French Connection: UH School of Art Tapped for Collaboration

Project Will Send UH, French Graduate Students to Marfa for Learning, Inspiration

Marfa Installation 1
Carole Baron, Delectable Mountain, natural dye, cotton & stones, 2016. Photo by Ida Soulard.
Marfa Installation 2
Carole Baron, student, with her installation Delectable Mountain, natural dye, cotton & stones, 2016. Photo by Ida Soulard.

Mountains, immigration checkpoints and endless desert skies – an international partnership formed to spur innovation in the arts will send graduate students from the University of Houston and the École des Beaux-Arts Nantes Metropole to search for inspiration in the far West Texas outpost of Marfa.

“A change in environment stimulates new ideas,” said Abinadi Meza, Associate Professor of art and Director of Interdisciplinary Initiatives in the UH College of the Arts. “The West Texas landscape is pretty dramatic – desert, tremendous storms, mountains. We talk about geography, border issues. To pass through an immigration checkpoint, to see the desert. It brings it to life.”

Meza, who recently won a Rome Prize in Visual Arts, led a small group of graduate students and faculty from Houston and France for a month-long residency in the desert last spring. Now a $232,000 grant from a foundation promoting French-American collaborations in the arts and education will expand the program over the next three years, including sending UH students to France and bringing French students to Houston.

Andrew Davis, interim dean of the College of the Arts, said international partnerships are crucial for the arts, as well as for a better understanding of society in general.

“I believe strongly in study abroad opportunities,” he said. “It changes people’s lives. It changes people’s perspectives. It can alleviate some of the problems you see in society today, the narrow thinking.

And that carries over to the arts. Students need the widest possible perspective to be true creative innovators.”

The grant comes from the FACE Foundation, or French-American Cultural Exchange, and Rex Koontz, director of the UH School of Arts, said it is one of the largest grants to the School of Arts in the past decade. The FACE Foundation works with the cultural services division of the French Embassy in New York City to administer the Partner University Fund, which is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

While international collaborations in science and engineering are more common, Koontz said the French government is also interested in the arts and humanities. UH is the only university in the country to receive a Partner University Fund grant for the arts this year, he said.

Koontz said both universities focus on engaging with the communities around them, offering a chance for each to learn new ways of doing so as they interact with peers from the partner school.

Marfa, on the other hand, is neutral ground – neither Houston, home of the UH faculty and students, or Nantes, home to the École des Beaux-Arts faculty and students. “In Marfa, we’re truly sharing the space,” Meza said.

And while both Houston and Nantes, the sixth largest city in France, are known for their art scenes, Marfa offers something more.

A small desert city of about 2,000 people, Marfa has become known as an arts center since artist Donald Judd founded the Chinanti Foundation there in 1979. The Ballroom Marfa arts center – headed by a UH alum, Meza notes – hosts films, concerts, art exhibitions and other events.

While there, the students and faculty will work with one another and with artists and organizations in town, both organically and through organized seminars, panel discussions and other events, Meza said. Last year’s residency resulted in several films, site-specific sculpture, performances and photography, among other projects.

The grant comes as UH launched the College of the Arts, which includes the School of Art along with the Moores School of Music and the School of Theater & Dance, along with other programs. But Koontz said the groundwork was laid three years ago after an official with the French Embassy in Houston suggested a collaboration with a French university.

“The French government is very serious about strengthening graduate collaborations across higher education,” he said. “They view this as a way to strengthen their own system.”

Cover photo: Alvin Lucier, Sferics sound installation, Thursday, May 26, 2016. Photo by Sarah Vasquez.