Michael Peranteau has had a long and illustrious 35 year career in the Houston arts community. In 1981, together with artist Max Pruneda, he founded a gallery/performance space, the Center for Art and Performance, at the corner of Almeda and Binz in an old barbershop space that still exists today. After the property was sold, they closed the gallery and he joined DiverseWorks as a Co-Director, and there helped to create and curate the artist residency program and performance series for DiverseWorks. He developed a DiverseWorks presence on the national scene, joining the National Association of Artist Organizations Board as well as the National Performance Network. This allowed him to travel around the world to seek out new artists and performance groups, as well as serving as a grants panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as several state arts agencies including AZ, MI, MA, NY, among many others. These connections put the Houston artist organization scene on the national map.
It was through this experience that he honed his political acuity and garnered an important grounding in arts dialogue throughout the nation, gaining important knowledge and skills to be a groundbreaking leader in the arts community. In 1992, amid the Culture Wars of the early ‘90s, he and other arts leaders testified in front of Congress to protect the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1992-93 Peranteau worked with Rick Lowe and Deborah Grotfeldt and helped found Project Row Houses. From 2003-2006 he served as Interim Executive Director of Project Row Houses and from 2009-2012 he served as Development Director. He also briefly served as Director of Development for the Society for the Performing Arts. For seven years in the early 2000s he ran a small non-profit, Non-Profit Projects Inc., dedicated to developing more robust infrastructure for small to mid-sized arts groups. During that time he worked with Nameless Sound, Voices Breaking Boundaries, the Aurora Picture Show, MECCA, among many others.
On his transition to the Executive Director position at Art League Houston in June of 2012:
Peranteau came to ALH to work closely with its small, dedicated staff to help shift the demographics and update the visual arts and education programming of this sixty-five year old arts organization and school to bring it into the twenty-first century.
Peranteau’s first task was to bring greater visibility to the organization while simultaneously creating strong, timely new programming aligned to the mission of the organization. His second major task was to manage ramifications regarding internal perceptions and the public perception of the institution following a brief and traumatic tenure of the Executive Director immediately preceding him. It is through this period of transition, and the success that he has had with it, that many of his most important lessons in leadership can be articulated.
On transparency and consistency:
If one word can describe Peranteau’s personality and philosophy in all things, it is transparency. Throughout his career, he has worked towards bringing more transparency to organizations of all sizes, keeping motives and intentions clear with the goal of putting the mission first and never wavering from that mandate. He exhibits this transparency at ALH in very obvious ways—the public art on display outside the building is experienced by the 45,000 individuals driving by everyday whether or not they have any interest in what the organization is about—but also in more subtle ways, ways that were incredibly necessary to help hold the organization together when he first came on board.
His first task was to create a culture of more transparency through every level of the organization: he had to create trust where it had previously been violated, and being openly available from the start was a critical part of building trust. He took the time to meet with each employee individually and talk about his or her experiences and concerns, and how he could make the work environment better, more supportive, more professionally challenging, more wholesome. He fostered a culture of listening and of deep engagement with everyone from board to senior staff to assistant program managers, making each of those stakeholders feel safe in expressing his or her needs and opinions, laying the groundwork for healthy working relationships. Equally as important is Peranteau’s consistency, through which he can be counted on to continue to foster that type of engagement: he knows that it can be worse to begin with an open dialogue policy and not follow through than to never have had the opportunity at all.
He also believes deeply in showing his staff that they are important. While it important to create space for dialogue and for people’s voices to be heard, it is even better for concrete changes to be made that support the idea that all individuals are vital to the organization and bring a unique set of skills and experience with them. He changed all upper-level staff titles from “manager” to “director” and gave them autonomy not often found in small arts organizations. He additionally created a mechanism for the two program directors to attend professional development training and national convenings, with an eye towards advancing the next generation of creative administrators in a supportive environment. The calm support and rigorous work are palpable the moment you walk in the door of ALH.
One other element has been critical: Michael has a clear exit strategy, and is working on a succession plan. He knows that when he is ready to depart ALH, to take a back seat, and has a clearly defined plan not just for his departure but for how other people in the organization can get promoted. The openness with which he speaks about this is a testament to his commitment to transparency and his ability to build trust within an organization. This also opens up a dialogue for other staff to feel safe talking about professional needs and desires. By setting a clear example, he works against the assumption that younger employees should not speak of wanting to move on, or to be interested in other opportunities. Peranteau creates openness and support for varying degrees of professional ambition.
Peranteau has numerous goals for the future both during and after his time at ALH. He and ALH’s dedicated staff will continue to work to make ALH into to a strong and stable place, and a vital part of the cultural dialogue in Houston. Once that has been accomplished, he will be eager to move on and welcome a new member of the community to step into his place.
He will continue to advocate for transparency and equality when it comes to the payment of artists and arts administrators for their work by creating space for organizations both locally and nationally to have that dialogue in a safe space, and creating tools for the transmission of standards of best practices that can be utilized by presenters and artists alike. He wants to work towards creating a network of support for members of the arts community in middle age to have a dialogue about how to be more personally sustainable so that the dream of retirement need not be simply a dream. And most importantly, he will continue to lead by example in providing support and mentorship to a younger generation of artists and arts organizations.
The Art League has existed in Houston for 65 years. When asked about the Art League, Peranteau states: “we are as vital as ever”. The same can be said for him, and in the Art League he has found a position where he can continue to make change while simultaneously supporting all levels of the community which he holds dear.