Booted From its Longtime Building, Artist Collective Seeks a New Home for ‘Life-Affirming’ Work

Booted From its Longtime Building, Artist Collective Seeks a New Home for ‘Life-Affirming’ Work

Ibraim Nascimento with community members at CAC (photo by Terry St. John)

HOP OFF THE Metro Rail at Wheeler and find your bearings between what used to be a Fiesta grocery store (now “climatetech incubator” Greentown Labs) and the brutalist-styled and somewhat uninviting ION Building (“Houston’s HQ for innovation!”). Then follow the traffic up San Jacinto, and suddenly you encounter Quilt Peace, a dramatic, colorful, powder-coated steel sculpture by artist, educator, and executive director and co-founder of the Community Artists’ Collective Michelle Barnes.

Inspired by the collaborative nature of quilt-making, Quilt Peace stands at the entrance to the Bermac Arts building, which since 2014 has housed The Collective’s offices, exhibition space, and gift shop. Last December, Barnes and her staff were abruptly informed the building had been sold, and they had until August 2024 to vacate. The news was a shock, although not entirely unexpected, given the relentless march of gentrification that continues to impact Houston’s historic Third Ward and the city as a whole.

Painting by CAC's Aesha Lee

Khaili Sam-Sin, Shani Crowe, Michelle Barnes, Janice Bond, Josie Pickens (photo by Terry St. John)

Michelle Barnes with two young friends at CAC (photo by Terry St. John)

“We have a place to be until August, but in the meantime, we’ve got to find something that’s appropriate, especially for our exhibition and education programs,” says Barnes, who hopes The Collective can remain in the Midtown/Third Ward area and avoid becoming another statistic of gentrification. “There ought to be a place for us in this mix,” says Barnes regarding the changing landscape of the neighborhood. “Does it all have to be a wealthy enclave, or can it be a mixed socio-economic environment?”

Since its inception in 1987, when Barnes and her team operated out of an upstairs corner studio in the Midtown Art Center, The Collective has addressed the needs of Houston’s African-American artists, particularly African-American women artists, while serving as a cross-cultural, educational hub committed to making the arts accessible and inclusive to all communities of Houston. The non-profit organization offers art instruction for children and adults, including a monthly Jubilee Quilt Circle, where participants learn and share their knowledge of quilt-making, community development, and entrepreneurship programs, and special events like last December’s Ashé market, featuring a curated selection of gift items made by local artisans, as well as various African fabrics, masks, and other art pieces.

The Collective is also known as a space, albeit small in square footage, for some of the city’s most provocative, engaging exhibitions. For his simultaneously elegiac and life-affirming 2022 on-site installation Coffee/Kool Aid and the Tabernacle of (Re)Memory, artist Viktor Givensfilled and transformed The Collective with found objects recovered from vacant and abandoned African-American residential estates. Later that year, Brian Ellison and Khaili Sam-Sin presented Nuanced Black in the space, a group show of Black MFA candidates at the University of Houston, who remain severely underrepresented in MFA art programs. The Collective’s initiative to not only show but guide artists in the business of being an artist has had a significant impact across the Houston art scene. “The word is that Houston is a very welcoming, warm place that is supportive of artists,” says Barnes. “I think that we’ve had something to do with that.”

Despite the stress involved in the search for a new home, The Collective is staying active, thanks to the efforts of its staff and volunteers. The organization’s children’s educational programming, led by talented Houston artists, continues at community centers such as the Julia C. Hester House and SHAPE Community Center in the Fifth Ward. Barnes herself can be found teaching these classes. “I do it to keep grounded in this work,” says Barnes. “Because if I just did the administration, it would be a death knell.” Meanwhile, the Jubilee Quilt Circle continues its second Thursday workshops, with a variety of instructors leading a class of 10 in the art of quilting. And opening Feb. 1 in celebration of Black History Month is Here and Now: Cultural Expressions, an exhibit of art from The Collective’s permanent collection, including works by Dominic Clay, Mark Francis, Ann Johnson, Latonia Allen, Gail P. Mallory, Ibraim Nascimento, and many others. That same month, Houston artist, DJ, and historian Tierney Malone teams up with The Collective and the Community Music Center for a music-themed exhibition at Hogan Brown Gallery in the renovated historic Eldorado Ballroom.

If 37 years ago, The Collective was born out of a need to fill a void in the cultural landscape, Barnes remains committed to filling that void and inspiring connectivity and cooperation between disparate communities and organizations.

“American culture is really competitive in its nature,” says Barnes. “That’s why it’s so wonderful that artists are supportive of each other, generally, and that this environment, the arts and culture community, is inclusive and becoming more so. I see that happening, and I hope we won’t have to keep stepping back in order to go forward.”

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