Art for the Masses

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

"Here I had made all these assumptions based on looking at the guy, yet he had an appreciation for the piece that many people wouldn't have had."

After holding several public art-related jobs in New York, Cusick was tapped to head the country's biggest single public art program to date -- the Art for Rail Transit program for Los Angeles's expanding subway and light rail system. Essentially a way of advertising the subway to exhaust-huffing Angelenos, ART was given one-half of 1 percent of the total construction budget (about $100,000 per station) to make the subway a cultural attraction.

And so it was that Cusick became a fixture in the L.A. media and no stranger to the international press, as she guided muralists, photographers and sculptors through the daunting red tape of infrastructure construction, unrolling a carpet of money in their path. The ART program, which included a 30-foot hand poised to throw a giant paper airplane, a fiber-optic tunnel display and human figures diving gleefully from a station ceiling, generated enough ink to fill every swimming pool in L.A., even landing on the front page of the New York Times twice. Best of all, unlike one-time spectacles such as the recent Power of Houston fireworks display, the projects contribute to the city permanently.

With the subway program up and running (many of Cusick's Los Angeles projects are only just now reaching completion), Cusick began looking for a new challenge. In 1994, out of what one can only suppose was a pioneer spirit, she chose to come to Houston, attracted by the city's reputation as a place where a public art program would never fly. And indeed, her three years here have not proven easy. Though Cusick's hiring was part of the implementation of a mayoral committee's art policy document, she actually works for a quasi-governmental agency, CACHH. That means she doesn't direct the city's public arts program, she directs (indeed, created) an agency's public art program, a situation quite unique, Cusick says, to Houston.

And as if quasi-official status didn't make her footing shaky enough, Cusick lost her salary and budget when City Council gutted CACHH's funding two years ago. Since then, she has raised money to fund her program through grants and private donations. Her services are available to anyone who is interested in public art -- from the Downtown Historic District to the Friends of Hermann Park to an individual wanting help with a memorial for a slain jogger in Memorial Park. Cusick says that where appropriate, her office can help defray its costs by charging a consulting fee: It's currently charging Harris County $5,000, for example, to develop and manage the construction of a memorial for Mickey Leland.

In the CACHH conference room one afternoon last month, Cusick and assistant Debbie McNulty sit at a table with artists Kate Petley, George Sacaris and Dan Havel, who scribble sketches on their legal pads. The three artists, who are each being paid $12,000 for their participation, have been contributing to the design of the 1,000 miles of new bikeways planned for the city, and they are trying to solve a last-minute engineering problem: The wavy bridge railings they dreamed up, which were supposed to be syncopated like sine and cosine waves, will have to be symmetrical instead because, basically, it's cheaper. Such is the tedium of public art -- which has to be safe, indestructible and often functional -- behind the scenes.

As Sacaris, who was trained as an architect and is the lead liaison to the project engineers at the moment, relays the project manager's comments, Cusick listens and occasionally interjects. By now, the artists have been working on the project for several months -- but not for as long as Cusick might have liked. Because of the political and bureaucratic vagaries which inevitably attend such projects, getting public art included is often, Cusick likes to say, like shooting at a moving target. In this case, the bikeways project was held up for almost a year when the Texas Department of Transportation required the city to renegotiate all of its bikeway contracts. Then the local district office of TxDOT decided that funds for the project could not be used to pay artists, but the headquarters in Austin okayed it. Meanwhile, Metro withdrew the funds it had promised for the trails.

Finally, Cusick went to the grassroots: the Houston Bicycle Advisory Committee, which was overseeing the development of the trail system. She showed them the slide show. A group of them lobbied City Council, as did assistant Public Works director Dave Peters (who has since left that job), and the city agreed to allocate part of its bikeway funds for the art until other funding problems were resolved -- but too late for artists to be involved in the initial planning and conceptualization phase, which is when Cusick says they can often be most valuable. Still, Cusick is confident that the four artists selected by a panel she assembled (including Randy Woodard, who will develop signage), will add good design to functionality. "Let the artists prove how much value-added they are," Cusick says.

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