Collective Action: An Interview with Michelle Barnes of the Community Artists’ Collective

by Gabriel Martinez June 8, 2024
A woman smiles into the camera with her hands clasped together.

Michelle Barnes

As one of the longest-running non-profit art organizations in Houston, the Community Artists’ Collective has reached thousands of people in the city through their education and exhibition initiatives, and continues to build opportunities for creative pursuits. I sat down recently with the organization’s co-founder, Michelle Barnes, to talk about the joys and challenges of running an art space, the state of arts education, and how Houston’s cultural landscape has changed over the years. 

Gabriel Martinez (GM): I want to start out by asking you about your own artistic practice. What is your preferred medium? 

Michelle Barnes (MB): Clay. I used to forsake my painting classes to be in the studio with ceramics, and I still love it. I like to do earthenware when I can, but I’ve discovered papier-maché as a way of building things in a relatively inexpensive way, unencumbered by process. I can start, it’ll dry, and I can come back to it, and it’s still there.

GM: Are you the only artist in your family? 

MB: No, my dad was very creative as a social worker. He was always learning, growing, taking guitar lessons and other craft lessons, making projects at home, and engaging me in that process.

GM: When you started college what was your focus?

MB: I didn’t have any idea. It was a different environment. The University of Houston in the 1960s was not a very nurturing place. It was hard to get advice from an advisor. It was hard to know how to go through the process of registering for classes on time. Fortunately, one didn’t have to declare a major to take art classes. They were hungry for people. I thought, “I’ll take an art class. It’ll be relaxing in the evening.” I think it was a graphics class — just basic design. When I finally did declare to my family and the administrators at the school that I was going to be an artist, my mother suggested that I do arts education so that I could eat. I followed her advice, but looked forward to becoming a professional artist. 

I was in a design class first and then I opted for an art history class. Peter Guenther was the instructor, and I was just so impressed by the way that he presented the information, even though it didn’t include anything about African art and was focused on Eastern European buildings and paintings. But I was enthralled. I was so impressed and I loved it. I could relate to it for some reason. The presentation was just incredible. He was a masterful teacher. I think that makes all the difference.

A young man in a green shirt holds a small clay sculpture towards the camera.

A Community Artists’ Collective program participant

GM: How long has the Community Artists’ Collective (CAC), the organization you co-founded in Houston in 1985, been teaching as part of its outreach? 

MB: We started out teaching because the organization was co-founded by two arts educators. We were passionate about education. We’re always looking for artists to share the enthusiasm. We started with two programs, our exhibition program, which was a collaboration with FotoFest in 1990, and our education program in 1991. Pulling that off was a challenge at that time. 

GM: Where do y’all teach? 

MB: At community centers and at some schools: Young Women’s Prep, Yates, and Caldwell. The Hester House is one of the community centers, along with S.H.A.P.E. Community Center. We subcontract with Arts Connect to bring programs to schools. We applied and received a vendor designation through HISD before Mike Miles [the current superintendent] came, but lately it’s just been in shambles

GM: The battle against public school has been going on for decades and now we’re getting to a point where it really has a dangerous amount of traction.

MB: It really does feel like a takeover. 

An elderly woman works on a small round painting on a desktop.

A painting workshop at the Community Artists’ Collective

GM: How has Houston’s arts education terrain changed over the years? I know that’s a pretty big question.

MB: It is. Let me give you an example. We started teaching classes at the Midtown Art Center, which at the time was called Kuumba House and was managed by Lindi Yeni and Thomas Melonson. Lindi had a program that was already going and we overlapped with her permission and support and offered our first set of art workshops for kids and adults.

By the time we moved to Elgin, we had received a grant from United Way, which at the time was experimenting with offering cultural experiences in addition to the social service services they are known for. The grant was for an after school program at Ryan Middle School. The principal was so enthusiastic about our being there that they eventually gave us a key. They trusted us. We started in the woodshop and had to get blades for the rotary saw they had. At that time, Richard Wilborn was teaching woodworking. I was doing ceramics and clay. It was a wonderful program for the kids who were already enrolled at Ryan. In the ‘90s, the principals even felt that the schools should be open after hours. This was before the Lighted Schoolhouse Programs. When Ryan closed as the middle school for the area and the Baylor Academy came in (a magnet school focusing on health science), children who were living in the neighborhood weren’t even allowed to attend.

Things have changed a lot. Today, there isn’t the same trust anymore. There isn’t access to schools as a community center. There’s been a conscious effort to knock as much of the arts out of the schools as possible. It’s so diabolical to think about. Why would that be the case? Why would you want to limit all the good things that can come from opportunities in the arts for children? There doesn’t seem to be the same heart in the decision making. We know that the arts have been a valuable experience for the children, so we just keep pushing on.

GM: Once the changes to the schools started happening, did CAC shift to having a more central location? 

MB: Our facility on Elgin provided that. We had 5,000 square feet under one roof and we had a wonderful program called Art Summer, where we invited 12 to 24 kids as our core group. They were scheduled from 7 in the morning, when their parents dropped them off on their way to work, until 6 or 6:30 in the evening. The kids had drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, ceramics, textiles, and chess anything and everything. We did field trips. We were able to share what we understood about art and engage artists to teach classes on a regular basis. It was a great experience. 

They also had other genre experiences. We collaborated with Tiffany Gilbert and other dancers to provide sessions in dance. We were collaborating with the Community Music Center. So the students had music experiences in woodwinds and strings, including guitar, and then they had a showcase at the end of the eight-week program where we offered their visual work for sale and sold tickets to their performance pieces. It was a wonderful program. 

Two musicians perform in a gallery. One plays a viola and the other plays a cello.

Musicians performing at the opening of Mack Bishop’s “A Musical Tribute” at the Community Artists’ Collective

GM: How long did that last?

MB: From about the early ‘90s until we had to move in 2004 to the Shrine of the Black Madonna. That was the last summer program that we had. When Hurricane Katrina happened, the welcome center at the church was used to store supplies for 150 families that lived across the street. We moved to the Midtown Arts Center because the church couldn’t accommodate us anymore. That’s when we became nomadic. We had every intention and expectation of moving back on the block, on Elgin. We thought that we would be successful raising money and building a new building. It just didn’t happen. 

We moved to the Midtown Art Center in about February 2007. We had space at the Shrine of the Black Madonna to store some things. Then that’s when we started downsizing. We still have things in storage: kilns, pottery wheels, furniture, supplies, files.

GM: The CAC had to find a new location due to the recent sale of the Bermac building. In August, you’ll move into one of the ION buildings?

MB: The Bermac Building is being demolished. Everybody has to be out by the end of August. We’re hoping that the new space will be ready by that time, but they haven’t started construction yet and there’s probably no guarantee on that date with permitting and construction delays. 

There’s a multistory garage that was recently completed with three retail spaces on the ground floor and we’re moving into one of them. It’s literally across the street from our current location. It’s on Eagle, between Fannin and San Jacinto. It’s good to maintain a presence in the Midtown Ion district so the people who know us will still look for us. Even though we’ll have almost 1,000 more square feet, the total space is still under 3,000 square feet. We’re still looking for spaces and opportunities that are appropriate for our education program because it’s foundational and that’s our core value. It’s been missing and now it’s even more evident than ever before that it’s needed.

GM: Will you build the new space out? Do you have any say in how the space will look? 

MB: We’ve been working with the Ion’s architect to design the interior space. We will have a little bit more room. We’re going to have space for two enlargers, which will accommodate four to six participants in photography. We had the first community darkroom in the city. That’s what we started with. Our assistant director, April Frazier, has a personal interest in photography, and wanted to relaunch our darkroom. She has the energy and the passion. We hope to do that with each media area. Tamirah Collins is our exhibition coordinator and she’s just as passionate about exhibitions. She needs some help doing catalogs and planning the exhibition seasons after 2025. 

GM: Does the CAC have an intern program? 

MB: Yes, we do. We collaborate with Workforce Solutions and we’re open to working directly with individuals who would like to intern with us. The Workforce Solution internship is a paid position, if the interns qualify through their process. Otherwise, we don’t have a paid internship. It’s volunteer based. 

GM: You mentioned that the CAC has kilns — are you bringing them and your ceramics programming into the new space? 

MB: We will not be able to put them in that space. They’re still going to be in storage until we can find appropriate spaces. The ventilation is important and then it’s dusty, so they have to be in a place that’s not so clean. But we’ll drag those pottery wheels out and have the kids experience working with clay as much as possible. 

GM: Will you have a gallery space?

MB: Yes, we’re hoping that it can be more dedicated than it has been in the past, because we’ve used the gallery space for education. We can make the case for exhibitions being educational. Artists and the coordinator don’t really like having to share the space like that. But we’re not a commercial gallery so we can take some liberties to extend our other programs. 

