Nearly All of Houston Arts Funding Goes to the Same Big Players Year After Year [UPDATED]

Ed Wilson lost an $830,000 prize after Houston Arts Alliance botched the city’s most prominent commissions in years.
Ed Wilson lost an $830,000 prize after Houston Arts Alliance botched the city’s most prominent commissions in years.
Michael Starghill

In October 2014, Ed Wilson thought he had unanimously scored an $830,000 art commission, by far the biggest of his career.

Updated January 10, 2016: To correct the percentage of hotel occupancy tax revenue received by the arts in Houston. 

The winning proposal by the Houston-based sculptor was a 60-foot-high by 30-foot-wide stainless steel and perforated metal assemblage of cloud and bird shapes that would hang from the ceiling and blow in the air-conditioning of the George R. Brown Convention Center’s palatial new glass atrium. The high-profile piece, scheduled for completion for the anticipated tourism blitz of Super Bowl LI on February 5, 2017, at NRG Stadium, would naturally propel the talented 62-year-old sculptor to the next level.

“A commission of this size and this much money puts you in a rare group of people,” Wilson tells the Houston Press.

Turns out Houston Arts Alliance had made a mistake.

HAA, in charge of the project, bungled one of the city’s most significant commissions in years, according to the alliance’s Civic Art + Design committee. On second thought, Wilson wouldn’t be receiving the commission.

Documents show infighting between HAA personnel, who prematurely offered a draft contract to Wilson, and members of the Civic Art + Design commission, who dubbed Wilson unworthy of the commission because he wasn’t a “blue-chip” artist. Civic Art + Design accused HAA of screwing up the selection process, and an embarrassed HAA eventually asked Wilson and the six other finalists to reapply for the award.

“I was absolutely stunned at first,” says Wilson. “Then I got angry.”

Outrage followed as a number of Houston’s artists spoke on Wilson’s behalf in front of Houston City Council and Mayor Annise Parker. The whole miserable affair, in turn, triggered the resignation of Civic Art + Design director Matthew Lennon.

While some think the Civic Art + Design committee made a decision based on art-scene politics, critics say the disaster is yet another gaffe by HAA, an independent third-party entity that the City of Houston designates as its official arts and culture organization. The alliance, formed during Bill White’s stint as mayor, has carte blanche when controlling and distributing Houston’s public art dollars, which are derived from hotel occupancy tax revenue.

According to a city financial statement, HOT money provided $15.7 million to local arts organizations and individual artists in 2014. The city’s 17 percent hotel tax, one of the highest in the nation, also funds initiatives for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, and pays off the Astrodome bond debt.

Because of a tangled two-decade-old formula that nobody can explain, including HAA President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathon Glus, only a small number of organizations, including the Houston Ballet, the Alley Theatre, the Children’s Museum of Houston and The Menil Collection, receive the bulk of the cash.

The 2014 City of Houston Comprehensive Annual Financial Report shows that HOT revenue increased each fiscal year from 2010 to 2014. But owing to the skidding oil, gas and energy industries, Houston First Corporation, which manages projects for the George R. Brown Convention Center, Jones Hall, Miller Outdoor Theatre, and the Wortham Theater Center, projects an approximate 12 percent loss in HOT money from 2015 to 2016.

Because Houston is principally a business travel town and not a tourist destination, there won’t be as much money on the table. And that has many sub-$1 million organizations scrambling for what amount to crumbs compared to funding in other metropolitan areas.

During the 2014-2015 grants season, 207 small- and midsize arts organizations as well as individual artists, a record number, received a total of $4.26 million through HAA’s various programs and services. Now, owing to the increased volume of grant recipients, some cash-stretched companies are dealing with a 25 percent cut in funding compared to previous grant cycles.

“HAA’s support is critical to us, and were we to lose that funding or see it go down, we would have to face some very hard decisions,” says Jason Nodler, co-founder and artistic director of the prized Catastrophic Theatre, once a fringe group that has built its budget to just above $500,000 in eight years.

Naysayers say that HOT funds can’t keep up with the growth of Houston’s arts and cultural organizations, especially when HAA continues to fall woefully short of supplementing taxpayer revenue.

“While I was there, I don’t think HAA’s board or leadership ever raised significant additional funds for any of the smaller arts organizations or artist-generated projects,” Lennon, the former Civic + Art director, says from his home in Seattle. HAA’s bulky 22-person staff is nearly three times as large as entire arts councils and commissions in other cities.

Despite the scarcity of overall arts funding, HAA has expanded its complex organization. A number of local artists say that some of HAA’s new initiatives attempt to replace programming that African-American and Latino-run grassroots organizations have done for years. The 2014 Arts & Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report, issued by local think tank Center for Houston’s Future, states that local “ethnic and cultural awareness” nonprofits represent 13 percent of the arts sector in Houston, which is often trumpeted as the nation’s most diverse city, but receive less than 2 percent of the sector’s total revenue.

“We didn’t feel like professional artists,” says Monica Villarreal, who was asked to participate in Transported + Renewed, a three-month-long, HAA-spearheaded, multicultural festival in the fast-changing East End. The area’s demographic, according to 2010 United States Census Bureau figures, is 85 percent Latino. “We felt like people [HAA] had contracted. It seemed like they just wanted more Latino artists.”

Overall, HAA wields significant power over Houston’s creatives since they’re receiving few-strings-attached taxpayer money. It took months of disregarded phone calls and e-mails until the Press found local artists and arts professionals who spoke candidly about HAA and Houston’s contentious funding devices for the arts.

In October, Houston City Council approved the city’s first Arts and Cultural plan in 22 years. The document, expedited by outgoing mayor Parker in just 11 months (the process in other cities takes closer to two years), is supposed to act as a blueprint for guiding cultural policy. Despite the exhaustive 77-page count, divisive items, which were uncovered in the damning 2014 Arts & Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report, were conspicuously left off. The study also debunks the notion that Houston is hospitable to across-the-board artists.

When a longtime and respected voice for the little guys and gals went on the radio to discuss issues splintering the arts community, she no longer had a job by the time she returned to her office.


For a decade, Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, the former executive director of Fresh Arts, a heavy-duty (albeit small-budget) artist-support nonprofit, has been one of the loudest voices advocating for Houston’s small- and midsize cultural organizations.

On Tuesday, October 20, six days after Houston City Council approved the Arts and Cultural Plan, Stephenson, a member of the plan’s advisory committee, appeared on Houston Matters. The live KUHF-FM 88.7 radio program also included recorded comments by Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which The Financialist named one of the country’s ten richest cultural organizations. The show’s producers pitted Stephenson and Tinterow against each other in the HOT funds debate, a topic discussed ad nauseam during Arts and Cultural Plan meetings.

In Houston, 41 percent of overall hotel occupancy tax revenue is earmarked for the City of Houston and the arts receives 19.3 percent of that revenue. the city’s hotel occupancy tax From there, the money is distributed according to a formula that sends 24 percent to Theater District Improvement, Inc., 18 percent to the Houston Museum District Association, 16 percent to the Miller Outdoor Theatre Advisory Board, Inc., and 2.5 percent to the City of Houston Initiative Grant Program. The remaining 39.5 percent pays for HAA programs (which include grants to small- and midsize arts organizations) and administrative costs.

It doesn’t matter if hotel occupancy tax revenue is high or low in a given year — the not-for-profit Museum, Theater, and Miller Theatre districts receive a set percentage of money without undergoing a peer panel review. Smaller arts organizations like Fresh Arts and hundreds of others are also eligible for tax dollars, but they’re forced to jump into the same pool together and avoid drowning in HAA’s grueling application process.

Nobody can explain the purpose or the reasoning behind the distribution formulas, which HAA’s Glus says were established in 1996, or why the percentages haven’t been seriously re-evaluated in nearly 20 years. “This was asked many times during the cultural planning process. No one seems to know the original reason for this…I don’t know, unfortunately,” says Glus. The formulas remain unchanged in the brand-new Arts and Cultural Plan.

During the 16-minute radio broadcast on KUHF, Tinterow made a point about Houston arts financing, and Stephenson respectfully disagreed. It was ho-hum public radio. But later in the day, not only had Stephenson “resigned,” according to Fresh Arts’ barren press release, but Julie Farr had replaced her.

Farr is also the interim executive director of the Museum District Association, the potent collective of HOT fund recipients that includes some of Houston’s wealthiest cultural institutions, such as the Tinterow-piloted MFAH. According to a November 18, 2014, City of Houston document, Tinterow chairs the Museum District Association.

A member of Fresh Arts’ artist advisory board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation, called Farr’s role with Fresh Arts “an insane conflict of interest,” given that Stephenson, the chief mouthpiece representing the interests of modest arts organizations, was replaced with an arts administrator who might be buddy-buddy with Houston’s powerful legacy institutions.

“It’s suspicious when you cut off the head of the most outspoken arts advocate in the city…[Stephenson] had a perfect track record for exceeding Fresh Arts’ financial goals and her job responsibilities,” the Fresh Arts artist board member told the Press in October.

When the Press originally asked Stephenson about her departure (“Jenni Rebecca Stephenson Abruptly Leaves Fresh Arts,” October 26, 2015), she said she was taking a moment before looking for other employment. A clumsy Fresh Arts press release stated that Stephenson had left the organization to “pursue other opportunities.”

In early November, when the Press asked if Stephenson had been fired or left of her own volition, Ariel Jones, Fresh Arts’ manager of marketing and membership, wouldn’t answer the question. (“Jenni Rebecca Stephenson’s Controversial Departure from Fresh Arts,” November 10, 2015.) “Regardless of what actually happened, the perception in the community she represented is that she was silenced,” says Stephanie Wong, executive director of Dance Source Houston, a sister organization to Fresh Arts.

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Stephenson and Farr ignored the Press’s questions for this story. Harry McMahan, vice president of Frost Bank who serves as Fresh Arts’ board president as well as a board member of Theatre Under The Stars, which receives annual HOT revenue, didn’t respond to our voice message and e-mail.

Jane Cahill West, a member of the Arts and Cultural Plan steering committee and a front-row witness to the money debate, says more needs to be done to ensure that the bottom lines of small arts organizations don’t automatically decrease whenever the pool of grantees increases.

“It’s like if you have a family with two children and those two children get 50-50 allowances. Then you have more children, but the first two children continue to get the lion’s share of the allowance money,” says West.
“There needs to be an ongoing conversation, not just once every 20 to 25 years,” she adds. “People need group therapy and to sit across the table from one another instead of cannibalizing one another.”

Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue has helped the Jason Nodler-led Catastrophic Theatre become a valued player in the local theater community.
Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue has helped the Jason Nodler-led Catastrophic Theatre become a valued player in the local theater community.
Michael Starghill

Despite Catastrophic Theatre’s popularity, which often features show-goers jamming the cozy theater, co-founder and Artistic Director Nodler is challenged with keeping the business in the black. For instance, the theater, which Nodler co-founded with Tamarie Cooper in 2007, recently lost an annual $30,000 foundation grant.

Catastrophic didn’t start receiving HOT funding until 2011 because organizations aren’t eligible for HAA’s general operating support grants until they enter their fourth year of operation. The line item now accounts for 9 percent of the company’s $500,000 budget.

“Most of our applications to HAA have received the highest peer-review score of any local theater,” says Nodler, whose predecessor organization (Infernal Bridegroom Productions) helped launch the career of The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons. “We love HAA.”

From 2013 to 2014, according to the 2014 City of Houston Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, overall hotel occupancy tax revenues jumped 18.1 percent (from $76.3 million to $90.1 million) because more people were staying in Houston’s hotels. But now those tax dollars are projected to tumble because of weakening crude oil production that continues to yield barrel prices of under $50. As a result, local energy companies, which have given walking papers to hundreds of employees, won’t be conducting as much business with out-of-towners in Houston.

Though there isn’t a metric to measure if business or leisure travel brings people to town, Houston First says there will be fewer visitors in Houston’s hotel beds in 2016. If current trends continue through year’s end, there will be approximately $98 million in overall HOT collections for 2015. Houston First predicts that HOT revenue will plummet to $86 million in 2016.

“I think the key is to divorce arts funding from HOT funds…it doesn’t make any sense to me that arts funding should rely on the city having had a good year with tourism,” says Nodler. “This is a huge issue and it goes to why so many innovative start-ups aren’t able to make the transition to long-term sustainability.”

Glus says an alternative revenue stream, such as a cigarette tax, is needed to augment HOT money. In 2006, voters in Cleveland, Ohio, gave a thumbs-up to a law that sends 30 cents of every sold pack of smokes to Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, which granted $136 million to arts institutions and individual artists from 2007 to 2015, according to The Plain Dealer. Last month, 74 percent of Cuyahoga County voters re-upped the legislation for another ten years.

