Delving into HCP's Ten-Year History
by Ellen Lang
Emerging from the Houston photographic community in October 1981, the Houston Center for Photography (HCP) has tried to be many things to many people. The sometimes turbulent, often triumphant, evolution of this visual artists organization reflects the dreams of the people behind it—artists, collectors, curators, patrons, and students. A grassroots phenomenon with institutional aspirations, HCP's auspicious birth, ambitious expansion, stubborn survival, and determined vitality is an American success story.
While a ten-year tenure for any medium-sized artists organization is awe-inspiring and cause for celebration, its early history resembles a myth, complete with proud heroes and dark horses. Its founding members recount those first few years with pride and emotion. The story approximates a genealogy of the Houston photographic community.
ln the Beginning
Prior to 1975, photography had little permanent foothold or mainstream clout in Houston. The evolving popularity of photography in the city paralleled its development across the country. Some multimedia commercial galleries, such as Fredericka Hunter's Texas Gallery in 1970, included photography in their yearly programming. The Cronin Gallery, one of Houston's few exclusive photography showplaces, opened in 1975 and was followed soon by David Mancini's Photopia, filling in where Geoff Winningham’s Latent Image Gallery had left off in the early '70s. Winningham's Rice Media Center program, established in 1969, was strong; the photography department at the University of Houston had begun with promise in 1975 under George Bunker; and the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), was maturing under the nurturing hands of Anne W. Tucker. But, the diverse denizen of photographers, collectors, and "accomplished spectators"—as Lynn Herbert, past HCP executive director, calls "the sophisticated seers"—wanted more.
As the curator of photography at MFAH, Tucker brought together those with a true love of photography. She sent out flyers inviting people to talk about the photographic community at Frederic and Betty Fleming's Paradise Bar and Grill, and the word spread. As thirty to forty people discussed their dreams, the idea of the Houston Center for Photography began to take shape. Although no permanent meeting or exhibition place existed, ideas and energy abounded. The organization was to move first to Sally Horrigan's house, then to Buddy Clemmons' gallery/home, and on to Bering Memorial United Methodist Church before settling in 1983 into its current locale at the corner of Mulberry and West Alabama.
In addition to address changes, the director's torch passed from Lynn Herbert (then McLanahan) in 1983 to Lew Thomas in 1985. In 1987, April Rapier held it briefly before passing it on to Jean Caslin. As presidents of HCP's board of directors, Gay Block, Dave Crossley, Herman Detering, Paul Hester, Horrigan, Joan Morgenstern, Rapier, Amanda Whitaker, and Clint Willour have done their parts. While diversity has always been a defining characteristic of HCP, it has contributed to the center's strength and challenged its stability.
Much of that vision was realized in the first year. HCP became more than just a meeting place for members to exhibit and discuss their work. Volunteers produced workshops and lectures that offered technical and issue-oriented education. They organized exhibitions that explored the range of photography, and they put basic fundraising, programming, and organizational structures into place. In addition to a monthly newsletter, they launched Image, a critical photography journal, in 1983. The magazine was renamed SPOT in 1984 because of a conflict with another magazine’s name. Artist Ed Hill and Crossley, a commercial photographer, conceived the name, and Charles Schorre and Peter Boyle developed the original design.
The community spirit, which enabled so much work to be done so fast—and continues to characterize the organization today in spite of tremendous organizational changes—was apparent from the start; just "two months into it, a community was clear," asserts Crossley. “It offered opportunities for dialogue, the chance to see one another's work. It included professionals and amateurs who in the true sense of the word, were in it for the love of it. . . . There were no limitations.”
HCP opened a gallery in the Bering Memorial Church in July 1982, just before its incorporation as a nonprofit artists organization. The organization successfully undertook a fundraising campaign with a $180,000 goal over a three-year period. Muffy McLanahan, recognized recently by the Houston Post as one of ten Women of Distinction for her volunteer support of the Houston Grand Opera, chaired the drive beginning in 1983. When Crossley’s wife, Jody Blazek (the CPA who secured the center's nonprofit status with the help of attorney David Portz), notified the members of a vacancy in some Menil properties in the museum district, the center moved to its present site. In maverick fashion HCP installed a computer to streamline operations, making it one of the first alternative arts organizations to do so. With Crossley as president, the hiring of Herbert as the center's first director established a creative team at HCP. Prior to that time, according to a founding member, all center operations were conducted on "a strictly democratic basis," with everyone voting at monthly meetings.
