City Council Wasting Time Debating the Merits of Art, Marketing and Birds

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Back in December, our cover story featured the strange tale of Ed Wilson. The sculptor was commissioned to create a work of art for the atrium of the George R. Brown Convention Center in time for Super Bowl LI in 2017, but the Houston Arts Alliance rescinded the offer...then asked Wilson to reapply...then gave him the commission they initially rejected. Well, Wilson is back in the news, but this time it has less to do with money or red tape than with art and, of all things, branding.

The Houston Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the city's funding of Wilson's 60-foot installation would be put on hold because certain council members were concerned that the rendering of birds and clouds did not further the goal of marketing the city to outsiders. The folks on city council often say some weird stuff, but this is pretty crazy even for them.

Councilman Robert Gallegos and Councilwoman Brenda Stardig took turns arguing that the bird sculpture didn't "promote global trade" and remind people NASA is here...or something. Council members David Robinson and Karla Cisneros, on the other hand, encouraged embracing our ornithological diversity. I wish I were kidding.

I don't pretend to be an expert on the arts, but hearing these sorts of discussions makes me wonder if, presented with Van Gogh's The Starry Night, council might argue that stars aren't supposed to be that big (even in Texas), but at least it promotes space exploration! And I fail to understand how the Mona Lisa promotes trade in Paris or the Statue of Liberty reminds global businesses that the Stock Exchange is located in New York City. Of course, they don't, which is what made the whole spectacle at city council on Wednesday look more like a rural school board town hall debating the merits of the theme for the fall dance than the fourth-largest city in America pondering a public sculpture.

Moreover, trying to mold art to fit a city's brand is ridiculous, not because those things are mutually exclusive (though, in this case, they probably are and rightfully should be), but because it is laughable for city council to think that the city of Houston actually has a brand.

Just last year, I wrote about some of the dumbest attempts at promoting us to the outside world. These included slogans like "Space City: A Space of Infinite Possibilities" and (I shit you not) "The Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt." At least the latter didn't cleave desperately to the fact that NASA resides here. And if we are being totally honest, we can admit that the vast majority of the country only recognizes our relationship to NASA because of that misquoted line from Jim Lovell that has been a boon for lazy headline writers everywhere and a source of constant frustration for anyone actually from here.

The point is, we have floundered badly when trying to come up with a way to say, "Gee whiz, America, you guys will love our city!" The closest to the mark was the "Houston, It's Worth It" campaign, which wisely took a self-deprecating approach in embracing both our beauty and our cockroaches. Naturally, it was never widely accepted by the city's powers that be because their grasp of the concept of irony appears to extend only about as far as that Alanis Morissette song.

Yet our elected officials continue to demand that even the most esoteric representations of Houston provide a return on their investment in the form of promoting global trade or some such nonsense. Look, if the city is so desperately concerned with an on-the-nose example of what everyone thinks Houston is, hire some day laborers to stencil giant boots or an oil derrick on the wall. Maybe go all in and put a 50-foot NASA logo in bright neon lights on the roof of the George R. Brown so everyone driving by on 59 can be blinded by its brilliance and reminded that WE ARE SPACE CITY, damnit.

And while they are at it, why not buy some b-roll video footage of the city shot by the NFL to use during home games. It will come complete with slabs of brisket, ladies in western wear and a bunch of cows grazing in a pasture somewhere west of Brenham. I mean, if that doesn't convince rich global oil barons to stop dead in their tracks and immediately sign billion-dollar contracts with the Port of Houston right in the shadow of that cowboy statue outside NRG Stadium, I don't know what will. 

But for the sake of argument, let's assume council does in fact want something of a more artistic nature — I would say abstract, but they are unable to grasp the fact that Wilson's piece is probably not even about birds — to show that "we're super-sophisticated, y'all." Maybe they should consider a sculpture of a guy in a cowboy hat bathing in a tub of oil with a six shooter in one hand, a plastic space shuttle in the other, a barbecue sandwich hanging out of his mouth and a cartoon speech bubble over his head that says "YEE HAW!"

I'm betting that would sail through city council with nary an argument.

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