Last November, the Houston art world was roiled by the resignation of Matthew Lennon, the director of civic art and design at the Houston Arts Alliance, the nonprofit organization that administers arts grants for the city. Lennon stated that he was leaving because of the handling of a proposal by local sculptor Ed Wilson for the new lobby of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Wilson’s proposal for the $830,000 commission had been chosen unanimously by the HAA's five-person selection panel. But that panel was overruled by the HAA’s civic art committee, which, according to Lennon, believed Wilson didn’t have a sufficiently large national reputation.
After a massive backlash from the Houston art community, the HAA backed down, announcing in January that it was restarting the selection process and inviting Wilson to resubmit his proposal. But the furor gave local artists the chance to air other longstanding grievances with HAA: It was out of touch, autocratic, unaccountable, too influenced by wealthy art collectors, not sensitive enough to artist feedback.
So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that the city’s new arts and culture plan—its first in decades—is currently being drawn up not by the HAA but the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, despite the fact that, fancy title notwithstanding, the Office of Cultural Affairs comprises exactly two employees. “We’re not a department, we’re an office,” said Minnette Boesel, the Mayor’s Assistant for Cultural Affairs, who's been charged with drawing up the plan. “I have sometimes been a one-person office. Now we have a two-person office, but we’re not very robust over here.”
In 2006, former mayor Bill White consolidated the Houston area’s several art commission–granting organizations into the Houston Arts Alliance, an autonomous nonprofit that would distribute money from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax to worthy arts and cultural organizations. According to its website, the HAA distributes around $3 million a year to around 220 nonprofit organizations and individual artists, as well as manages the city’s civic art collection of 450 artworks.
Given the HAA’s deep pockets and staff of 24 employees, why would the mayor entrust the city’s new arts plan to the skeleton crew at the Office of Cultural Affairs? “We talked about that, but the mayor wanted it to come from the mayor’s office,” Boesel told me. “She is very interested in art—she’s a poet and a writer, and she co-owned a bookstore, Inklings. She felt like she wanted this to come from the city, because it’s important to the city.”
To collect public input, the Office of Cultural Affairs hired the Cultural Planning Group, Places Consulting of New Orleans, and the public relations firm Black Sheep. (The first firm alone is charging the city $175,000, but, as Boesel put it, “I couldn’t possibly do with two people everything they do [at HAA].) Beginning last month, the consultants have held five community meetings in various parts of town—they’ve drawn between 15 and 40 people each—and have launched a website, byyoucity.org, to survey Houstonians about their cultural interests. The next meeting is scheduled for March 25 at the West Gray Community Center. Minnette said she expects to have a first draft of the plan by June.
Does the mayor’s reliance on her in-house team to draw up the arts plan indicate her dissatisfaction with HAA? When asked that question, Boesel defended the agency, but acknowledged that the new plan might include changes to how the HAA operates. “With the Houston Arts Alliance, maybe we take a slightly different direction with the projects we’re working on together. And maybe there could be other partners that could be brought in to share in more outreach.”
Boesel said she’s certainly familiar with complaints from artists about HAA. “Believe me, I’ve heard from many of them. I’ve been cornered on many occasions.”