The center came together quickly because of the grassroots support. Longtime member Ginny Camfield, a photographer who sits on the current board, recalls that "the membership that came together for all activities was a real resource." For the first annual Members' Exhibition, the gallery space in the church needed painting. Debra Rueb, a founding member and photographer who works for a NASA contractor, faced a crumbling room that was to exhibit the center's first show in a matter of days. Typical of the determination at work, Camfield remembers Rueb saying, "Just paint the room white, it'll be fine," So the two women spent the weekend painting. Hester remembers that "human sweat" gave the organization momentum and resources that made up for limited funds. He recalls using rub-on lettering for exhibition titles: "What we didn’t have, we would make.”
In addition to materials, members made up organizational procedures as they went along, devoting imagination and seemingly endless energy to get the center off the ground. Crossley remarks on his tenure as the first president of HCP: “I was a blank palette. There were no rules. We went whole hog." It was a time of youth and ambition before family concerns and career goals demanded more attention. Doing everything included choosing exhibitions from the work of photographers both inside and outside the organization. The Houston-based membership was small in comparison to today's, enabling "house" votes to determine all programming. Members subsequently developed more systematic selection procedures, which have evolved to juried shows for members' exhibitions and to committee choices for regular programming.
Founding member Paul Hester speaks fondly of a 1982 exhibition, "Chillysmith Farm: Mark and Dan Jury," based on the book Gramps, which describes the last three years in the life of Frank Tugend, the artists’ grandfather. Camfield remembers some unknown artists who brought their portfolios to the church one Thursday night and presented work with unexpected quality and insight. She recalls seeing some sensitive portraits of women and platinum prints of Connecticut factories that were "unrivaled by what I see today" and earned exposure in the Members' Gallery. Muffy McLanahan remembers "In Space, A Photographic Journey," presented by HCP for NASA/Johnson Space Center in 1987. A fifteen-foot high photographic mural of the moon, John Glenn's special appearance, and an astronaut reunion appealed to many people. A $30,000 publicity and fundraising bonanza, the exhibition exposed a broad range of people to photography and HCP, but it also brought the debate over HCP's artistic identify to a head, according to those involved. Should the center focus on art photography, reportage, or a diversity of views? Then Executive Director Lew Thomas, show curators Crossley and McLanahan, and the membership struck a compromise. They presented the exhibition at the Transco Tower.
Among the distinguished members who showed their work at HCP's first exhibitions were George Krause, who recently completed preparations for a retrospective to be seen at MFAH this spring, and Gay Block, whose solo show at the Museum of Modern Art opened January 15. The work of other ex officioboard members, such as Fred Baldwin, Suzanne Bloom, Peter Brown, Hill, Charles Schorre, Wendy Watriss, and Winnigham, also inspire pride in the Houston photographic community.
Clint Willour, HCP board member and curator of the Galveston Arts Center, explains that "in terms of its goals, the HCP is about, for, and by photographers and photography.” He acknowledges the breadth of aesthetic values within the photographic community and the difficulty he faces when addressing divergent styles. “HCP once tried to be all things to all people,” he says, “Now it needs to be what no one else can be.” His expansive vision parallels the center's artistic philosophy, which “fosters a wide diversity of work.”
Individual voices reflect unique points of reference. To Crossley, it’s about the wonder of seeing in ways that the eye cannot: “Photography allows you to see things, to share experiences with other people. There is a bigger crowd interested in photography.” To Brown, a photographer and teacher at Rice University, it’s about exploration and introspection. Rapier, who handpaints photographic imagery, focuses on the fine art and interdisciplinary aspect of photography. But, she laments, “I find most art empty, heartless, and pigheaded.” Jean Caslin, current executive director of HCP appreciates a broad range of work in keeping with her bi-coastal art history education. She speaks with equal excitement about black-and-white documentary photographs and experimental slide installations.
