Ryan Dennis is the Public Art Director of Project Row Houses, a community-based arts and culture non-profit organization located in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods. I was first introduced to Ryan during a class visit in my last semester of undergraduate at the University of Houston. The course was titled “Artists & Their Regions” and centered on the exploration of the spaces artists occupy. My artistic horizon was constantly expanding throughout the duration of the course as we took multiple group visits to various art spaces. However, I hadn’t really been to a space that showcased art made by people of color or was reflective of my own familiar environment. We were visiting spaces occupied predominantly by white people, and I wanted to know why the artistic canon was so skewed. I found my silver lining during our visit to Project Row Houses. I live in Sunnyside, the oldest African-American community in southern Houston. We are not by any means an art center like Midtown, the Museum District, or the Montrose area, but I do feel as if we are overlooked when it comes to artistic outreach in the city. Ryan Dennis inspired me from the first moment we met; she was a black woman occupying a space not often occupied by people of color. She was working in a community not considered to be one of the “art centers” of Houston but did not let that deter her. She spoke with a confidence that is definitely needed when working in a space that needs to be constantly advocated for. After meeting her I knew exactly what I wanted to do within my community and I realized my first steps towards making a change would be to get my master’s degree in Arts Leadership. It was extremely serendipitous that I was able to cross paths with Ryan again for this leadership profile.
What was your inspiration to lead in the arts?
While in the African American studies program at the University of Houston, I spent a lot of time considering what building a community would look like which led to my work with The Menil Collection. Kristina Van Dyke, who was the Curator of Collections at The Menil, spoke at one of my seminar classes and talked about curation in a way I hadn't heard before. Kristina discussed the influences of the de Menil’s on the city of Houston and the importance of their advocacy within the Civil Rights movement that led me to be curious but also, the way she spoke about her role at the Museum was extremely inspiring for me. By the end of the next day I’d called Kristina’s office and emailed her to discuss the possibilities of obtaining an internship within the curatorial department. I was extremely persistent and would not take no for an answer, a fact Kristina continues to remind me of even after all of these years.
How did working at The Menil inspire you?
My time at the Menil left a lasting impression on me as after interning with the curatorial department I was later hired on as a Curatorial Assistant. Franklin Sirmans, then Curator of Contemporary Art, introduced me to so many Black artists and artists of color. He also introduced me to many artists working and living in Houston in addition to exposing me to events and programs that motivated a lot of my inspirational pulses. For instance there was Otabanga Jones and Associates “Lessons from Below,” in which the collective occupied one of the museum galleries at The Menil and filled it with various Black literature and artworks from the Menil’s collection and their own to discuss African American history. The exhibition was “all black everything,” a canon I definitely had no access to through the art history program at the University of Houston. I was able to see a culture expand and express in real time which was really a moment of putting theory into practice. The exhibition was a perfect blend of artwork and public programming that was rich and inviting. Being able to have those experiential and tangible moments helped me identify what was lacking in these institutional systems in order to begin inserting what I wanted and needed to see at The Menil Collection but also as I continued my career.
What lead you to Pratt Institute of NY?
While working at The Menil I realized I needed to get my master’s degree in order to begin making change so I moved to New York to attend Pratt Institute where I received a degree in arts and cultural management with a curatorial focus. I was a fellow at the Laundromat Project, worked in public programs in education at The New Museum, and I returned to the curatorial department at the Museum for African Art.
How did you get involved with Project Row Houses?
I actually began by volunteering at Project Row Houses as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. Seeing the space and number of black artists that were represented in the houses encouraged me to continue thinking about audience and how people navigate art spaces in the city. Tying back to The Menil, how did the exhibitions at The Menil Collection bring in audiences and would the people from Third Ward feel comfortable going to the Menil and vice versa. I needed to find a way to blend both crowds. While I was attending Pratt Institute I was able to test every possible avenue but after volunteering with Project Row Houses I knew I wanted to stay focused on curation and how to engage people on a deeper level. Eventually, I returned to Houston for Project Row Houses, the condition being that the only reason I’d even move back to Houston was if I could work there! Houston can be a small scene, not as many free things happening compared to other cities. The reality was Project Row Houses was in line with all of my interests: they supported black artists (and artists of color, held community at the center of all the work, engaged in producing rigorous programs, and provided created social safety nets through programs like the Young Mothers Residential Program. I knew I’d also be working in a black community with huge historical and political ties. The past 4 years at Project Row Houses have continued to provide multilayered and rewarding experiences. It can be emotionally taxing at times but is worth it for the platforms it creates for artists and audiences to think outside of the box and work within a community context.
Personal or professional challenges and obstacles that navigated change?
For me the main challenge of being a leader is learning how to navigate the space that is Third Ward along with trying to convey the works to people who are not from the area. I am a Black woman in the arts, a space not occupied by a lot of Black folk in Houston. I have to maintain a strong exterior when I’m experiencing outside factors dealt with constantly at Project Row Houses such as police brutality against black folk and then having to go to other spaces where these conversations aren’t being discussed at all. It requires a moment of self-care and reflection, recognizing when I am not going to be present in other spaces if I am not in the headspace to deal with a certain type of environment. If there has been a lot going on in the world and it is also loaded at Project Row Houses, it is probably not a great idea for me to be in other circles that don't understand these circumstances and lack cultural competency. People of color have had to learn to navigate challenging spaces no matter what. I walk the surrounding neighborhood 30 minutes every day where I pass trap houses and say hello every single time and engage in a conversation when I can. I see children who are supposed to be in school but I recognize the socioeconomic issues at play; those not familiar with the environment would call the kids truant and delinquent not once taking the chance to consider their personal and familial struggles. I instead focus on finding a way to influence some change within the community. Again, the challenge arises when I go to other parts of town where the culture of Third Ward is misunderstood. I can’t share moments with these people because I am expected to have all of the answers. As a leader it’s okay to say “you should find someone to talk to about that.” It’s not about being combative or aggressive but more about respecting the importance for Black people to safeguard themselves in their spaces in order to be able to effectively move around the way they need to. Establishing these safe platforms for people takes a lot of growth and development. It is also extremely important for there to be allies who hold appropriate spaces but are also doing the work to talk to the people in their respective spaces and not just “occupying space for their whiteness.”
What were some of your favorite projects?
I can’t pick a favorite because I am passionate about every single one of the works. A few that come to mind are Otabanga Jones and Associates’ “OJBKFM Third Coast,” a project that thought about the erasure of the neighborhood and how we communicate with black radio displayed in real time. Residents were on their back porches listening to interviews, music, and performances. There’s Jason Moran and Tierney Malone in the Eldorado Ballroom talking about jazz, Theaster Gates and The Black Monks, and Ayanna McCLoud’s “Writing in the Margins.” I am just truly inspired by every artist and their work here at Project Row Houses which is an essential part of leadership: you have to be inspired by the artists you're working with and be able to take cues in order to continue the elevation of certain conversations.
What makes a leader in your opinion?
A strong leader knows where they want to be. Values are very important when you think about where you want to work as you have to consider what an organization or institution supports and how. For me it’s not a money chase, I do not like the concept of a “real job” and the idea of success equaling money that usually accompanies it. As leaders we must be able to support and advocate for the artists we believe in no matter the PUSH BACK while also recognizing the lack of cultural competency and sensitivity in the systems that are meant to support these artists. Leaders must be willing to push and defend as well as speak in a way that makes people want to support the work. Values and ethics, inclusion of artists of color, the priority of the curatorial department, acquirement of the works, and the efforts used to find the audience are factors leaders should pay attention to when trying to choose an organization or institution to work with. I usually ask myself, “What are we doing to make it more accessible to everyone besides the patrons of the last 40 years? How can we change with the world and impact the present without being stuck in the past?” Even if you’re involved with an institution that does not necessarily align itself with your values, find a way to be flexible while continuously advocating for your vision and impact to be recognized. Being a leader in an art space requires me to stay strong in my convictions while also being willing to evolve, grow, and respond to the things I want or need to see holding space for individuals from all walks of life. A leader is also someone who has empathy for others and remains effortlessly compassionate. My work at Project Row Houses can be emotionally taxing because my work does not only involve curation; Project Row House also provides housing for single mothers and it is important that I am just as involved in their lives. You have to be someone who isn’t scared to stand on a limb and advocate for the things you deem to be important, even if you are on the limb by yourself. It's also important to have a strong base and know why you are supporting a project. Leaders have to be willing to take the role of the student, someone who is always learning from others. Lastly, it is necessary to remain fluid. I often have to step back and respect the artists’ intention and the integrity of their work in order to begin thinking about how it works in the context of Third Ward and contemporary practice.
How do you feel about creating relationships within the workplace?
All of the organizations I’ve worked with have truly been amazing at encouraging engagement and progression; there was no space for stagnation and isolation. I believe it begins with having an understanding of every office, asking people about their work and what inspires them. It’s the fundamental concept of treating people like real people and establishing relationships in order to encourage understanding
The interview was an extremely positive experience; I have never been more confident about my path as I was during that interview. As someone who has struggled with keeping a solid grip on my interests and ways to pursue them, Ryan really inspired me to take risks and stand on a limb to achieve my goals. Our communities are similar and the work Ryan has done with Project Row Houses along with the passion she constantly exudes has given me a solid framework on how to achieve the same changes in my community. In fact I realize that I do not want them to change at all, I want them to have a platform on which they can express freely and present themselves in the ways they want to be seen.