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Jenni Rebecca Stephenson's Controversial Departure from Fresh Arts

Jenni Rebecca Stephenson still had her job as the executive director of Fresh Arts on October 20 when she appeared on NPR’s Houston Matters and questioned statements by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Gary Tinterow. Hours after the program aired, Stephenson was replaced by Julie Farr, who’s also the interim executive director for the Houston Museum District Association, a powerful non-profit organization that’s chaired by Tinterow.

While Stephenson's firing or resignation remains in doubt, a member of Fresh Arts’ artist advisory board calls Farr's controversial appointment an “insane conflict of interest.” 

On Tuesday, October 20, the KUHF-FM 88.7 Houston Matters program titled “What’s Missing from the City’s New Arts and Culture Plan?” presented a point-counterpoint discussion between Tinterow, who runs one of the richest arts operations in the country, and Stephenson, an outspoken advocate for arts organizations whose budgets struggle to crack $1 million. Tinterow and Stephenson both served on the community advisory committee for the city’s Arts and Cultural Plan, which Houston City Council approved on October 14.

The 16-minute show focused on the contentious relationship between large and small arts organizations as they compete for public dollars that are gleaned from local Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue. The Museum District Association, Theatre District Association, and Miller Theatre Advisory Board receive a set percentage of Hotel Occupancy Tax funds each year without undergoing a peer review. Smaller arts organizations like Fresh Arts are also eligible for these tax dollars, but they’re forced to go through an arduous grant application process through Houston Arts Alliance.

At one point, Stephenson disagreed with one of Tinterow’s previously recorded comments. It’s (yawn) humdrum public radio discussion. But hours later, Fresh Arts announced that Farr had replaced Stephenson.

Fresh Arts, in a press release issued last Thursday, says that Stephenson resigned “in order to pursue other opportunities.” (Only three days earlier, the Houston Press had asked Ariel Jones, Fresh Arts’ manager of marketing and membership, if Stephenson had quit or was sacked. “To my knowledge, we are going through a transition, and I respectfully cannot discuss this at this time,” says Jones.)

However, when the Press spoke to Stephenson by phone for an original post about her departure, she said she didn’t have anything else lined up. Over the past week, the Press has asked Stephenson multiple times if she was fired or resigned. She continues to go “no comment.” 

Farr had served as executive director of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft for eight years until resigning on May 1. Along with her new gig with Fresh Arts, Farr is temporarily leading the Houston Museum District Association, a big-dog cooperative of 20 museums, galleries, cultural centers, and community organizations that includes the MFAH, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Menil Collection, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

According to a November 18, 2014, City of Houston press release that announces the formation of the Arts and Cultural Plan advisory committee, Tinterow – who leads the MFAH, which receives a $1 billion endowment and whose net assets, according to the organization’s 2013-2014 annual report, total $1.5 billion – is listed as the chair of the Houston Museum District Association.

Stephenson was the loudest (and possibly only) mouthpiece willing to try and change a two-decade-long public funding mechanism that grants automatic funding to groups like the Houston Museum District Association. The conflict-of-interest concern from members of the Fresh Arts' artist advisory board is that the booming voice for small arts organizations is gone, replaced by somebody who might be in lockstep with some of Houston's largest and most powerful museums and cultural institutions. 

“A significant group of people feel like it’s a conflict of interest,” says a member of Fresh Arts’ artist advisory board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to a fear of retaliation. “It’s suspicious when you cut off the head of the most outspoken arts advocate in the city… she had a perfect track record for exceeding Fresh Arts’ financial goals and her job responsibilities.”

The Press tried to get in touch with Farr via e-mail – the phone rings off the hook whenever we call Fresh Arts’ main line – but we never heard back.

When asked about the potential conflict of interest, Fresh Arts’ media relations representative Jones offered the following:

“Fresh Arts is an arts service organization so we behave differently than a Lawndale [Art Center] or any other presenting organization that might qualify as an ‘art museum.’ Our priority isn’t to exhibit work, it’s to support the creatives and the visionary small arts organizations who are presenting on a smaller scale.

“The Museum District Association elevates the presence of Houston’s visual art presenters and Fresh Arts isn’t an arts presenter in the traditional sense. We are more of a help desk for the creative community. Julie Farr is extremely capable, given her years of experience, in dealing with organizations that are undergoing transitions like ours. So it was a good fit.”

On Monday, November 2, Fresh Arts’ board of directors and the artist advisory board met during a regularly scheduled meeting. Harry McMahan, Fresh Arts’ board president since January 2012, made an appearance, which was unusual, says the artist advisory board member, who adds that the meeting was festooned with sandwiches, giggling Fresh Arts staffers, and a “fluff agenda.”

When members of the artist board peppered McMahan and Fresh Arts staff with questions about Stephenson’s sudden departure, McMahan danced around the topic. “If [Stephenson] just left on her own, it doesn’t make sense that they can’t talk about it,” says the artist advisory board member

The Press called McMahan, vice president of Frost Bank, at his Main Street office in downtown Houston. A woman named Donna answered and said McMahan was “out of the office.” McMahan, who’s also a yoga instructor at the Heights School of Yoga, ignored our questions posed by e-mail. 

Three days following the meeting, in a sloppy press release that comes across as defensive, Fresh Arts announced that it’s “still committed to Houston’s independent artists.” (Uh, unless you've decided to become a cruelty-free washateria or an artisanal emissions testing facility, why wouldn’t you be?)

Additionally, the release erroneously states that Stephenson resigned on October 20, 2016, not 2015, and that she “spoke earlier that day on NPR on behalf of Fresh Arts, Houston’s artists, and small to mid-sized organizations, as she was known to do. This interview was in no way connected to her later resignation.” There’s zero mention of Farr’s role with the Houston Museum District Association in the brief statement.

Jones reiterates, “I know that it had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with this interview. Jenni has been outspoken on the radio and elsewhere in this capacity for years as executive director of Fresh Arts. I felt that she did her job, which was to represent Fresh Arts as well as the small arts organizations and individual artists of Houston. People are kind of running with this explanation, but it really was just the timing.”

Though Stephenson won’t comment on her departure, she tells the Press, “I can say that I loved the organization. I can say that it was a driving passion for the last seven years to do whatever I could to make Houston a little more hospitable for artists and creative projects. I can say that I was really fortunate to work with and for some amazing people along the way. And I can say that I’m truly grateful to all those who supported Fresh Arts and me during my time with the organization.”

Stephanie Wong, executive director of Dance Source Houston, a sister organization to Fresh Arts, says Stephenson’s absence from Fresh Arts is a bummer for Houston artists.

“She was a tireless advocate for independent artists and small organizations, wanting only to help them do their best work. She was deeply committed to her job and from my point of view, did it very well. Looking at both big-picture issues, as well as the tiniest details, she asked difficult questions and sought to find the elusive answers.

“I think the Houston arts community has suffered a big loss in this transition, and I think the Fresh Arts board has its work cut out for it to find someone to fill her shoes. I’m sad that I will no longer be able to work alongside her in our shared mission, but I'm hopeful that she will continue to make a positive impact on Houston in another role.”

Wong adds, “Regardless of what actually happened, the perception in the community she represented is that she was silenced.”
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen