Houston Museum of African American Culture Launches Arts Education Courses at Harris County Jail

by Jessica Fuentes July 26, 2023

The Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) has launched an arts education program at the Harris County Jail Women’s Empowerment Center, with support from California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA).

Earlier this year, HMAAC completed an indoor mural at the Women’s Empowerment Center. The project was spearheaded by Danielle Finnerman, the museum’s Project Manager, and was based on a work by Houston-based artist Zsavon Butler, who works in figurative abstraction. The project transformed the previously yellow walls of the center’s visitation room to a bright outdoor scene, featuring figures and text with empowering messages. 

Now, with support from CLA, HMAAC is expanding its partnership with Harris County Jail. Over a decade ago, CLA began a collaboration with the William James Association to restore funding for California’s arts programs in prisons. Since that time, CLA has worked to study and improve its programs and now has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts Locals Program, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the Art for Justice Fund to expand its Arts in Corrections programs nationally. 

In a press release, Alma Robinson, CLA’s Director, explained, “We were looking for a strong partner to enter into Texas, and HMAAC, of course, with its considerable community experience, was an obvious choice.”  

In 2018, HMAAC was one of eight venues hosting statewide conferences organized by CLA, which engaged state representatives, state arts organizations, and incarcerated prisoners support groups (the Texas iteration was co-organized by the Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts). The conferences provided opportunities to discuss policy making and the significance of arts education programs for people confined in correctional institutions and those reentering society. Beyond CLA’s work on these types of initiatives, other institutions in Texas and beyond have found success in providing arts opportunities for people who are incarcerated. The 2018 conference series was funded through a Ford Foundation Arts for Justice Fund grant.

John Guess, Jr., HMAAC’s CEO, stated, “Given that we had worked previously with CLA with national success [and] that we had completed a successful mural project with the Harris County Jail earlier this year, along with the museum’s desire to positively impact the local correctional environment, [partnering on the arts education program] was a no-brainer.”

A photograph of a classroom of incarcerated women.

Women’s Empowerment Center classes. Photo courtesy of HMAAC.

The programs are being offered in partnership with Inprint Houston, which has a history of offering arts education opportunities at the county jail. The classes will provide both art and writing instruction by Ms. Finnerman, artist Henry Membreno, and writer Mathew Weitman. 

Ms. Finnerman remarked, “Art is a wonderful way to build confidence in those who create it, and I’m thrilled that through CLA and HMAAC, and in partnership with Inprint, we are are able to do our part to make this exciting new Women’s Empowerment Center a rehabilitative life changer for those who are currently incarcerated.”

The art classes at the Women’s Empowerment Center began on Monday, July 17, 2023.

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