Political Art

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

CACHH balked at the Theater District's request. Despite the sometimes testy relationships between the big groups and the smaller ones, CACHH board members thought it best if all arts groups stuck together under their supervision. CACHH also expressed concern about accountability, about who the major arts groups would have to answer to if money was funneled to them directly. Another reason for hesitation was that the Theater District desired an increase in its funding, from the $1.1 million it received in 1995-96 to $1.4 million for '96-97. Many smaller and midsize groups feared that the extra $300,000 would come from their grants.

In mid-July, when CACHH director Marion McCollam and her board tried to negotiate a compromise with the Theater District, Tollet released the results of an audit of CACHH that he had requested last November from the city's Finance and Administration Department. The auditors questioned the expenditure of city funds for staff birthday cakes and flowers, a $400 bonus to a janitor and the payment of health club dues for staff who then paid the agency back on a monthly basis. For an agency with a $5 million plus budget, the details were picayune. They were of the sort that could have been dealt with quietly -- or used for public humiliation.

But the most significant question that the auditors raised appeared to deal with policy, not finances: if CACHH was to be a pass-through, grant-dispensing agency, the audit concluded, then its spending money on itself and its own programs to become a super arts agency was questionable.

In response to the Theater District's attack on CACHH, three dozen smaller arts groups banded together to form a supporting organization called All Arts for All Houston. On July 30, they staged a protest on the steps of city hall, with mimes, dancers and musicians performing and carrying placards. Inside, about 30 members signed up for Council's "pop-off" session. Among them was Jeffrey Salzberg of Houston Dance Coalition, who expected to speak for his allotted minute and be done. But Lanier kept him at the podium for an hour, grilling him on arts funding. The whole scene still grates on Lanier, who accused CACHH administrators of orchestrating the demonstration, even though Salzberg and other protesters insist that they organized on their own.

While the mayor ground his teeth about the protests, Councilmen Judson Robinson III and Jew Don Boney worked behind the scenes to negotiate the compromise that passed last week. The net result was that CACHH will be much more of a pass-through agency. Nearly $3 million of the arts council's annual $5 million in hotel tax money will be passed directly through to the major arts organizations in both the theater and museum districts. Jordy Tollet will review all the grants made by the agency, though he insists that he will not interfere with the peer review process. But some CACHH supporters fear the ground has been laid for Tollet to absorb the role of the agency within his department. For smaller and midsize organizations, the upside is that in 1997 CACHH will offer them $244,000 more in grants than it did this year.

And that's another reason the mayor is irritated. He remembers all too well how the small groups protested that they were going to suffer, and now he's delivered them more money. So why don't they give him some credit?

Indeed, part of Lanier's arts policy has been that if he's given the credit, he'll find the funds. It was Lanier who delivered the so-called "Republican penny" of extra hotel tax during the 1994 convention. In fact, the mayor has pretty well built his own arts program. First of all, he takes $150,000 off the top of CACHH's funds for his own "City Initiative" of emergency grants to small organizations. With these grants, which can amount to several thousand dollars, there's no red tape or bureaucratic hassle of the sort involved in getting a CACHH grant. All one has to do is write a letter to the mayor's administrative assistant, Joe Weikerth, and explain his purpose. If it strikes Weikerth or the mayor's fancy, the funds are provided. This is grant making the old-fashioned way, where the source of the funds is obvious, and where some political stroke can be earned.

Lanier has also leveraged close to $3 million in community block development grants to support the arts. The most controversial such grant went to the Glassell School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which received $421,000. Glassell is hardly in a low-rent neighborhood, something normally required for community block development grant recipients, but the rationale was that minority kids are among the groups for which Glassell provides instruction. Another block grant, this one for $500,000, is going to the Ensemble Theatre, an African-American theater group that wanted to buy and renovate its building on Main Street near the redeveloping Midtown neighborhood. A third grant of $992,000 has gone to renovate a former East End supermarket into a Latin-American cultural center for the group Talento Bilingue.

Talento Bilingue is one of those art groups that Lanier likes, and its contract came up the same day last week as CACHH's. Somehow, while dealing with Talento Bilingue, the mayor and Council, who don't always stick to the subject at hand, started talking about CACHH. Felix Fraga pointed out what an asset Talento Bilingue will be to the at-risk children of his district. Then the mayor got going on CACHH and how he still resented that it had organized demonstrations against him. Don't think he wasn't going to remember that, he said, and if he got any static from CACHH or its supporters next year, it was going to be difficult for them.

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