Political Art

When Bob Lanier went after CACHH, maybe all he really wanted was a little respect

If there's one thing that peeves Mayor Bob Lanier, it's back talk. And the best thing to do when Lanier is peeved at you is to stay out of sight -- which is exactly what the administrators, board members and supporters of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County were doing last week following City Council approval, sans discussion, of CACHH's annual contract.

For the previous two months, the mayor had been shaking the arts council like a rag doll, accusing it of spending too much money on itself, inflating its bureaucracy, playing politics and indulging in conflicts of interest. That's all stuff that often goes on at City Hall, stuff that the mayor occasionally does himself, but it's also stuff that he doesn't abide in others. When Lanier catches someone at this game, the proper response is contrition, not self-defense.

Not that CACHH hasn't been contrite. After two months of negotiations, last Wednesday it rolled over and offered Council a contract that guts its administrative costs and, unless some new money is quickly raised from private sources, nearly guarantees layoffs in its 18-member staff.

The irony is that for the past several years, CACHH has been riding high. Three years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts (which has admittedly come under fire itself) cited CACHH as a model arts agency and gave it a $250,000 grant to implement an ambitious cultural plan for the Houston region. That plan, called Artworks, was created by a regional task force instigated by then-mayor Kathy Whitmire and then-county judge Jon Lindsay and underwritten by the city, the county and several of the city's most prominent foundations. Under the plan, CACHH was to do more than simply pass public grants to arts organizations. It was to become "the region's official arts agency, charged with planning, policy development, promotion, programs, services and liaison with civic, business and governmental groups." In 1993, when Lanier accepted the plan, a small arts group serenaded him to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," only substituting the name "Bob Lanier." That was respect.

But memories of that golden time haven't lingered. Over the summer, the mayor has trashed CACHH as a self-serving agency that needed to be cut down to size. Created as a nonprofit contractor to insulate public arts funding from politics, CACHH has just received a thorough lesson in realpolitik, and the agency's strategy now appears to be to hunker down, wait for term limits to take care of Lanier in 16 months and hope the city's next chief executive is friendlier.

CACHH's problems started in early June, when the members of the Downtown Theater District -- which consists of Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, the Alley Theatre, the Houston Ballet, the Society for the Performing Arts, Theatre Under the Stars and Da Camera -- announced that they wanted to be dropped from the arts council and be directly funded by the city via a guaranteed percentage of the city's hotel occupancy taxes. These are the taxes that had been passing through CACHH first, but the theater district groups complained that while the funds available to CACHH had been growing, their grants from the arts council had been declining. Too, charged the Theater District spokesmen, the grants had been tied up in a cumbersome and unnecessary peer review process. Since everyone knew that the Theater District's members did good work, the argument went, why should they have to jump through hoops for money that constituted less than 2 percent of their budgets, especially when this money at one time was guaranteed to the major arts groups?

CACHH had heard such complaints from leaders of major arts organizations for years. In 1979, when the arts council was created, it had been seen as a pass-through agency. Most of its funds went directly to the established major arts groups; what was left behind was about a quarter of the total, and it's that money that all the small groups competed for. But as the small arts groups multiplied, they complained about an arrangement in which public funds went almost exclusively to groups that seemed to primarily serve white, well-to-do audiences. Many arts groups took as their primary mission education and social service, and they criticized the majors for their lack of outreach to the minority community. The smaller groups further pointed out that while the public grants were a minor part of the major arts groups' budgets -- budgets that included six-figure salaries for top administrators, and which were passed by boards consisting of the city's corporate and social elite -- they could be critical to the life of a shoestring neighborhood arts organization.

Bowing to the pressure, the majors finally agreed to compete for their grants with everybody else. Some, such as HGO, fared well, while others, such as the Houston Symphony, were sharply questioned about ongoing million dollar deficits. Nonetheless, there appeared to be a wary truce between the small and midsize groups and their larger, richer brethren.

What the CACHH board and its administrators failed to grasp this time around, though, was that the Theater District, led by Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley, was not only serious, but also had some political muscle behind its request. The Houston Chronicle (which somehow neglected to point out that it's a corporate member of the Downtown Theater District) editorialized twice in favor of the Theater District's proposal. More important, the Theater District had the support of Jordy Tollet, director of the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department, and the city official to whom CACHH reports. Tollet is intimately familiar with the Theater District, for his office manages the Wortham Theater Center, where HGO and Houston Ballet perform, and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony. A change in the way CACHH distributed its money had the potential to strengthen Tollet's position, and Tollet has the ear of the mayor.

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