Arts & Culture

The Amplifier: Ryan N. Dennis

A curator connects gallery walls to Southern neighborhoods

A portrait of a woman wearing an orange top

Photo: Charles A. Smith

Ryan N. Dennis.

As a child, Ryan N. Dennis loved to wander through art museums in San Antonio, where she lived with her mother, and in Houston, where she spent summers with her dad’s family. “But early on,” she says, “I had the realization that I didn’t know who was actually putting the art on those walls.” These days, she’s her own answer: She landed her first curatorial job after college at Houston’s Menil Collection; and at the Mississippi Museum of Art, she served as chief curator and worked on landmark exhibitions such as a traveling show on the Great Migration.

Galleries were just the start. At Project Row Houses, a Houston nonprofit that promotes the arts out of revitalized shotgun houses on five blocks in the city’s Third Ward, Dennis curated public exhibitions and planned makers markets and other community-led events. “I became interested in who visited Project Row Houses and did not visit the Menil, and vice versa,” she says. “I wanted these worlds to collide.”

Now the senior curator and director of public initiatives at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Dennis creates programs that connect the stainless-steel behemoth in the heart of the city to the larger community. In the Fourth Ward, for instance, she’s working with the Chicago installation artist Theaster Gates on a multiyear project to restore street bricks in Freedmen’s Town, a Black neighborhood founded in 1865, while also facilitating artist residencies and exhibitions. “We want to reactivate the cultural pride that a neighborhood like this has,” she says of a Freedmen’s Town show that opens at CAMH in May. “I’m interested in expanding the stories of Black makers, particularly in the South, and looking at how they reverberate.”

Read more about the South’s new slate of artists, curators, preservationists, movers, and makers in Art’s Rising Vanguard.