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Art for the Masses

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

Houston may be rich in "plop art"-- the faintly derisive term people in the field use for the sculpture-in-a-plaza variety of public art, but Cusick's vision of what her program can do is far more expansive, as indicated by her office's recently published Houston Framework, a sort of a manual of approaches to public art that includes an extensive map of the city's cultural sites, public spaces and "treasures" -- anything from the Beer Can House to a funky neon sign that has become a landmark for a particular neighborhood.

Framework, which had input from an advisory board of about 100 design professionals, artists, community activists and civic leaders, will continue to evolve, incorporating suggestions from those who check it out on the Web or on paper. It encourages residents to think about Houston as an environment with particular qualities that could be enhanced by artistic intervention.

"I don't think that the way you develop a public art program that is responsive to a region is to come in and lay down what has worked in other cities," says Cusick.

That's one reason why, surprisingly, Cusick's vision for Houston does not include "percent-for-art," a forced-participation model Cusick considers slightly outdated, especially for a city whose legacy of private arts funding is much greater than its legacy of public support. If one of the reasons for Cusick's preference is that City Council is unlikely to pass a percent-for-art rule, you won't catch her complaining. Instead, she points out that a flexible plan similar to San Diego's, which simply requires that an unspecified number of capital projects per year will include art, often results in far more than one-half of 1 percent of the budget being dedicated to art.

"It can be much more productive in the long run to have fewer projects with people who are really excited about doing the work," Cusick says. "Any time people have the experience of working on a project with artists, they want to do it again."

That's not to say, though, that Cusick doesn't want the public art program to be funded. That's one reason why her office took the lead in organizing a forum on the arts for mayoral candidates last July. During the well-attended forum, state Representative Debra Danburg asked the candidates if, among other things, they would remove the cap limiting the amount of money CACHH receives from the hotel/motel occupancy tax (except Lee Brown, all said yes), and whether or not they would support public art projects for the city (of course they would). The questions had been prepared, and released to the candidates in advance, by Cusick, who watched quietly from the back of the auditorium.

Afterward, people complained that no questions were fielded from the audience. True enough -- the whole affair was canned. Yet Cusick's main objectives had been met. One, she had shown the candidates that they had to answer to an art world constituency. And two, she had forced candidates to articulate opinions -- in general, the right opinions -- about public art policy. And, perhaps most important for the future, none of the potential mayors left the meeting with their egos bruised by confrontation.

Of course, public art is not inherently wonderful -- it can be a dreadful thing, especially when it reads like a history fair project or simply ticks off items on an uninspired, multiculti agenda. On the other hand, daring public art projects often produce controversy, which can easily quash hard-won support for public art. (Even not-so-daring art can spark dissent. In L.A., one subway customer disgustedly dubbed giant replicas of a pocket watch, a rivet and other everyday objects "shock art.")

So for now, Cusick is definitely playing on the safe side. In fact, some of the projects that are coming out of her office are what Los Angles Times critic Christopher Knight called "publicity art," designed to convince the public that art is, in fact, a good thing. Even the feisty Mel Chin has toned down his usual irony for his Sesquicentennial Park contribution: seven 70-foot pillars, each based on one of "the foundations of Houston's historic growth," that will incorporate children's drawings engraved in metal.

Though some of these designs are tame, Cusick is wise to start slowly -- and many of the plans developed under her guidance are proof enough that artists can inject little moments of wonder and delight into a hot Houston sidewalk-scape or impersonal sewage treatment lab. Though "publicity art" might be necessary to establish support for Cusick's program, not every project Cusick does should be interior decoration turned out of doors -- nor will it be.

For right now, though, mere decoration is an almost lofty goal. Houston is not, after all, a city accustomed to thinking of itself as pretty. We don't have mountains on our horizon or forests in our midst. We don't have urban planning. But we do have a major resource that Cusick deserves credit for tapping: a pool of local artists with imagination, a sense of humor and an increasingly evident ability to work within the constraints of major infrastructure projects.

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