, much like most children in America did. As I was writing this, I was thinking about what it was like to be a child learning how to read, write, and speak, but still not knowing the words to describe how fearful and wrong it is that they must have frequent drills for a possible school shooting.

The school shooting in Uvalde came less than 2 weeks after a horrific racially motivated shooting in Buffalo (and since then there have been more). Would you share how you felt during those days, how you processed the news?

During those days, I felt completely anchored by grief. As a poet and activist, it’s my job to write and speak. But some days it’s impossible to verbalize the magnitude of such tragedies. My heart truly goes out to all the families and friends of the lives we lost. May we continue to fight for this overdue justice.

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans performs in front of Houston City Hall, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

What has it been like for you to grow up during this “era” of school shootings? How has it shaped or impacted your school experience?

Growing up in an era of school shootings has definitely impacted my school experience. It has made me feel very anxious and cautious at times as a student. 

Amanda Gorman and other Houston poets have also written poems in response to Uvalde in its aftermath.  While many people have connected profoundly with those poems on social media, others express skepticism of the importance of poetry during times of crisis. How do you respond to that – why write poetry when poetry alone cannot literally “fix” something?

Poetry may not be a tangible solution to any social issues, but it serves as a megaphone to these issues. Poetry is a form of spreading awareness. Words hold power. Words are not actions. Words command actions. Poetry is important during these times because it connects people together, verbalizes problems and goals, and inspires others to use their own voices.

What are your college and future writing plans? And in the short term, what else is on your plate – and your goals – for the remainder of your term as HYLP through fall 2022?

I’m very happy to announce that I will be attending Rice University in the fall. I plan on majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and minoring in African American Studies. I hosted my Poet Laureate service project in mid-June at Black is Primary, a Juneteenth event curated by [Houston Poet Laureate] Outspoken Bean at Post HTX, where I read poetry, donated books to kids, and hosted a drive where I gathered hundreds of other books to donate to local schools. As for my goals, I want to continue pursuing writing. Earlier this summer, I had my first live spoken word set in a major city outside of Houston, so I am hoping to continue expanding my audiences. And as always, I plan on continuing to use my voice and spark change.

Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”

A new dance project honors Black Texas heroes, families, and the towns they created

Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in “The Fairytale Project” / Keda Sharber of Images by Papillon

Shankleville, Texas was founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in Deep East Texas.

Both born into slavery in the early 1800s, the Shankles were known as the first Blacks in Newton County to buy land and become local leaders upon emancipation – establishing Shankleville as one of the many Freedom Colonies in Texas settled by former slaves during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Between 1865 – 1930, African Americans founded 557 historic Black settlements, according to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

The Shankle family’s story of love, resistance, and triumph became the basis for The Fairytale Project, a new work by Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective. The work debuts this Sunday, June 26 at 5pm at Discovery Green in a free performance.

Through choreography that blends modern/contemporary, jazz, musical theater, and dance styles inspired by the African Diaspora, the plot follows the journey of a modern day African American family as they reconnect with their East Texas roots through “peculiar encounters with the past,” as described in a press release – and along the way, telling story of Jim and Winnie Shankle and their descendants.

Stacey Allen – dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective – was inspired by her husband’s family history, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Shankles, as she told Jaundréa Clay of the Houston Chronicle.

Allen is also the Director of Artistic Programming at Harris County Cultural Arts Council, a nonprofit arts and culture center that has been serving communities in East Harris County for over two decades. The Fairytale Project is presented in partnership with HCCAC.

“I wanted to create opportunities for Black children to be able to see themselves on stage, especially in live dance theater, outside of Black History Month,” said Allen in a statement.

“It’s a part of my artistic style to celebrate the contributions of Black role models in our families and close-knit communities,” she said.

The adults in the photo are Jimmie Odom (Jim and Winnie Shankle’s grandson) and Roxie Brooks Odom. The kids, L to R back row, are Alvah Troga (A.T.), Leon, Lola and Almada; L to R front row are Jimmie, Louella and Jettie. Jimmie and Jettie are twins. The photo was taken circa 1906. / Caption and photo courtesy of Shankleville Historical Society

Allen founded Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in 2018 as a multigenerational group of Black women dancers and multidisciplinary artists.

“Nia is Swahili for Purpose, and Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective creates with purpose,” said the organization in a statement. “Upon its founding, Nia’s Daughters was organized to perform culturally competent dance works while telling the stories of Black women and girls.”

The Fairytale Project also features an original score by Andre Cunningham, set design by Ariel Bounds, and film/photography by Keda Sharber. The work is funded in part by the BIPOC Arts Network and Fund, Dance Source Houston, and a Houston Arts Alliance “Let Creativity Happen Grant” with support from Discovery Green Conservancy.

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.

Flamenco scholar Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada joins University of Houston’s dance faculty

M. Gabriela Estrada / Courtesy of UH Dance Program

The University of Houston Dance Program recently named to its full-time faculty Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada, a bilingual multidisciplinary educator, choreographer, journalist, and filmmaker.

Estrada begins her position as Assistant Professor of Dance in fall 2022. She was one of 60 national candidates who applied for the opening vacated by longtime faculty member, Rebecca Valls, who retired this past spring.

“My creative work embraces contemporary theatrical western dance forms and flamenco,” states Estrada on her website. “In academic settings, my creative work is often inspired by dance history, movement analysis, and social justice.”

Karen Stokes, Head of the UH Dance Program and Professor of Dance, said she is “thrilled” to welcome Estrada to the Houston dance community.

“In addition to her congenial personality, Dr. Estrada brings a deep bench of practice and scholarly activity to our program,” said Stokes. “While she wears many dance hats, including strong organizational skills, I am personally very excited about her flamenco background, and her fusion approach to using flamenco within both teaching and research.”

As an educator, my mission is to promote the appreciation of dance as art, tradition, and culture while advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada

Estrada holds a BA and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Flamenco Interdisciplinary Studies from the Department of Sociocultural Anthropology and Philology at the University of Seville, Spain.

Examples of her work and research include the solo Ni Una Carmen Más! (Not a Single Carmen More!), The Choreographic Development of The Three-Cornered Hat through the 20th Century (MFA thesis), and Flamenco’s Contributions to Ballet (Ph.D. dissertation).

Estrada also directed and produced ENI9MA: The Legend of Félix, a documentary about Félix Fernández García, the flamenco dancer who collaborated with Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso, Manuel de Falla, and the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev in creating The Three-Cornered Hat.

Estrada was founding director of Dance Collage School of Dance in Mexico and founding faculty at the Universidad de Sonora. She has served as Community Arts Partnership Education Manager for New York’s Ballet Hispánico and is currently a Teaching Assistant Professor of Dance at East Carolina University.

Jones Hall’s $50 million renovation plan could help Houston arts recover from the pandemic

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.

The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.

This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.

The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.

“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.

While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”

“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.

“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”

For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:

  • Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
  • Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
  • Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
  • Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons

By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:

  • Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
  • New seats installed in the concert hall
  • ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
  • Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
  • State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
  • New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
  • Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology

These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.

“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:

“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”

Jones Hall: During summer 2021 renovations, the focus was on acoustic work, including custom construction with sidewall and alcove “infills,” using metal framing with four layers of sheetrock for acoustic density. This was covered by a wood veneer finish. The infills corrected echoes and sound delays that impacted musical performances and allowed sound to be evenly distributed throughout the hall. / Photo by Paul Hester

An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.

“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”

The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.”  Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.

“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”

The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.

Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.

“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.

Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:

“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”

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.