He once dreamed of being a comic book artist or stage actor. But at any early age, Odessa’s Randy Ham realized two things – he couldn’t draw or act.
That discovery didn’t dampen Ham’s passion for the arts though. Instead, it taught him new ways to express and expand his appreciation.
“Theater was my first love,” said Ham, who performed in various plays and musicals throughout high school and college. “But I realized I was a terrible actor. But I am the best Randy Ham there is.”
For the past 7 years, Ham has served as Executive Director of Odessa Arts, where his job is to promote the arts in every way imaginable.
It’s a position many in Odessa say he excels at.
“Randy Ham has been and continues to be a visionary for the arts, not only for Odessa, but the region,” said Chris Stanley, a local artist who also teaches at UTPB. “We are lucky that someone with his immeasurable talent is willing to call Odessa home.
“Rarely have I met someone with his innate creativity combined with excellent leadership skills.”
Ham is appreciative of the compliments and the opportunity he’s been given.
“I truly believe that I have the best job in Odessa,” Ham said. “I get to spend every day talking about art and looking for ways to better Odessa through art.”
Some of those efforts have included the popular annual Shakespeare Festival, various symphony and theater events, art exhibits and visits by nationally-renowned celebrities like David Sedaris, a bestselling author, comedian and radio contributor.
In fact, Sedaris, who’s previous 2 shows in Odessa sold out, is slated to return a third time on Oct. 28 at Ector Theatre.
“When I started this job, I would consider events by asking myself, ‘does it speak to me?’” said Ham, a self-confessed Sedaris fan. “The first time I scheduled David Sedaris I was worried that nobody would show up. Instead, we sold out the first two shows.”
There’s a stereotype about Odessa – that it’s a rough-and-tumble oil town – that has little interest in the arts, Ham said. That’s just not true, he added.
“One thing that continues to surprise me about Odessa, is that people will turn out to support shows that many people might think wouldn’t do well,” Ham said. “We sometimes sell this community short.”
Odessa Arts is a non-profit organization that receives a portion of its funding through the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax fund, which must be used to promote tourism. City council recently awarded Odessa Arts $572,000 for 2021-22. The organization is also funded by various grants and private donations.
When he took over the helm of Odessa Arts, Ham was literally a one-man show. As the organization’s success has grown, Ham has been able to hire Office Manager/Grand Coordinator Ramsi Kuhlenschmidt, and Director of Development Cindy Graham, who both help coordinate events and try to procure additional funds by applying for grants and seeking private donations.
Ham is the first to admit his path to becoming executive director of the arts organization was a bit unorthodox.
Born in Fort Stockton, Ham’s family relocated to Odessa when he was 15. A 1991 Permian High School graduate, he later briefly attended Odessa College.
For a short time after college, he pursued his passion for theatre, this time working behind the scenes. He also worked several years at Walden, and Hastings bookstores – dream jobs that fed his love and appetite for literature.
In 2011, he returned to Odessa, and did something that set him on his current path.
“I was one of those people who lived here and said, ‘Odessa is ugly; there’s nothing to do here,” Ham said.
Unlike other critics who just complained, Ham decided to try and improve things by starting a city-wide book club. He approached then Odessa Arts Executive Director Carla Bryant for help. The project was well-received, and Ham was invited to join the organization’s board.
In 2014, Bryant invited Ham to lunch and confided that she was getting ready to retire and asked if he would succeed her.
Ham accepted the job, but initially wasn’t quite sure he was qualified. He soon realized that his background in acting, music and literature had helped prepare him.
Part of his job is convincing Odessa that art can play an important social and economic role in a community.
Art can be many things, including theater, music, a painting, or performance art, Ham said. Art has the ability to touch people’s hearts and soul. It also provides an expressive outlet for the artist.
“The wonderful thing about art is that it can be a communal experience where everyone takes something different away from it,” Ham said.
Art doesn’t have to just be good for the soul, it can also be great for a community’s economic success.
That’s a lesson Ham says he frequently has to explain. Not a week goes by where he’s not approached by at least one taxpayer who grumbles that Odessa has greater needs, like better roads, instead of art. His reply is Odessa needs both.
According to an economic impact study commissioned by Odessa Arts, spending by both the City of Odessa’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences totaled $6.1 million in 2019. That impact was generated by people staying at hotels, paying for gas and food, paying performers and other employees who turn around and spend that money on rent or mortgages and other goods.
“There’s a stigma out there that art is just for rich people, and a lot of people don’t want their taxes to go toward rich people,” Ham said. “My job is to help people understand that art is for everyone – and it can profit a community.”