Houle studied art history at the University of Manitoba, art education at McGill University, and painting and drawing at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria; he has been exhibiting since the early 1970s. His most recent exhibition, Robert Houle: Histories, recently closed at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Among his many solo exhibitions are Lost Tribes, at Hood College, Maryland; Indians from A to Z and Sovereignty over Subjectivity, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Palisade, at the Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa; Anishinaabe Walker Court, an intervention at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Paris/Ojibwa, at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, Peterborough and Windsor; Shaman Dream in Colour, at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto; Looking for the Shaman, at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto; and Robert Houle: Pahgedenaun, at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa.
He has also participated in several important international group exhibitions, including Recent Generations: Native American Art from 1950 to 1987, at the Heard Museum, Phoenix; Traveling Theory, at the Jordan National Gallery, Amman, Jordan; Notions of Conflict, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Real Fictions: Four Canadian Artists, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia; Tout le temps/Every Time, at the Montreal Biennale 2000; We Come in Peace...: Histories of the Americas, at the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal; Sakahàn at the National Gallery of Canada; Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; and Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971 – 1989 and Every, Now, Then: Reframing Nationhood, both at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Houle was curator of contemporary aboriginal art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now the Canadian Museum of History, from 1977 to 1981 and has curated or co-curated groundbreaking exhibitions such as New Work by a New Generation, in connection with the World Assembly of First Nations at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina in 1982, and Land Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa during the Columbus Quincentennial.
As a writer, Houle has written many essays and monographs on contemporary First Nations and Native American artists, including Jackson Beardy, Rebecca Belmore, Bonnie Devine, Robert Davidson, Jeffrey Gibson, Faye HeavyShield, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Nadia Myre, Daphne Odjig, Alanis Obomsawin, Arthur Shilling, Greg Staats and Kay WalkingStick, among others. He also taught Native studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto for close to 20 years, mentoring a new generation of artists and curators.
Houle's considerable influence as an artist, curator, writer, educator and cultural theorist has led to his being awarded the Janet Braide Memorial Award for Excellence in Canadian Art History in 1993; the 2001 Toronto Arts Award for the Visual Arts; the Eiteljorg Fellowship in 2003; membership in the Royal Canadian Academy; distinguished Alumnus, University of Manitoba; honourary doctorates from the University of Manitoba and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology; the Canada Council International Residency Program for the Visual Arts in Paris; the Governor General’s Award in the Visual and Media Arts in 2015 and most recently, the 2020 Founder’s Achievement Award from the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts. Additionally, Houle has served on various boards and advisory committees including those of The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, A Space, The Power Plant and the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.