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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.'

"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.

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.

Last year, in an attempt to spark the art world's interest in public art, Cusick prompted some 25 Houston artists to create imaginary public art proposals for existing downtown sites. Kate Petley transformed freeway columns into Japanese torii, or gates. James Nakagawa filled a parking lot with Etch-A-Sketch toys on posts for visitors to doodle on. Rachel Hecker, in a particularly Houstonian gesture, dotted a brick building with giant rhinestones. The exhibit, mounted at Barbara Davis's downtown gallery, simply showed that once Cusick really gets things rolling, we have a lot to look forward to. And as for Houston's image boosters -- well, give Cusick a call about that slide show.

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