DiverseWorks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exhibiting and funding contemporary art, is located in a 10,000-square-foot red brick warehouse on East Freeway a few blocks north of downtown Houston. It was established in 1982 by a group of Houston artists led by Charles Gallagher, who desired exhibition and studio space during a period when local artists received minimal support from Houston's galleries and museums. Using New York City alternative spaces such as the Kitchen and P.S. 1 as models, the artists pooled their resources to establish a center in the historic Foley Building on Travis Street. Despite a flood that left the gallery a foot underwater, DiverseWorks opened in May 1983 with an exhibition of four East Texas artists and a performance by saxophone player Richard Landry.
During its first year DiverseWorks operated on an $8,000 budget drawn from the founders' private funds. Michael Peranteau joined Gallagher in 1984 as a programming director. The budget grew to $30,000 by 1984. In 1985 Gallagher and Peranteau were joined by Caroline Huber, who served as a second programming director. In 1987 Gallagher left the organization to pursue a career as an artist, and Huber and Peranteau became codirectors of DiverseWorks. Rather than building a permanent collection, the center has channeled available funds into an exhibition program dedicated to exhibiting emerging and recognized regional, national, and international artists. The organization mounted retrospectives of the work of local artists such as Mel Chin (1985), Jesse Lott (1987), and Dee Wolff (1989), and functioned as a venue for performances and installations that had limited commercial appeal. The organization's support of challenging work by local artists, especially those who were too young or controversial to be featured in the city's galleries and museums, contributed to Houston's emergence as a leading art center in the 1980s.
Exhibitions are frequently organized around political themes. Mothers of the Disappeared (1989) featured Houstonian Richard Lewis's photographs of members of Co-Madres, a group that provides support to relatives of those who have reportedly been arrested, kidnapped, or killed by Salvadoran "death squads." Perhaps the most successful exhibition to date was Project: Houston (1990), organized by Deborah Brauer, who invited over forty architects, artists, scientists, and engineers to collaborate on projects geared toward the future development of Houston. Outstanding among the various projects were proposals to restore historic Freedman's Town in the Fourth Ward, build an urban wetland featuring native plants in Buffalo Bayou Park, and turn a warehouse into a shelter for abused women and children. DiverseWorks has also participated in fund-raising efforts to benefit Amnesty International and Art Against AIDS.
In addition to mounting ten to thirteen exhibitions a year, DiverseWorks features film and video screenings and performances. The center has exhibited an ongoing commitment to placing local artists' work in public places; for example, it coordinated the renovation of Market Square Park in downtown Houston, where James Surls's sculpture was publicly installed in Houston for the first time. The organization also supports local artists with cash grants and offers studio space to artists-in-residence at its original location.
On February 9, 1989, a fire rendered the Travis Street location uninhabitable. The center subsequently found more spacious quarters in a 1920s cotton warehouse, which was remodeled with grants totaling $46,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, the Transco Energy Company, and individual pledges. The organization opened at its new location in the fall of 1990. In addition to gallery and performance areas, the new space includes DiverseBooks, an art bookstore, which sponsors PhoneWorks, a phone-in poetry-reading service.
DiverseWorks is governed by a board of directors responsible for fiscal and policy matters. An Artist Advisory Board, made up of artists representing a variety of artistic disciplines, works with the staff to determine programming. In 1991 the center had a staff of six and operated on a $425,000 budget. The organization is funded by membership dues, agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Houston Cultural Arts Council, and private foundations and individuals. The center has also won some support from corporate sponsors.