This diversity of photographic interests is reflected in the center’s membership even now. Winningham explains that despite differing tastes, a common desire "to show work and get to know photography" has characterized the HCP membership. Remarking on educational and local programming, Tucker says, "The center has always had a broader view, but it exists to benefit its members.” That’s often done with portfolio reviews and members’ exhibitions. Through its board and committee structure, she adds, it "gives people the chance to be involved in ways they cannot at a museum.” This means being involved in bringing shows to town that wouldn’t otherwise be seen, she says. Hans Staartjes, chair of the Programming Committee, emphasizes the opportunities for active involvement at a visual artists organization, including "the chance to develop, see work, meet interesting people, and further my career by seeing work that really means something."
Willour concedes the center’s social role and practical role as well, noting that it has always been a vehicle for artists. Camfield recalls the electricity generated by HCP being one of the only places in town to show emerging photographers’ work. Before FotoFest and photography’s mainstream acceptance as a fine art, few photographers had the support, exposure, and identification that comes with being represented by a gallery. Willour explains that now "there are so many other opportunities in Houston that we didn't have before. Work can be seen at the MFAH, FotoFest, DiverseWorks, and the artists' regular galleries,” he says. "Because HCP created other opportunities, its need to do that changed. It can grow to a point, then it outgrows itself, but it is fulfilled in other ways,” referring to expanded programs, exhibitions, fellowships, and grants for artists. Inevitable tradeoffs are a factor of growth. For Muffy McLanahan, this includes the exchange of intimacy for influence. "There used to be arguments and hugs; now there are committee reports," she says. HCP strikes a delicate balance between being a membership organization for the Houston photographic community and a visual arts organization with national stature.
HCP: The Organization
With growth, the center has increasing opportunities and increasing demands common to an organization. As the center grows, fundraising consumes more time. Michael DeVoll, HCP administrative director, describes the center's double life: "Either you are busy doing what you do, or you are geting funding to do what you do.” To help defray the costs of producing and showing new work, HCP often shares resources with St. Paul's Film in the Cities, Boston's Photographic Resource Center, San Francisco’s CameraWork, and Portland's (Oregon) Blue Sky Gallery so that programming produced by one institution may travel to one or more of the others for viewing. This makes the work of lesser known or emerging photographers more visible and accessible. Through national distribution of SPOT, the center forges even more ties. Krause compares SPOT to Afterimage, VIEWS, and Photo Review. SPOT addresses “the social and cultural impact of photography in the world," according to Jeff DeBevec, chair of HCP’s Publications Committee. He explained that its high-production value and insightful writing make SPOT a major source of pride for HCP, as well as one of its largest expenditures—supported by advertising and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
HCP also shares institutional concerns with other organizations across the country, such as long-range planning, fundraising, and other bureaucratic realities. Hester compares the financial environment of today's visual artists organizations with that of one ten years ago. "The big difference," he says, "is funding in all the arts. Things cost more to do and you have to have professional people to do it, but it becomes like a perpetual motion machine—spending money to make more." Then there is, "the concern about offending those with money to spend;” it becomes, he says, an issue of survival. Muffy McLanahan explains that when money gets tight, "people hedge, since they don't want the discussion to get back to the donors. In hard times, people are quick to rally around, but they need to feel all is right with the world."
While the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and the Texas Commission on the Arts, are sources of operating support, HCP has also received National Endowment for the Arts support. With this federal funding and national recognition, an artists organization changes in complex ways. Seeking acceptance into the Advancement Program of the NEA, HCP turned its attention to examining the organization’s mission, standardizing operations, and doing long-range planning, in addition to maintaining regular programming. The staff and board produced a document that the current HCP President Joan Morgenstern refers to as “the book that tells who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.” It outlines the roles of the staff and board and details a task/timeline for HCP’s multi- year plan.
To be matched by grassroots funding over the next three years, the NEA Advancement Grant goes into effect this year. It directs funding to enhance public programs and will help increase staff with the addition of a development/marketing coordinator and a membership assistant/workshop coordinator. And, HCP will create a working capital reserve to facilitate cash management. It will no longer be necessary for a financial wizard to "save the day" or "perform his magic as Crossley describes investor Mike McLanahan doing for the center during hard times. Acceptance into the NEA plan, according to DeBevec, suggests that "the NEA is saying, 'HCP is worth it,' and they will bank on us to succeed in the future."