A young artist wears a paper robot costume and poses for the camera with his arms out.

A Community Artists’ Collective workshop participant

GM: What are you all working on in the interim, before you have to leave your Bermac space?

We’re sifting through our stuff. We have accumulated so much stuff and are trying to decide what to keep, what to move, and what to share with other people. That’s why we’ve got the Ashé Summer Market going on right now through June 22. We’re going to be packing up and keeping our quilt program going and then making arrangements to move the quilt machine, which has to be timed just right with the move-in date and the availability of the technician who’s going to put it back together.

GM: Does the CAC have an archive?

MB: We do. Our archive for the period of time from 1987 to 2014 is at the Fondren Library at Rice University. When I worked at the DuBose Gallery, Ben DuBose kept a binder of some of the space’s invitations and letters. That’s where I got the idea of keeping that kind of stuff. That’s what we delivered to Rice: 60 binders or so representing that time period. They returned to us a lot of the newspaper articles, including obituaries of people who were associated with the collective without even asking what the connections were. They are making decisions about what is going to be digitized and what will be available for researchers in the future. It’s kind of a precarious relationship — they’re making decisions on our behalf that we don’t quite agree with, but at least we’re getting some information digitized and available for the longer term. Because, as a community based organization, we value those connections to people who don’t show up on the radar a lot, if ever. Just regular people who were very important to us. We had to do all of that construction renovation on the various locations ourselves, and these were people who just stepped in and did it.

GM: That’s exactly why archives should exist to preserve and memorialize all the people that contributed. Because it’s never the work of a single person. 

MB: No. The system does try to isolate so they can pick you off. I mean, I’m a product of the ‘60s and I’ve got this concern of a pinnacle structure where you’re pushed out, knocked off, killed off, and things just get into shambles. 

GM: I think part of that process is isolating and creating an individual hero when the organization or movement is the product of a group effort. I think it’s a process that has been rehearsed for decades. 

MB: Truly. Yes, and then there’s a layer of ego where sometimes the response from the person who’s being identified is that “Oh, yes. Glorify me,” and that just feeds into the worst scenario.

GM: I agree. I think the idea of collective action is one of the most dangerous ideas and therefore the most important to sustain.

MB: I think one of the reasons that it’s taken so long for our organization to really catch on is because it’s so anti-capitalist. It’s collaborative. There were people who were, and still are, in disbelief that we would create something that was open to other people, that was not a closed entity. In Houston, as big as it is, as broad as it is geographically, to move into an area where there isn’t public transportation to get you there is a big challenge. To find and develop a venue with no money is almost impossible in the city.

GM: It’s time to invest in Houston’s cultural sector. It will outlast all other industries.

MB: Absolutely. It’s fundamental. We use the word culture so loosely, but it’s such a dynamic and foundational aspect of our community. It brings people together. We overlap because we’re speaking the same language through the different art forms. I think it’s important for our kids to experience that, even if they don’t end up pursuing it, because it prepares them for so many other things. It’s a process that’s applicable to so many other aspects of our lives. That’s what I discovered. I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t discover art until I was in college. I produced, I created, but I didn’t recognize it as a viable profession. 


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Susan Chadwick June 9, 2024 - 11:31

Great interview. Excellent history. Thank you, Michelle Barnes!

Shondra Muhammad June 9, 2024 - 21:51

Thank you for this interview! Such important work is being done. CAC is truly a treasure.

carolyn June 16, 2024 - 10:46

Thank you to CAC for its important work and to Michelle and Gabriel for this helpful overview/history.

Fwiw, I’d like to throw in a few quotations:

“What is more educational is most aesthetic and what is most aesthetic is most educational.”
– Nam June Paik, “Radical Software,” Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 9 (1970).

“A modern economic system demands mass production of students who are not educated and have been rendered incapable of thinking.”
– U.N.E.F. Strasbourg, “On the Poverty of Student Life” (1966).

There’s always a tendency to look for the most charismatic person, because that, in a way, solves your leadership problem – but only in the short term…. You can’t counter institutional power with good intentions, or charisma alone…. You have to build your own institutional power.”
– Mike Gecan, as recorded by Studs Terkel, “Hope Dies Last: keeping the Faith in Troubled Times,” p. 238 (The New Press, 2003).


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