Thing is, a Houston solution isn’t imminent because there’s nothing solid in the works. “It can be as quickly as two years; it could take four or five years,” says Glus.

Meanwhile, Houston’s largest cultural organizations continue landing record donations. The Houston Chronicle reports that the MFAH, Houston Grand Opera and the Alley Theatre respectively scored 42, 35 and 18 gifts of $1 million or more. According to the exhaustive Arts & Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report, charitable giving for the arts in Houston has increased by $142 million over the past decade, but nearly 88 percent went to only 27 organizations (or 5 percent of the total number of local arts and cultural nonprofits). And that includes the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

On the flip side, two of Houston’s first-rate dance companies, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Hope Stone, Inc., went out of business in the past two years.

A few years ago, Hope Stone founder Jane Weiner hired salaried employees for the first time and nearly launched a capital campaign to help pay for a new space that required a half-million dollars in renovations. Seven months into the company’s expansion, Weiner closed the studio she had established in 1997.

“It was like slashing your wrist and watching yourself bleed. Houston is amazingly generous, but the budget keeps going,” says Weiner. “In some ways, I felt like a beggar in a business suit.”

Glus admits that midsize arts organizations, defined by HAA as companies with budgets between $750,000 and $2.5 million, are the most challenged to keep pace with paying for professional staffs, administrative and artistic needs, overhead, and facility responsibilities. The Houston Center for Photography, DiverseWorks and Musica Tra Amici are among Houston’s arts organizations that manage to keep a pulse in the turnover-prone sector.

Unlike large institutions, midsize organizations often operate without corporate underwriting and donations. Even with corporate support, it can be tough sledding.

Janette Cosley, the Ensemble Theatre’s executive director since 2003, says the exalted African-American theater company (whose longtime main fund-raiser, Audrey Lawson, died recently) is able to present its robust six-show schedule thanks to a dynamite subscription base, ticket sales and a creative use of the theater when it’s dark. (Ensemble rents its space on Main near Alabama for weddings, birthday parties, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology club and alumni meetings.)

However, corporate backing isn’t what it used to be, says Cosley, because big businesses have moved away from underwriting shows and toward funding youth programs. In the meantime, Cosley says, the $2 million theater, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, is prepared to withstand the expected decrease in HOT revenue. “We haven’t felt it yet, but you never know,” she says.


When Monica Villarreal and Danza Azteca arrived for day-of-performance rehearsal at The Silo for the HAA-created Transported + Renewed festival, which took place from September through November 2014, glass and dust covered the floor of the Fifth Ward space.

“We usually dance barefoot,” says Villarreal, who adds that the contractual cleanup responsibility fell on HAA’s Folklife + Traditional Arts Department. Villarreal says that Folklife Department director Pat Jasper and manager Angel Quesada curated her into the festival, whose theme, as HAA described it, “draws on Houstonians’ playful and artful obsession with ‘keeping things moving’ and living in an ever-changing and transforming urban landscape.”

The discouraging conditions inside the venue didn’t jibe with the glowing treatment Danza Azteca received in HAA’s promotional literature for the inaugural festival, which coincided with the opening of the East End portion of the Houston Metro light-rail line and the Houston Ship Channel centennial.

“In the marketing materials, we were like their models and treated like we were the featured artists…but we felt like a nuisance by the end of it,” says Villarreal. “It was super-unorganized and the whole project didn’t make sense.”

For Transported + Renewed, Carrie Schneider recorded seven audio walking tours for her larger ongoing project, Hear Our Houston. The red flags appeared after Schneider signed the grant contract.

“Most alarming was being instructed to change who was to be recorded based on [Jasper’s] judgment of what was most authentic to the neighborhood versus the selection of someone whose family has lived in the neighborhood for generations,” says Schneider.

On December 1, 2014, 11 artists, including Villarreal and Schneider, submitted a fiery open letter to HAA (which was posted on the Glasstire website) accusing the organization of a lack of transparency and accountability as well as the use of strong-arm tactics over content and publicity. One of the letter’s signees tells the Press that Jasper scolded a participating artist for talking about Transported + Renewed on Facebook.

“This has been a very, very healthy process from my perspective,” Glus says about the letter and follow-up meetings with the artists who felt ill-treated. “Transported + Renewed was a large initiative with hundreds if not thousands of people, so we wanted to do an overall assessment of the initiative.”

