Karen Farber Pushes the Performing and Visual Arts

The lady at the top of the University of Houston’s Mitchell Center invites us in: Steinway-playing toddlers, turn-of-the-century mandolins and nature gone wild in the dining room.

Hair by Ashley Scroggins for Cutloose. Makeup Teri Sullivan. Interior Design Martha Baxter Interior Design.

She reigns over a yearly budget of $800,000 and annually brings to town up to 10 avant-garde artists who are seen by an audience of tens of thousands. Sits on four boards and two committees. Chaired the board of the Fresh Arts Coalition during its most pivotal years. And that’s just her nine-to-five. Karen Farber and husband, Merrill Lynch exec Stephan Farber, are also patrons of the art they promulgate. At their home, alongside two bright and lively toddlers, you’ll find a trove of priceless mandolins, a grand piano that actually gets played and a cutting-edge, often surprising collection of works by important international artists with Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennale cred. While a flock of Margarita Cabrera butterflies circles overhead.

The World According to Ms. Farber

Stats. Director of the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, since December 2005.

Why this is your dream job. To me, art and artists inspire a sense of adventure; they motivate us to communicate and challenge the status quo. They can change minds, illuminate things about everyday life and remind us that we are human. They bring us together. They can predict the future and maybe even change it. Not only do I have the chance to work with the artists I have always admired, I get to support them in what might be their most adventurous, vulnerable moments — when they decide to explore new territory, take new risks and engage audiences in new ways. Also, I have an amazing staff, and University of Houston is a thrilling place to work. It’s global, smart and scrappy.

First brush with the stage and studio. I was born in New York and lived in Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park until I was 10. Then we moved to Hollywood. My mother was a sculptor, working mainly in stone. I spent countless hours with her in her studio on the Lower East Side. She started offering sculpting classes to my friends out of our apartment. A bunch of five- and six-year-olds, sitting around our dining-room table, with chisels in hand. My mother is incredibly creative in absolutely everything she does and always a risk taker. As soon as I was old enough to return to New York from L.A., I did. I went to undergrad and grad school at NYU’s Tisch School, studying experimental theater and performance studies.

On how Philip Glass played cupid.  Stephan and I have been married nine years, and we have been together for about 14. When we met in New York, he was working in the music business. He had been a violinist and composer, and had worked for Philip Glass for many years in various roles. I was just out of college, not yet in graduate school, and he helped me get a job working for a company called International Production Associates, which produced and managed projects by Philip, as well as Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp, Spalding Gray, Diamanda Galás and others. I used to stay late in the office, watching VHS tapes of their performances. I was in heaven there. I remain friends with everyone I worked with. Stephan moved to Philadelphia and got his MBA at The Wharton School, we got engaged, I moved to D.C. to do a year-long arts-management fellowship at the Kennedy Center and then we got married. Soon after, we moved to Houston and were finally settled together in 2004.

Courtroom to chemical plants: a typical day. I most enjoy the projects that take us out of our comfort zones and into surprising locations. Boating down the Buffalo Bayou and touring chemical plants with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Driving down the freeway in search of Karyn Olivier’s 13 billboards for her project “Inbound: Houston” while listening to the musical score we commissioned for the drive. Visiting a courtroom in Southeast Houston to participate in an artist-rendered City Council Meeting. I also loved Stephen Montague’s Horn Concerto, a 10-minute symphony for car horns, the Houston performance of which we did with Art Cars. These events were all thrilling surprises, and each of them was only possible because of partnerships with other great Houston arts organizations.

Spring 2013: What’s in your planner. A huge avant-garde spectacle at Discovery Green this April featuring the UH Cougar Marching Band and a visiting composer from New York. A joint artist residency with The Menil Collection (to be announced). We have a big surprise celebrity coming in next fall for a performance. We cannot wait to announce all this soon! I am also really looking forward to the Blaffer Art Museum exhibition “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” next fall. There will be lots of strange food, drinks and conversation in and around the museum. Can’t wait!

