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Two people dancing

By James Surls. 1978-1979. Wood. The Museum of Fine Ats, Houston. Gift of Michael A. Caddell and Cynthia Chapman.

Expanding the audience

Lawndale was a working studio, an exhibition space, and a performance space. The performing did not come out of the U of H theatrical department. Oh no, no. Lord, no. It actually just by osmosis came out of the community and then therefore out of the students. There was a guy who died several years ago named Lanny Steele.

Lanny Steele, 1934-1994. Creator of the Texas Southern University Jazz Ensemble, pianist for jazz great Arnett Cobb, and president of SumArts.
If you’re going to talk about the history of art during this period you’ve got to know what Lanny Steele meant to the community: who he brought here, when he brought them. He was one of the most important players in Houston. And Lanny had something called SumArts. SumArts was supposed to be the sum of the arts. Lanny taught music over at Texas Southern, where Biggers taught. He was kind of a holdover from the beat generation who said “cool” and “man” and “cat” and “daddy-o.” He would say, “Hey, I want to bring Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman, b. 1930. Texas-born jazz saxophonist, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1994 and in 2007 received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Pulitzer Prize in music for “Sound Grammar.”
to town and we need a place for him to play. Can we do it in here?” And he would get the proceeds—I wouldn’t. Now any business person would say, “That’s stupid! You can’t run a business like that.” But Lanny didn’t have the money to book into Jones Hall or those places. So he would come over and he’d say, “Let’s book them into Lawndale.”

Well, who were we going to hear that night? We’re talking about someone who’s in the jazz hall of fame: Ornette Coleman. This guy was blasting double horns. I mean, a saxophone player extraordinaire who is “painting” back in the abstract impressionist times. This guy’s whole development was like an abstract expressionist painting. He would come out and play; he would pull both triggers. When he started playing he blew your head off…I mean, from beginning to end. Well, all of a sudden Lawndale is packed with 300 or 400 people listening to this guy! They don’t know anything about art, per se. This is extra. This is expanding your audience.

We got to expand our audience out of the University because we did things that involved people from outside the University. Lanny brought a lot of good things to Lawndale. He brought Chicago Art Ensemble. My goodness, the things that happened there were just extraordinary. And they really had to do with my willingness to assume this dictatorial authority, which I didn’t have and was never officially given. When people would come and ask me if they could come and do something, I’d tell them yes. Artists can go to virtually anybody and ask for something or ask to do something. In a sense they are asking the person to give them permission to do it. I just said, “I give me permission to do it.” George Bunker, our department chairman at that time, really liked activity. George was a very creative person—incredibly well-respected—and he actually tried several times to do something within the school itself and kind of got rebuffed. So I was all of a sudden like this alien who landed in his lap, and you know, I could go to George and tell him I was going to do something and he’d say, “Oh, man! Wait a minute! Whoa! We’ve got to think about this—we’ll have to go to the Dean.” Then the Dean would have to go to the Provost or the Chancellor. The first thing you know, it’s a rigmarole. So I wrote George about a ten-page letter, and said, “George, I want you to assume [because of]my presence [at Lawndale], that I’m just going to do things. Just assume it’s a challenge. I will be a challenge to you. I will do things and not tell you. And they’re going to have the University’s name on them. And you can say, ‘I didn’t know he was going to do that.’” So in a sense it kind of let him off the hook, you know.

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Source:  OpenStax, Houston reflections: art in the city, 1950s, 60s and 70s. OpenStax CNX. May 06, 2008 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10526/1.2
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