Art for the Masses

Jessica Cusick wants to brighten our drab landscape with little moments of wonder and delight

To sell those as yet unsold on the idea of public art in Houston, Jessica Cusick uses a simple weapon: a slide show. Culled from photos taken during Cusick's visits to public art projects in other cities, it has proven capable of shaking the most frigid engineer from a bottom line-induced coma. It works neighborhood groups into a sweat of enthusiasm. It gets people to wonder why, in short, Houston can't have public art that is just as cool as other cities'. And most importantly, it plants the idea that with Cusick's help, we can.

One slide Cusick's audiences particularly enjoy shows a pedestrian overpass in Phoenix, spanning a highway that cut through an ancient Indian burial ground, angering residents. It might have been your basic concrete-and-fencing bridge, just another neighborhood intrusion, had an artist not been selected to design it. She incorporated images from the burial ground and invited neighbors to help apply adobe, in which they could embed personal objects and even carve out criticisms of the project. The end result was attractive and -- the real kicker -- saved taxpayers a cool million because of the functional columns the artist added and sculpted into reptilian shapes.

Such examples are the modest yet effective weapons Cusick, as director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County's nascent public art program, uses in her methodical attempt to change the way Houston builds. Thanks to Cusick, our new Theater District sidewalks will be mosaics of spotlights against a brilliant blue background, designed by Rachel Hecker. Two prominent computer artists, Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, are designing logos and an interactive video for the city's new state-of-the-art Wastewater Operations Treatment Laboratory; new bikeways will feature bridges with wavy railings in tribute to the city's bayous; and when the Southwest Freeway is rebuilt, overpasses between the Museum District and Montrose will be ornamented with sculptures by Sharon Engelstein, Joe Mancuso, Jose Solis and Joyce Joe. Downtown's Sesquicentennial Park will include seven pillars by nationally known artist Mel Chin, and a piece by local sculptor Dean Ruck in which the bayou churns and whistles blow as if a ghostly riverboat were bearing cargo to Allen's Landing.

As a taste of things to come (all these projects are months away from the public's eye), last spring Cusick invited North Carolina sculptor Patrick Doherty to build his straw-and-twig "nests" on the side of Buffalo Bayou along Allen Parkway -- public art that was both jogger-friendly and windshield-accessible. While Doherty's piece was whimsical and sweet, this year a more confrontational public art collective from New York called Repo History will do another temporary, Houston-specific project -- probably an unofficial local history lesson. Should these temporary and permanent projects prove popular, Cusick may succeed in transforming Houston from the largest city in the country which does not fund public art -- and the only major Texas city that doesn't set aside a percentage of capital improvements money for art (even Corpus Christi has a "percent-for-art" program) -- to a city with one of the most progressive and innovative public art programs anywhere.

Many artists groan over art bureaucrats, who often seem to absorb disproportionate amounts of the funds designated for the arts. But in the public art field, artists need the right kind of advocate to open the doors of City Hall and Public Works, of architects and engineers. In Houston, particularly, artists are not accustomed to creating public projects, and civic planners are not accustomed to asking them to do so. And that, of course, is where the slide show comes in. "Most people come around once they find out a little bit about public art -- you know, that it's not pornography," says Cusick's assistant Debbie McNulty. "I watch people transform their attitudes completely."

Jessica Cusick has a blond pageboy haircut and a round, intelligent face. She speaks many languages fluently -- those of engineering, city boosterism, community development and art. She'll say "the whole concept is common cause" or talk about "infrastructure investment." She is also very patient -- with public art, there is no such thing as instant gratification, and Cusick has spent almost 20 years in the field. Despite the fact that she labors in Houston in relative obscurity, Cusick is one of the top names in public art administration nationally, and often has a full plate of speaking engagements, as well as a weekend teaching gig at the University of Southern California.

How does one become a public art expert? In Cusick's case, it was a fluke. She studied archaeology in college, but soon switched to contemporary art and, after studying art history at the Sorbonne, tried her hand at running a gallery in Paris. When selling art failed to satisfy her, she returned to New York, where through a connection she got a job at the city's Public Art Fund. To her surprise, she found that public art combined many of her interests: politics, social structures and "what makes cities tick."

More importantly, Cusick discovered that when done right, public art catalyzes improbable encounters. That fact hit home, she says, when she worked on a project in Washington Square Park, where an artist filled the park's fountain with sculptures. When the performance was over, spectators were allowed to take the ceramic figurines home with them. "Afterwards," Cusick recalls, "there was this man who really looked like a bag person -- pretty disheveled, pretty grubby -- standing there clutching one of the little figurines, and one of the arms had broken off. I said, 'Oh, isn't that a shame. Yours broke.' And he said to me, 'The Venus de Milo, she ain't got no arms.'

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