Houston tables. A power lunch: Pondicheri. Family meal: Raven Grill. Date night: Divino.

House music. Stephan is in charge of music at our house. He chooses radio stations (he prefers obscure college radio) and can pick up any instrument and play a bit. He plays piano, violin and mandolin with the children. Sometimes he will break out a gypsy song, other times he plays Bach. The children compose their own music, complete with lyrics. It’s funny and great.

Wardrobe staples. I get inspired when I shop in Nolita in New York. For shoes, I love Sigerson Morrison. For clothes, anything goes. For board meetings, my favorite item is a vintage ‘80s Chanel skirt that was a hand-me-down. I have yet to find anything modern that fits as well as that skirt.

Splurges. Home design: Kuhl-Linscomb. Fashion: Leap, Laboratoria and The Little Bird, an incredible consignment shop in an improbable location by the Galleria. Art: Texas Gallery.

Your ‘hood and casa. My neighborhood is Southampton. The house was built in 1940. We have lived here almost two and a half years. We moved in just before Stella was born, and we never really finished setting up and unpacking. When you have young children, function always overrides form. Stephan and I have moved numerous times over the years, and my strategy is always simple: Paint everything white and go from there. We didn’t renovate, but we did paint, and my biggest splurge was on wallpaper. We have some of the most wonderful wall coverings in the house, my favorite of which is the custom wallpaper with images of matchsticks by Este Lewis that we used in the bar: http://soyeste.com.

Latest acquisition. Nearly everything in our collection riffs off another artistic medium — music, dance, text. I love work that traces something live — a contemporary version of action-based art. One of my favorite pieces is a charcoal drawing by Trisha Brown that she made with her body. There is a line from her shin and toe prints in the upper right corner.

Our most recent acquisition. Two pieces by Dario Robleto that include a series of Polaroids taken by fans at music concerts. The photos are apparently accidental shots that only capture a blur or a light source, rather than the intended subject: the performer onstage. This idea of showcasing the margins or illuminating the accidental really interests me.

Fave blogs. I never have time to look at blogs, but my little sister (a Hollywood stylist) often directs me to beautiful ones, none of which I can remember anymore.

Off hours. Project Row Houses, The Menil Collection and my neighborhood, adjacent to the Rice University campus.

Boards you serve on (past, present or future). Boards: Fresh Arts, Catastrophic Theatre, Blaffer Art Museum. Program Committee Chair and Advisory Board Member: Houston Cinema Arts Society


Personal heroes. Anne Pasternak of Creative Time. Ruby Lerner of Creative Capital Foundation. Ella Baff of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Ann Stock, who was my mentor at the Kennedy Center and former Social Secretary in the Clinton White House. These women are true arts impresarios. You rarely hear that word associated with women, but I think it is a more familiar idea in Houston because of the legacy of Dominique de Menil. They are models of vision. They are not afraid to speak their minds, and they are tireless in championing the artists they support.
 
Art jaunts. Last trip: Portland TBA festival. Upcoming: New York, every January, for the Under the Radar Festival, and as often as I can go.

On my encounter with Willem Dafoe. I have been fortunate to meet so many extraordinary artists but one of the most exciting moments was back in my college years when I was an intern at the legendary New York theatre company The Wooster Group. On my first day there in walked Willem Dafoe, who is a long time member of the company there. I was in awe, speechless, I worshipped him. Many people don’t know about that company’s star-studded history but they have had so many great actors in their performances: Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, but ... Willem was always my favorite..  

Your kids as critics: their fave moment from the Mitchell Center. Hands down, the Stephan Koplowitz dance performance at the Williams Tower Waterwall, presented by DiverseWorks during our Insight-Out festival last year. Everyone who attended knows that I had to restrain my kids from joining in. We attended all four performances.

Signature dishes. We cook fresh healthy food at our house, but I really love baking. I copy my mother’s recipes for flourless chocolate cake, lemon tart, almond cookies, Mandelbrot. She never writes her recipes down so I make her stay on the phone with me while I measure the ingredients.

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