As it approaches the year anniversary date of Hurricane Harvey, Houston is still desperately struggling to regain full control of the operations of its flooded neighborhoods. The devastation still lingers in the minds of our friends, family, neighbors, and ourselves as it is hard to forget such a life-changing event. The degree of trauma and wreckage that each individual might have experienced varies to a far and wide swinging pendulum. Some watched the news unfold on their TV’s while comfortably sitting on their sofas, while others had little time to escape as waters began rushing in their own front doors, leaving them only minutes to grab documents and loved ones. Harvey’s impact on Texas was vast, and citizens and businesses are still grappling with rebuilding.
But how much of it will be the same? With the repairs still being made as we slowly crawl back into financial stability, how is it that we as individual rebuild what we once had? Whether it be physically or mentally, what direction do we take in this new chapter? It’s clear that what was once common practice may not work in a post-Harvey environment. With the lessons that we have learned, it is known that the operations of the past won’t continue to work in our lives let alone for businesses, institutions and non-profits. If you operate a creative space, it’s time to reorganize and rethink almost everything. In Texas, it becomes the challenge of what does this evolution look like.
Post Harvey has been a very challenging time for many of us. The damage Harvey brought was overwhelming, and it took months for us to even scratch the surface of a recovery. Today, there are still many homes and businesses that remain uninhabitable and in disrepair. Many affected businesses have moved their operations to other locations away from the flood zones, while some that decided to remain have never opened back up again.
The art world has always been a battleground of sustainability and survival. And it goes without saying that the creative world is a much-needed key component to the nervous system of any society and city. In addition to holding a special place within us as individuals, it also brings together the community and educates the masses. In spite of all of this, it is so easily dismissed by many during great moments of change. If you are rebuilding your house and relocating your children into a new school district, it may be the farthest thing from your mind to work on your art collection or return your RSVP for the next big black tie gala. As facilitators and administrators of these creative spaces, there is an understanding of the ups and downs of the economy. Many old guard non-profits and institutions have gone through dozens of financial swings throughout the region and country and have done a splendid job of fortifying their own operations. Fail safes have been implemented to protect the establishments from impacting the livelihood of the organization or business model. Those indeed worked well enough for many decades, and a great deal of these much-needed facilities are still programming today. However, we have come to a blockade in the road post-Harvey where many have come to the realization that this won’t continue to work. Things have to start changing, and many are not sure what that looks like.
Recently Artnet published an article that began spreading like wildfire around the creative communities and art circuits. The article, titled “The End of Exhibitions,” painted a dark picture of the world of exhibiting spaces. Galleries across the country have been closing in droves and not just related to one fluctuating moment in the stock market, but rather in an ongoing series of events that will continue for as long as we can tell.
During the 2007 and 2008 economic tank the US faced, all eyes were on the gallery scene of NYC, watching to see if our big brother of the art world could come up with a clever solution of sustainability. What we saw was gallery after gallery closing across the city. First it was the small spaces that relied on the flash in the pan success they had seen that season. Then it was the more experimental spaces and harder to collect programming galleries that saw a drastic drop in sales. Galleries that prided themselves on interdisciplinary exhibitions suddenly dropped most of their artists, only keeping the painters and sculptors whose sales were more regulated. These moments in art history have replayed over and over again, but now something is different. These are no longer moments, but years, and the flexibility is becoming less and less. The rest of the world is getting small doses of this reality while the state of Texas has a greater challenge to deal with. The struggles here in Houston and beyond not only reflect the national and international changes and fluctuations, but our everyday operations post-Harvey and ongoing disasters.
The harsh realization is that Hurricane Harvey is not one time anomaly but something that we as a city and state will have to fight every single year. As gallery after gallery closes in Houston, it is becoming apparent that these are not isolated cases but a reflection on how the world around us is changing. As the future of these massive storms looms over us and the intensity of the Hurricane grows each season, it’s no longer speculation — it’s reality.
Running an arts space has its ongoing trials and tribulations, but it usually involves dealing with a sour month or two in terms of donations coming in or a drop in art sales. During Harvey, many spaces either remained closed for a month or two or saw an almost complete halt in operations for as many as four months. Today, we see a long and challenging path laid before us. More and more spaces are talking of reprogramming and rebranding to “weather the storm,” no pun intended. Recently, I was talking with a collector and long-standing contributor to the many institutions in town. The tone was very different in the conversation about the Houston art scene and their moments of solace.
“There is a lot to be taken into consideration,” said the collector. “While me and my family were lucky during Harvey, it was a huge eye opener. We saw many of our near and dear lose everything. It was heartbreaking and an ongoing rebuilding process. We are clearly still involved in helping to build our institutions, but we have to be mindful of the future now more than ever. Me and my family have to be financially prepared to be uprooted completely, and that is a scary thought”.
The hurricane season is upon us, and the year anniversary of Harvey is only a month away. The galleries, non profits, and like have gone through a year of constant struggle and have begun to start a new dialogue. While as terrifying as this new chapter can be, there are still positive conversations and hope for what can be made of the future. Spaces have started group projects, new collaborations, and events in solidarity, as well as challenging past ideas of structure. The creative community has a solid vein of resiliency running throughout. While the months and years ahead are unclear, the original foundations remain sound. It’s the ideas of what we will rebuild on top that is the topic of conversation now.