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It's great to have 5,000 people show up on a weekend for a festival. But I think the real success is if a kid has a day off from school and gets on a bike and rides to the museum instead of going to the movies. That one kid is more important than a whole bunch of people at a big party.
- Marsha Dorsey-Outlaw, Houston artist-educator

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the 200-page catalogue for A Place for All People, a trio of exhibitions that grew out of a community outreach project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is practically an encyclopedia.

It is brimming with pictures of famous artworks by Matisse, Degas, Chagall and Signac - but also works by Kelly Garrett and the students at Project Chrysalis, an alternative Houston school; and photographs, poems, pottery, paintings and sculptures by other Houstonians, young and old.

Prized artworks, including African masks and pottery, are juxtaposed with works they inspired in an exhibition that curator Janet Landay titled Call and Response, after the phrase from gospel music and jazz that describes how one player throws out a musical line that the rest of the ensemble picks up and embellishes. (View a clip from the Call and Response exhibit.)

That "creative challenge," Landay said, "became the model for the interaction between the museum and the individuals in each of the three communities."

A retired teacher named Sandra Ernestine Harrison Lee wrote a short essay in response to a striking wooden sculpture from Nigeria of a female twin figure in a painted garment with glass and coconut shell beads. The Yoruba tribe has a high incidence of twin births; when one dies, the grieving parents create this sculpture to represent the lost twin and to keep the other from harm.

  

Yoruba (Oyo subgroup) Female Twin Figure (ere ibeji) with Garment


"And so it was for my mother, Sylvia Fonsworth Harrison," wrote Mrs. Lee, who herself lost a twin sister. "The work she symbolically carved was Harrison's Preparatory School in the Third Ward, where she nurtured the children of the community, not only be teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic, but also by motivating them to develop social skills and by raising their self-esteem and cultural awareness."

There are other works that touch the heart in lighter ways, including the beautiful, blue-and-green East End Panorama, now on permanent display at the Talento Bilingüe de Houston, a cultural center. The mural's five large, connected panels show neighborhood landmarks, churches, schools and bridges, with a bright red, low-riding Chevy Impala in the foreground and the city skyline, the Maxwell House plant and a crescent moon on the horizon. In the foreground, children play, an elderly woman tends her garden and a sliver of a Ninfa's restaurant sign hints at nourishment.


Project Chrysalis mural at Talento Bilinque de Houston

"The radical thing (about A Place for All People) was for us to think in terms of neighborhoods," said curator Landay. Museums typically stage exhibitions and events to mark February as Black History Month and celebrate Cinco de Mayo, "but who thinks of doing anything for white working-class people?" she asked.

The three neighborhoods were chosen for their diversity - the Third Ward is predominantly African-American, the East End Latino, and the Near Northwest a mix of blue-collar families and ethnicities - and for the fact that they were under-represented among the museum's regular visitors.

While the museum draws an ethnically diverse audience, those who come on their own tend to be more affluent than those who stay away. "It's harder to reach the working classes of any ethnicity. With museum attendance, it's really more about income and economic status than ethnicity," said Landay.

"It was a great experience for the participants," she added. "My sense is that their feelings about this museum and museums in general and about art are forever changed."

Peter C. Marzio, the museum's director, had his own life changed by just such a serendipitous encounter. Born in Brooklyn, NY, and raised by relatives after the death of his parents, he won a football scholarship to Juniata College in Pennsylvania and expected to join his uncles in the construction business afterwards.

But when he saw a slide of Goya's vivid painting of a blacksmith, The Forge, he was hooked by art. The professor dispatched him to the Frick in New York to see the original, and Marzio returned to write a paper that set him on the path of becoming an art historian instead of a tradesman.

In his foreword to the A Place for All People catalogue, Marzio wrote: "We have learned that, first and foremost, working with our local communities is the right thing to do....When we bring our neighbors into the process of learning about and interpreting works of art, the human spirit enriches the entire institution," he said.

Or, as Sandra Lee, the retired teacher, expressed it: "I had never thought about the museum relating to my personal life. It had just never come to my thoughts that there might be something here that could tell a story of my life."

The museum's outreach to the three neighborhoods and the rest of Houston did not end when the project came to an end in 1998. It is an ongoing challenge. "Decades of suspicion and racism are not eradicated with one program," observed Marzio, "but as the great Houston artist John Biggers said some years back, 'We are finally moving along down the road together.'"

The experience "continually reminds us of the wonderful complexity of life in Houston," said Landay. "Building audiences and developing collaborations are not projects with a beginning and an end, but a way of working and becoming a more vital part of the urban fabric."