Rick Lowe Wins $625,000 MacArthur Genius Award

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“My work falls into the category of what I like to call ‘social sculpture,’” Rick Lowe, one of this year’s 21 MacArthur Fellows explained in a video on the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

The term is actually borrowed from Joseph Beuys, whose ideas were among the inspiration for the Houston-based artist to start Project Row Houses (PRH) in 1993. PRH is a nonprofit arts and culture organization in Houston’s historic Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. Through the organization, Lowe purchased and restored 22 derelict shotgun houses from the 1930s, transforming them into a combined arts venue and community center. Today, PRH encompasses 39 properties located on six blocks, including exhibition and residency spaces for artists, low-income residential housing, a mentorship program for single mothers and an organic gardening program.

In a phone interview with A.i.A., Lowe explained what Project Row Houses means to him. “PRH allowed me to merge two things that have always been personally valuable, which is community activism and empowerment and art. It allows those things to come together very naturally; it’s not forced.” Lowe also considers PRH a foundational platform for other artists to engage in similar projects. In fact, Lowe has collaborated on related endeavors in other cities, like the Watts House Project in Los Angeles, a post-Katrina rebuilding effort in New Orleans, and recently, a community market in a densely populated immigrant neighborhood in Dallas.

In addition to his community building projects, Lowe is currently artist-in-residence at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, and is a Mel King Community Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Originally trained as a painter, his work has been exhibited at venues such as Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Gwangju Biennale and the Venice Architecture Biennale.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius” grant, awards $625,000 of unrestricted funds over five years. The eclectic group of this year’s winners includes graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, poet Terrance Hayes, playwright Samuel D. Hunter and scientists, lawyers, historians and mathematicians who excel in their respective fields. Past winners include Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker.

Although the initial disbelief may have worn off, Lowe is still unsure how he will use the prize money. “I have to give it some serious thought. How can I utilize it in a way that is beneficial to me and impactful in the work that I do?”

Still, Lowe hardly thinks of himself as a genius. “Genius unfolds when simple actions come together at the right time and manifest themselves in ways that are powerful. To me it doesn’t carry with the person—it’s the context in which the person acts which allows ‘genius’ to unfold.”