Public Art

One City, One Collection: Houston's Latest Public Art

Theresa Escobedo and the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs are working to reflect Houston's diversity through public art.

By Amarie Gipson December 22, 2022 Published in the Winter 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Houston Police Officers Memorial, by Jesús Bautista Moroles.

Houston’s city art collection has been a work in progress since 1905. After decades of donations and gifts (from mostly white male sculptors) skewed the collection too, well, white and male, a civic art ordinance was established in 1999 to allocate funds for creating, displaying, and conserving the city’s public art. More than 20 years later, Houston’s Mayor’s Office continues on its mission to ensure that the city’s art holdings convey the best possible reflection of the city and the people who make it unique. 

“If we were in the Midwest, a collection that favors white people would make sense,” said Theresa Escobedo, Civic Art Program Manager of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA). “But, we’re not in the Midwest; we’re in Houston, Texas. Our demographics are drastically different than any other city in America, and so should our collection be.”

Geometric Mouse (Scale X), by Claes Oldenburg.

With the full support of Mayor Sylvester Turner, and in partnership with the Houston Art Alliance, which helps facilitate all city art commissions, MOCA has made significant progress in transforming the collection. Of its 811 artworks, 163 have been commissioned during the 2022 fiscal year. Several multi-service centers have been adorned by new murals, sculptures, and installations, including ones in Alief, Sunnyside, and Denver Harbor. But the work doesn’t start and stop inside the loop. “The community around the airport is a little different than the community of a neighborhood,” Escobedo said. “The airports are prime territory to shine and introduce visitors to Houston’s flavor.” Thanks partly to the robust art acquisition program, William P. Hobby Airport received an international rating of five stars, the first in North America to hold the award from Skytrax. Additionally, MOCA searched nationwide to commission artists for the first permanent art installation in honor of former Houston-born Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan. 

Portable Trojan Bear, by sculptor Jim Love.

“If we can recognize ourselves in the built environment, we feel more supported, more seen, more connected, more whole,” Escobedo said, who oversees each department of the overall collection, from public parks to the airports and everything in between. 

“I believe that when we can encounter ourselves in the public realm, in artwork, we become changed. Being seen and being heard is fundamental to a sense of well-being and security,” Escobedo said. The idea that art can be a metamorphic force in a community has been a guiding principle for Escobedo as she’s helped transform the City of Houston’s public art collection.  

“The number one goal is to centralize community,’’ Escobedo said, who descends from a long line of public servants. And although she considers the work “challenging and personally confronting” at times, the payoff is longstanding. But with only one year left in Mayor Turner’s term, she is focused on establishing policies that help sustain this administration’s efforts. 

“This will be my first time witnessing and being a part of the turnover in an election year,” Escobedo said. “So I’m really curious to see how it goes. We know that 2023 will be an intense year of work.”

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