Political Art

If there's one thing that peeves Mayor Bob Lanier, it's back talk. And the best thing to do when Lanier is peeved at you is to stay out of sight -- which is exactly what the administrators, board members and supporters of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County were doing last week following City Council approval, sans discussion, of CACHH's annual contract.

For the previous two months, the mayor had been shaking the arts council like a rag doll, accusing it of spending too much money on itself, inflating its bureaucracy, playing politics and indulging in conflicts of interest. That's all stuff that often goes on at City Hall, stuff that the mayor occasionally does himself, but it's also stuff that he doesn't abide in others. When Lanier catches someone at this game, the proper response is contrition, not self-defense.

Not that CACHH hasn't been contrite. After two months of negotiations, last Wednesday it rolled over and offered Council a contract that guts its administrative costs and, unless some new money is quickly raised from private sources, nearly guarantees layoffs in its 18-member staff.

The irony is that for the past several years, CACHH has been riding high. Three years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts (which has admittedly come under fire itself) cited CACHH as a model arts agency and gave it a $250,000 grant to implement an ambitious cultural plan for the Houston region. That plan, called Artworks, was created by a regional task force instigated by then-mayor Kathy Whitmire and then-county judge Jon Lindsay and underwritten by the city, the county and several of the city's most prominent foundations. Under the plan, CACHH was to do more than simply pass public grants to arts organizations. It was to become "the region's official arts agency, charged with planning, policy development, promotion, programs, services and liaison with civic, business and governmental groups." In 1993, when Lanier accepted the plan, a small arts group serenaded him to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," only substituting the name "Bob Lanier." That was respect.

But memories of that golden time haven't lingered. Over the summer, the mayor has trashed CACHH as a self-serving agency that needed to be cut down to size. Created as a nonprofit contractor to insulate public arts funding from politics, CACHH has just received a thorough lesson in realpolitik, and the agency's strategy now appears to be to hunker down, wait for term limits to take care of Lanier in 16 months and hope the city's next chief executive is friendlier.

CACHH's problems started in early June, when the members of the Downtown Theater District -- which consists of Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, the Alley Theatre, the Houston Ballet, the Society for the Performing Arts, Theatre Under the Stars and Da Camera -- announced that they wanted to be dropped from the arts council and be directly funded by the city via a guaranteed percentage of the city's hotel occupancy taxes. These are the taxes that had been passing through CACHH first, but the theater district groups complained that while the funds available to CACHH had been growing, their grants from the arts council had been declining. Too, charged the Theater District spokesmen, the grants had been tied up in a cumbersome and unnecessary peer review process. Since everyone knew that the Theater District's members did good work, the argument went, why should they have to jump through hoops for money that constituted less than 2 percent of their budgets, especially when this money at one time was guaranteed to the major arts groups?

CACHH had heard such complaints from leaders of major arts organizations for years. In 1979, when the arts council was created, it had been seen as a pass-through agency. Most of its funds went directly to the established major arts groups; what was left behind was about a quarter of the total, and it's that money that all the small groups competed for. But as the small arts groups multiplied, they complained about an arrangement in which public funds went almost exclusively to groups that seemed to primarily serve white, well-to-do audiences. Many arts groups took as their primary mission education and social service, and they criticized the majors for their lack of outreach to the minority community. The smaller groups further pointed out that while the public grants were a minor part of the major arts groups' budgets -- budgets that included six-figure salaries for top administrators, and which were passed by boards consisting of the city's corporate and social elite -- they could be critical to the life of a shoestring neighborhood arts organization.

Bowing to the pressure, the majors finally agreed to compete for their grants with everybody else. Some, such as HGO, fared well, while others, such as the Houston Symphony, were sharply questioned about ongoing million dollar deficits. Nonetheless, there appeared to be a wary truce between the small and midsize groups and their larger, richer brethren.

What the CACHH board and its administrators failed to grasp this time around, though, was that the Theater District, led by Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley, was not only serious, but also had some political muscle behind its request. The Houston Chronicle (which somehow neglected to point out that it's a corporate member of the Downtown Theater District) editorialized twice in favor of the Theater District's proposal. More important, the Theater District had the support of Jordy Tollet, director of the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department, and the city official to whom CACHH reports. Tollet is intimately familiar with the Theater District, for his office manages the Wortham Theater Center, where HGO and Houston Ballet perform, and Jones Hall, home to the Houston Symphony. A change in the way CACHH distributed its money had the potential to strengthen Tollet's position, and Tollet has the ear of the mayor.

CACHH balked at the Theater District's request. Despite the sometimes testy relationships between the big groups and the smaller ones, CACHH board members thought it best if all arts groups stuck together under their supervision. CACHH also expressed concern about accountability, about who the major arts groups would have to answer to if money was funneled to them directly. Another reason for hesitation was that the Theater District desired an increase in its funding, from the $1.1 million it received in 1995-96 to $1.4 million for '96-97. Many smaller and midsize groups feared that the extra $300,000 would come from their grants.

In mid-July, when CACHH director Marion McCollam and her board tried to negotiate a compromise with the Theater District, Tollet released the results of an audit of CACHH that he had requested last November from the city's Finance and Administration Department. The auditors questioned the expenditure of city funds for staff birthday cakes and flowers, a $400 bonus to a janitor and the payment of health club dues for staff who then paid the agency back on a monthly basis. For an agency with a $5 million plus budget, the details were picayune. They were of the sort that could have been dealt with quietly -- or used for public humiliation.