Houston is one of only a handful of American cities with an “urban folk life program” — HAA’s Folklife + Traditional Arts department was created in 2009. The department co-presented the Houston SLAB Parade and Family Festival, which featured en masse examples of the automobile art trend that was born in Houston’s African-American neighborhoods, at MacGregor Park in 2013.

“We’re very very proud of the [Folklife Department]. The impetus was there’s a whole cross section of our community that’s culturally specific,” says Glus. “They have unbelievably rich cultural activities and traditions that we, as an organization, weren’t really advancing because we were functioning as a traditional local arts agency where you provide grant money to organizations that produce.”

But Schneider is troubled by the department’s liberal use of “creative placemaking” — a buzz term generated by the much-ballyhooed Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class — and how the city-backed HAA could supplant the community it’s designated to help.

“When Houston Arts Alliance as an arts presenter competes with, rather than supports, the organizations and artists it was founded to serve, master planned projects like Transported + Renewed extract cultural capital from artists and neighborhoods for HAA’s cultural cache, while depleting the actual arts ecosystem here in Houston,” says Schneider.

According to internal HAA documents acquired by the Press, HOT funds, the Houston Endowment, Cullen Foundation, and a $200,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant funded Transported + Renewed. For Villarreal’s multi-month ordeal, which included a hefty rehearsal schedule, HAA paid $1,000 to the ten-member Danza Azteca. (For those doing the math, that’s a colossal $100 for each artist.)

In 2005 and 2006, Mayor Bill White consolidated four different local cultural arts programs, including the longtime Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County, into the Houston Arts Alliance. While New York, Chicago and Philadelphia established city art departments during the NEA era of the 1960s, Houston, Fort Worth, St. Louis and Charlotte established nonprofit entities that aren’t located directly inside the city chambers. (Another model, seen in smaller cities such as Austin and San Jose, places art services inside economic development.)

Though Houston City Council approves HAA’s budget and bylaws each year, the arts are slightly beyond arms’ length from public-policy discussion. However, Glus thinks the current model works because of Houston’s long history of community and philanthropic engagement with the arts as well as a more consistent stream of tax revenue that’s not tied to the city’s general fund.

Lennon, who resigned over the Ed Wilson fiasco, disagrees. “A city of Houston’s size and diversity needs its own cultural department with a consolidated budget,” he says.


One of the most unbecoming verdicts in the Arts & Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report is found at the conclusion of the commissioned study’s executive summary: “Houston is a great place for artists to get started, or to be at the top, but without any clear path from the bottom to the top, people will move on.”

A compounding factor for some mid-career artists, such as visual artist and Texas Southern University associate professor Leamon Green, is Houston’s increasing living costs.

In 1990, Green moved from Philadelphia to Houston, and quickly made solid connections with gallerists and curators. Though the local network of artists remains strong, Green says Houston’s higher population density in neighborhoods like the Heights, where he lives, is escalating land values.

“There’s eight times the population on a piece of land where one family used to live,” says Green. “I don’t know where I would move.”

“People flocked to Houston because it was very cheap to live, but the amount of live-work space has become much more difficult. We need to use any muscle to force the issue of extra funds to Houston,” says Perryn Leech, managing director of Houston Grand Opera, who represented the Theater District Association during Arts and Cultural Plan meetings.

“If we want to be a cultural destination, we need to say that. Someone needs to fight that battle in City Hall,” adds Leech, who says the energy crisis is affecting HGO because donors have taken additional time with yearly and multi-year pledges. In the fall, HGO offered laid-off energy workers who are HGO subscribers a free renewal package for the organization’s 2015-2016 season.

In January, HAA asked Wilson to reapply for the commission that had been snatched away. “I had some real serious doubts…there was just so much support, so many people were upset and affected by the whole thing. I almost felt like it was my community civic duty to do it.”

Wilson eventually submitted his proposal for the second time. In March, Wilson won the award for a second time.

Along with the $830,000, part of the inked deal gave HAA full control over Wilson’s dealings with the media. (When the Press reached Wilson directly on his cell phone, he politely declined to talk to us.) After the Press jumped through HAA’s hoops, Marie Jacinto, HAA’s director of communications, set up a phone interview with Wilson — and insisted on listening in.

When asked if he would go through the four months of drama all over again, knowing that he would ultimately win the commission, Wilson, without hesitation, says, “Yeah, sure I would.”

After all, it’s the only game in town.

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