HCP: The Community
As HCP implements its plan, it strengthens ties to the community. Rather than an emphasis on organization that separates HCP from the audience and members it serves, the Advancement Grant actually enhances and expands those ties. Through its refined mission and expanded goals, the center will spend the next three years strengthening all public programs to showcase new national and international talent and trends. As HCP creates varied programs, including multicultural and experimental work, it will draw in new audiences. With artist support, such as grants and fellowships in addition to exhibition space, the center nurtures emerging artists and appreciation of photography from Poland to Pearland (Texas). Willour gives examples of the tremendous community response for shows such as "At Home With Themselves: Gay and Lesbian Couples" by Sage Sohier, "Convergence: Eight Photographers," and "The Searched Earth: Oil Well Fires in Kuwait.” These exhibits addressed homosexual, multicultural, and working-class issues and audiences.
Having found its niche, the center can interact with other institutions more effectively. To a certain extent, HCP, FotoFest, MFAH, CAM, DiverseWorks, and The Menil Collection have always competed, but they enhance each other through an educated, involved, and sophisticated audience. Tucker explains the interactive interests: "There is competition for the same limited funds. Sometimes we step on each other's toes in terms of programs and funding. Beyond that, we all wish each other well and do what we can to help each other."
This is particularly true in the case of FotoFest. Fred Baldwin and Petra Benteler initially conceived of the international event as a program to be put on by HCP. The idea grew into an independent organization, which departed from the scope and mission of the center. Taking place every two years, FotoFest—called the biggest photography event in the world—fosters cooperation among the city's museums, galleries, and institutions.
"Cross-institutional" is the word Peter Brown uses to describe Houston's photographic community. Krause remembers that when Baldwin taught at the University of Houston, he would bring his students to HCP. Currently, Tucker is secretary for HCP in addition to her MFAH responsibilities. Krause sits on the FotoFest art board—as do several other HCP board members—between teaching photography classes and tending to his own work. Morgenstern, once a president of Photo Forum (MFAH's photography support group) now presides over HCP as board president.
The institutional overlap creates a rich cultural environment that defines the community and encourages its accomplishments. Although Winningham asserts that HCP has had a powerful influence on the photographic community in terms of its people, exhibitions, and seminars, he insists that the MFAH program changed the community. "It was Anne’s influence,'' he says. "That's when it changed in the biggest way." Tucker disagrees, though not, she says, solely out of modesty. All the organizations "buttressed and drew strength from one another," she says. Brown notes the role of the academic community, citing Glassell School of Art, the Art Institute, Rice Media Center, and the University of Houston.
The interaction of an arts organization with other institutions requires a constant strategic balance among funding, programming, constituency, and artist support networks. Thomas, now curator of the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, recalls his challenging professional education as HCP's second executive director. He explains that, because his "strength was a conceptual emphasis with little administrative background in grants and funding, his arrival in 1985 was "controversial.” He admits that by pursuing his professional goal "to open up discussion, to exert a challenging influence, I alienated the board at different times." But, people are quick to point out his contributions.
Krause remembers the spirit of change at the center and Thomas' personal vision when he says, "Lew Thomas was trying to say, 'This is what modem photography is about.'" Thomas acknowledges, "Despite the differences, I was pleased to be invited" to the tenth anniversary party honoring past directors and presidents.
Focusing on the Future
HCP has evolved in its ten years through the determination and diverse dreams of the individuals who make up its community.
Pursuing and implementing the NEA Advancement Grant helped to put the whole HCP house in order and define the delicate balance of membership, funding, fellowships, programming, and publications. With a three-year funding plan through 1995 that provides for continuity and overlap, HCP has focused its future.
The staff and board can now focus on HCP's mission, which met with unanimous approval in the winter of 1991. It states: The Houston Center for Photography strives to deepen the understanding and appreciation of the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programming, the center supports emerging and mid-career artists and their audiences. It provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and promotes the study of photography, both as a medium of expression and as a tool of cultural investigation. HCP is a nonprofit organization serving as a resource to its members and the community with programs that have regional and national impact.
As HCP enters its second decade in the black, Tucker says, "Its purpose and vitality is what will keep it going. HCP will continue to serve and reflect its members and the community as it fosters photography that, in Tucker's words, "becomes incorporated into the fabric of the city, crosses all strata and intersects various communities."
Ellen Lang is a MFA student in design at the University of Houston and a freelance writer.