But the most significant question that the auditors raised appeared to deal with policy, not finances: if CACHH was to be a pass-through, grant-dispensing agency, the audit concluded, then its spending money on itself and its own programs to become a super arts agency was questionable.

In response to the Theater District's attack on CACHH, three dozen smaller arts groups banded together to form a supporting organization called All Arts for All Houston. On July 30, they staged a protest on the steps of city hall, with mimes, dancers and musicians performing and carrying placards. Inside, about 30 members signed up for Council's "pop-off" session. Among them was Jeffrey Salzberg of Houston Dance Coalition, who expected to speak for his allotted minute and be done. But Lanier kept him at the podium for an hour, grilling him on arts funding. The whole scene still grates on Lanier, who accused CACHH administrators of orchestrating the demonstration, even though Salzberg and other protesters insist that they organized on their own.

While the mayor ground his teeth about the protests, Councilmen Judson Robinson III and Jew Don Boney worked behind the scenes to negotiate the compromise that passed last week. The net result was that CACHH will be much more of a pass-through agency. Nearly $3 million of the arts council's annual $5 million in hotel tax money will be passed directly through to the major arts organizations in both the theater and museum districts. Jordy Tollet will review all the grants made by the agency, though he insists that he will not interfere with the peer review process. But some CACHH supporters fear the ground has been laid for Tollet to absorb the role of the agency within his department. For smaller and midsize organizations, the upside is that in 1997 CACHH will offer them $244,000 more in grants than it did this year.

And that's another reason the mayor is irritated. He remembers all too well how the small groups protested that they were going to suffer, and now he's delivered them more money. So why don't they give him some credit?

Indeed, part of Lanier's arts policy has been that if he's given the credit, he'll find the funds. It was Lanier who delivered the so-called "Republican penny" of extra hotel tax during the 1994 convention. In fact, the mayor has pretty well built his own arts program. First of all, he takes $150,000 off the top of CACHH's funds for his own "City Initiative" of emergency grants to small organizations. With these grants, which can amount to several thousand dollars, there's no red tape or bureaucratic hassle of the sort involved in getting a CACHH grant. All one has to do is write a letter to the mayor's administrative assistant, Joe Weikerth, and explain his purpose. If it strikes Weikerth or the mayor's fancy, the funds are provided. This is grant making the old-fashioned way, where the source of the funds is obvious, and where some political stroke can be earned.

Lanier has also leveraged close to $3 million in community block development grants to support the arts. The most controversial such grant went to the Glassell School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which received $421,000. Glassell is hardly in a low-rent neighborhood, something normally required for community block development grant recipients, but the rationale was that minority kids are among the groups for which Glassell provides instruction. Another block grant, this one for $500,000, is going to the Ensemble Theatre, an African-American theater group that wanted to buy and renovate its building on Main Street near the redeveloping Midtown neighborhood. A third grant of $992,000 has gone to renovate a former East End supermarket into a Latin-American cultural center for the group Talento Bilingue.

Talento Bilingue is one of those art groups that Lanier likes, and its contract came up the same day last week as CACHH's. Somehow, while dealing with Talento Bilingue, the mayor and Council, who don't always stick to the subject at hand, started talking about CACHH. Felix Fraga pointed out what an asset Talento Bilingue will be to the at-risk children of his district. Then the mayor got going on CACHH and how he still resented that it had organized demonstrations against him. Don't think he wasn't going to remember that, he said, and if he got any static from CACHH or its supporters next year, it was going to be difficult for them.

Looking across the table at Councilman John Peavy, Lanier wondered aloud why Peavy had gotten into so much trouble for conflict of interest for owning a share of a city franchise (an ice cream shop at Hobby Airport), when it was known that some of the directors of arts groups that received CACHH funds served on the CACHH board. Lanier wanted to know what kind of self-serving deal was that?

What went unmentioned was that one of the directors of arts groups serving on the CACHH board this year is Richard Reyes, of the Lanier-approved Talento Bilingue. When Reyes needed an emergency grant for his new 15,000-square-foot center, Lanier strong-armed CACHH into giving him a $60,000 grant. CACHH bylaws prohibit board members such as Reyes from voting on grants that affect them, and Reyes says he wasn't in the room when the mayor's request was passed.

Still, there's no missing Reyes' good fortune, though it apparently doesn't come from his sitting on the CACHH board (a board, incidentally, that now appears terrified of the mayor, and whose members failed to return calls when contacted for this story). There is a fundamental political problem with CACHH that runs against the mayor's apparent idea of what an arts program should do: CACHH's grants don't generate any political return for the mayor. And that's where Talento Bilingue is instructive. It's not CACHH that's made Talento Bilingue flush, it's the mayor. Thanks to Lanier, Talento Bilingue has raised $300,000 and is hosting a September 20 gala at the Four Seasons Hotel that's been underwritten for $25,000 by Wells Fargo Bank and a host of Lanier's friends. The gala is honoring -- who else? -- Bob and Elyse Lanier. Now that's how to run an arts organization.


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