Wayne Dolcefino, Art Critic

A TV reporter tries to take on the Houston Arts Alliance in a sensationalist, inaccurate series

A project by the collaborative artist duo Manual for the Houston Wastewater Treatment Laboratory is sneered at as "art for the poop plant." Dolcefino inaccurately identifies it as being paid for by HOT money. According to Glus, the project was executed back when Percent for Art guidelines required that the art be placed at the exact construction site the funds came from. Now, funds can be pooled and work can be presented at more public sites.

It was in the fourth segment that Dolcefino really veered off course. He took on the Museum District, with shots of crumbling curbs and a street sign with graffiti on it. Why wasn't Hotel Occupancy Tax money being use to repair these things for tourists? Well, um, Wayne, because it can't.

"We went around and around with Wayne on this," says Nancy Sims, sounding like an exhausted civics teacher who's been working with a particularly dull student. Sims, a policy advisor to the museum district, again explains what she tried to explain to Dolcefino. "We cannot use hotel-motel tax money for structural improvements. Those are the city's responsibilities."

The series is more about Dolcefino's opinions on art than the issues surrounding public art.
The series is more about Dolcefino's opinions on art than the issues surrounding public art.

In the same segment, Dolcefino also took on the salaries of Susan Young, director of the Museum District Association, and Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, which have nothing to do with HOT money. He projected Young's $145,000 salary and Marzio's $888,173 total compensation on a screen and showed the museum's 990 tax return listing its $1.2 billion endowment.

Sims explains, "I think for the museum district and really the MFA, the frustration with last night's story is that none of the stuff that Wayne talked about concerning salaries has anything to do with tax dollars, nothing, nothing. The endowment is for accruing and collecting and expanding collections. None of it involves tax money. The tax money is used to market exhibits."

Marzio's level of compensation and, as noted by Dolcefino, the low (3.5%) ­interest-rate $518,400 loan given him by the museum for a Memorial condo are a story, but it's just not a story that has anything to do with HAA.

The problem with Dolcefino's series, other than factual errors, is that its sensationalistic and sneering you call that art? tone overwhelms any valid questions about HAA.

And Dolcefino's scattered series did touch on an issue of real concern. On night two of the series, Dolcefino noted the lack of production from HAA -- Synchronicity of Color is the only public artwork completed in the last two years. This is where the story seems to have legs. It also seems to be the reason for the seemingly strange participation of Houston Controller Annise Parker, always known as a friend to the arts, in the series.

Each segment in the series used the same clip of Parker saying, "It seems as if we've created a piggy bank that other people wanted to get their fingers in," bracketed by clips of someone smashing a piggy bank with change spilling out. But like most of the other interviews in the four-part series, the interviewee's answer was truncated.

In an e-mailed statement, Parker says, "My main concern is that there has been just one civic art project completed in two-and-a-half years. During this same time, HAA's budget has grown dramatically. In short, there was more art being produced and for far less cost prior to HAA taking over the program."

When I asked Glus about production issues, he cited the length of time fabrication takes and said there haven't been any projects recently because "HAA is only two years old. We had a series of competitions before I got here. We are now seeing the installation of Bert Long's piece [at Looscan Library], and we will see another five sizeable civic artworks installed within the next year. And then we have at least another three scheduled to come on by the end of '09."

About the increased costs, he says the alliance is expanding into a "fully staffed civic art department," and that funds were required to attract talented personnel to "manage a program of national standard."

Parker's part in the Dolcefino report gave the arts community pause. Aside from her past support for the arts, her bio on the Office of the Controller Web site lists her life partner; one wonders how she felt about the report's unconcealed contempt for art addressing gay issues.

In her statement, Parker sidesteps condemning anything in Dolcefino's report but says:

"My job is to ensure financial accountability in the spending of city funds. Please don't mistake the comments I expressed in the recent 13 Undercover investigative series as reflecting opposition to the local arts community, its wonderful work or its artists. I have always been an avid supporter of the local performing and visual arts, serving two terms on the board of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum and working hard to create the percent-for-art program as a Houston City Council member. That has not changed. However, after conducting my own research, I believe HAA can do a better job of managing that program."

And can HAA do a better job of managing their civic art programs? In early December, we'll ask that question of artists who have been on the bureaucratic front lines of public art.

Full disclosure: Kelly Klaasmeyer is an editor at Glasstire, a local online art publication which receives some funding from Houston Arts Alliance.

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