by Nichelle Suzanne
A year ago, Jane Weiner and Hope Stone Inc. were on the hunt for a new studio space and on the edge of embarking on a capital campaign to support it. The lease for their space in the Tribeca Lofts on West Clay Street was ending and their need for, not just an equivalent space but additional space, was evident.
“We had always been a one-room classroom and it was time to become a three-room classroom. While we looked at many properties to either lease or own, at that time we just could not find anything in Houston that would both fit our growth needs and our pocketbook.”
Weiner also reveals that she was feeling the strain of maintaining a full season and the constant pursuit for funding studio overhead. It drew attention away from her artistic and teaching vision, leaving her frustrated with aspects of the not-for-profit model.
It was at this impasse that Weiner and her board saw an opportunity for refocusing their programs and priorities and made the decision to close Hope Stone Studio at the end of the fiscal year. The organization’s dance classes for adults and children, their in-house Hope Stone Kids arts education program, HopeWerks space residency program for young artists, and the pre-professional dance training program, Hope Stone II were all dissolved. It also meant much of the staff had to find new work, something that saddened Weiner.
“I had a fantastic group of dedicated and tireless staff,” she says. “I miss the camaraderie in the office. We laughed a lot.”
Indeed, when asked, Weiner explains that the hardest part of making the decision to close Hope Stone Studio was informing the community that had grown around and within it. And, after a successful year with grants and foundations, individual donations, a gala, programs and productions, the choice came as a surprise to many, resulting in a mix of feedback.
“I know when we closed there were people who had made Hope Stone Studio part of their life, and to watch the doors close was hard for all of us.”
She recalls a moment from last summer when Gayla Miller, Hope Stone’s former Education Director, shared an analogy that helped Weiner herself gain closure.
“She said, ‘Jane, it is like Hope Stone is a rocket ship, and when it gets to a certain level in the atmosphere it has to break off from the heavier part of the rocket to soar.’ I feel this is so true for Hope Stone,” says Weiner. “The ten years were so valuable, and helped me take off. The heaviness was becoming apparent, though, and with the realization of this and the knowledge that there were many great studios in town, I did decide to lighten my load.”
Lighten, she did but, unsurprisingly, if you know anything about her, Weiner did not take much of a break after the closing last May.
“I realized I was not exhausted or burned out, which is what I thought it was. Just frustrated,” Jane recounts. “I love what I do, and always have. I found I actually had a lot of energy, focus, and was ready to get back in the ring to continue the good fight for art for all.”
Hope Stone’s Board remained fully intact through the transition and is heavily involved in supporting what the organization is internally calling, Hope Stone 2.0. This buttress, along with the backing of funders who have been most receptive to this new, lighter version of the organization, has made it possible for their mission to move forward. Though in-house operations of Hope Stone’s arts outreach programs were discontinued, the outreach has not ended. Weiner is taking Hope Stone Kids programming into schools instead of into her own space.
At this time, the program is working strongly in five schools and after school programs with children ages 3-18 years old.
“Our goal with each of the schools we’re working with is to teach on an average of 2 times a week, really presenting critical thinking, problem solving lesson plans in dance, theater and music. We are lighter, more efficient,” Weiner explains. “My teachers are ninjas in going into odd spaces and making the class work. I am so grateful to them for their vision of what they are delivering and gifting the students, and putting up with not so perfect conditions. We are hopefully educating the schools on the needs of a good solid arts education program, but this takes time. But we are in it for the long run.”
Hope Stone Dance continues as well, as Weiner works with many familiar faces and some new dancers. Their vision for educational performance is more streamlined, focusing on one performance each year. Weiner will also return to project-based work with her dancers.
“I came from a New York City way of producing shows. The work there is usually based on one large show a year, with funding, time and attention going into that one performance,” Weiner points out. “The Houston vision is several performances a season. I tried the Texas formula and for me it is not healthy. I want to go back to really spending time and energy on one project that excites and drives me.”
What’s brand new for Hope Stone Inc. is a program called The Hope Project, which is not unlike Hope Stone Kids but focuses instead on adult populations.
When asked what inspired this progression, Weiner had this to say:
“Our tag line is “Art for ALL.” When I did my TEDX talk in 2012, I realized I was talking about the need for all of us to do art, not just children, and wanted to reach more populations. At the magic age of 18 many of us move away from keeping good, mindful art in our lives to pursue the “real job.” The loss is incredible to mind body and soul. I believe in the methodology of our Hope Stone Kids programming and the aim of the Hope Project was to go beyond the 3-18 year old and really incorporate the Art for All vision.”
Presently, The Hope Project is reaching the homeless, people with special needs, the elderly in a combined teen and senior citizen theater class, and in April will start a drumming class for veterans of the armed services.
“I dream that no matter age, socio economic status, race or religion, one day art will be something each of us has in our lives in a consistent and ever-present level,” remarks Jane.
To that end, Hope Stone Dance is performing i scream, a re-structured version of their Lemonade Stand production, at Zilkha Hall as part of the Hobby Center Discovery Series for over 3,000 children and teens on March 11, 12, and 13 during free daytime performances. A repeat performance, free to adults and children will be given on March 14 at 2 p.m. at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Soon, Weiner will finish up another year of work in schools and has already started to meet with each administration to look towards next fall. For now, the focus at Hope Stone is on creating the strongest, most effective, mindful arts educational program possible with more frequent staff meetings, development, and long-term visions and goals. And Weiner is loving it.
“Maintaining this lightness and flexibility feels great,” she concludes.
When asked what’s next, Weiner doesn’t reveal specifics.
“I have a few projects in my brain for new work,” she discloses, jokingly adding, “and I am considering running for president in 2016.”
“Run, Jane. Run.”