Over nearly two decades, Susanne Theis has enjoyed a front row seat to the evolution of the eastern edge of Downtown Houston. In fact, her work directing programming at the globally renowned Discovery Green has contributed significantly to that evolution, making the 12-acre park a destination for more than 2 million visitors annually and helping stimulate new investment and development. Theis anticipated retiring this year, following the retirement of longtime park President Barry Mandel. But Discovery Green’s new chief Kathryn Lott had other ideas. She convinced Theis to stay on in the new role of Artistic Director and help position the park for the next generation.

We chatted with Theis about her career, Discovery Green’s unique place among Houston’s green spaces, and what she’s excited about in the months ahead.

Can you give us a little background of how you arrived in Houston and got your start in the arts?

I grew up in Canton, Ohio and I came to Houston for college. I had the opportunity to go to several different schools, but I chose to come to Texas, never having been here and not knowing anything about it. I think I was the only person I’ve ever known who’s lived here six years without a car. That’s Houston—people love the freedom of movement here.

My experience at the University of Houston was great. In 1983 I was working for the school administration about the time that [arts philanthropist] Marilyn Oshman was trying to save the Orange Show Monument, which was at risk. After graduation, I was hired as the director of the new organization that would become the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. I was doing just about everything, the tours, the programming, the board work, the marketing. The goal was to make the Orange Show an important spot in Houston’s cultural landscape and we did that through the events that we held: workshops and concerts and tours of other eccentric spots around Houston. In 1988 we held the first Art Car Parade, which of course is a tradition that’s only grown.

When did you join Discovery Green?

I was at the Orange Show until 2007, nearly 25 years. When I read about Discovery Green and the incredible design and vision for this park, I got excited—mainly because those behind the park said they wanted to create a space that was not only beautiful and welcoming, but also reflected Houston…I was excited that our city would have a new place that really put Houston itself on stage.

I moved to Discovery Green in 2007 as Programming Director and worked for the first two years under [founding President] Guy Hagstette. This was before the park opened in 2008 and I remember that period as things were coming together as one of the happiest and busiest times. The founders labored so carefully over the design and mission of this place, and they were so generous and hardworking in raising the money necessary. This was a bold experiment at the time—no one thought Houstonians would want to go outdoors. And at that time downtown was not a place where people brought their families. There was a lot of pressure, but by the time we opened it was an immediate game changer. People came, and Houston was on display for Houston.

Talk about the mission of the park and what makes this space different?

The vision from the beginning was that this would be a village green, where Houstonians meet one another—a shared third space. The founders traveled to other parks that they felt had been successful in changing the landscape in cities. One individual recalled a simple scene in New York’s Bryant Park, watching a businessman reading his newspaper, sitting on a bench next to a young mother and child. At that time in Houston there wasn’t a space where different kinds of people would congregate together in that way. That’s what Discovery Green was intended to be.

Houston has long had big parks, so is it the scale that really makes this space different?

Yes, that’s a big part of it. During the pandemic, we really saw the difference between these two types of spaces. Buffalo Bayou, Memorial and Hermann parks were filled during the pandemic. People wanted breathing space and running space—to be outside but not next to anyone. Discovery Green on the other hand was deserted because by design it’s a place where people gather.

Talk about how your role has evolved.

Over the years that I’ve been here the organization has changed and so have I. I was planning to retire, but when Kathryn Lott took over as president, she asked me to stay on and help make sure that we’re ready for what’s ahead…I’m part of the most amazing team that contributes ideas and expertise. When I was younger, I felt like I was part of the target demographic, but I’m not really part of that demographic anymore—my team is. My focus now is on nurturing each of them, and transitioning some of the relationships I’ve built around the country and around the world with artists and other programmers of public spaces. It’s gratifying to see those relationships continue with our team.

How does Discovery Green engage with local artists and performers to enhance its offerings?

I always felt like the most significant asset I brought to Discovery Green was the connection to Houston’s artistic community. There are so many incredible artists that we’ve worked with over the years, and many are friendships that go back decades. An organization like the Orange Show is so important because it’s where art grows, where artists get their first chance. We try to partner with a wide range of different arts organizations that bring emerging artists to our attention.

What are some upcoming projects or initiatives that visitors can look forward to at Discovery Green?

We’re really excited about a three-year initiative called Art Lab. The goal is to work with Houston artists who want to make the leap into doing the kind of large-scale interactive, technology-based public art installations that people love so much. We’ve presented the work of artists from eight different countries, creators of dynamic tech-based installations. Art Lab is a new initiative that gives us the opportunity to nurture Houston artists helping them to obtain experience to create projects on this large scale, from design and engineering to fabrication and installation. We’re excited that the first phase of the project is fully funded.

How does Discovery Green collaborate with other organizations to fulfill its mission?

The collaboration with Houston First has got to be our strongest. We share space along Avenida de las Americas space between the convention center and the park. That presents a great opportunity for coordination and collaboration on programming to ensure the attendees to conventions and events at the GRB get to experience Discovery Green as well. We also have many other community partners who support us and help us get the word out about what we’re doing—Univision and KPRC for instance, which has been with us since 2007. Literally dozens of collaborations with arts and community groups give us the opportunity to deliver on what everyone has come to expect from this unique space – the best of Houston.

Learn more about Discovery Green.

Written by A.J. Mistretta

Photos by Daniel Ortiz

Arts + Culture
Community Impact & Outreach