Houston’s Arts and Cultural Plan: What’s There, What’s Missing

When Houston City Council thumbs-upped the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs Arts and Cultural Plan on October 14, Houston had its first cultural policy document since 1993. 

There are good things and not-so-great aspects about the plan, the Houston Press found during an extensive canvassing of local artists and cultural organizations. 

The Arts and Cultural Plan was developed concurrently with Plan Houston, Houston’s first ever general plan, which City Council approved two weeks prior on September 30. Outgoing Mayor Annise Parker, City Council and a 39-member advisory committee headed by Philamena Baird and Rick Lowe led the effort. (The committee’s major players included Houston Arts Alliance president and CEO Jonathon Glus, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Gary Tinterow, Free Press owner Omar Afra, and the now former Fresh Arts executive director Jenni Rebecca Stephenson.) 

The plan’s 27 recommendations include items such as “joint efforts to augment Hotel Occupancy Tax funding for arts and culture with a new dedicated revenue source” and “leverage Houston’s ‘world city’ image, international arts venues, and diverse cultural offerings in destination marketing with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and other partners.” 

Many of the other recommendations “mirror those from 1993, which means that the community wants haven’t changed,” says Jane Cahill-West, president of the Super Neighborhood Association and Arts and Cultural Plan advisory committee member.

Money talk – specifically how to get more public dollars for local arts and cultural institutions and individual artists – dominated planning meetings. Currently, hotel occupancy tax money is the only local revenue stream for the arts in Houston. 

“On the one hand, we have an embarrassment of riches in that we have so much going on and so much great talent, but on the other, we are not keeping pace with [small and midsize arts organizations],” says Glus. “Through the cultural planning process, it became really clear that we need an additional funding mechanism that’s going to address this.”

Kim Tobin-Lehl, who co-founded Stark Naked Theatre with her husband, Philip Lehl, is worried that the life-or-death financial concerns for small- and midsize theater companies, which are some of the most challenged arts organizations in Houston, may not have been heard loud and clear. “The meetings were hugely populated by visual artists and individual artists,” says Tobin-Lehl. “I feel like [the plan] was very aimed at individual artists.” 

Meanwhile, Sixto Wagan, director of the Center for Arts Leadership at the University of Houston, who was asked by the committee to give his two cents, is impressed that the city put together a document in such a short amount of time — approximately nine months. Critics think the Harvard-bound Parker rushed the plan in order to have a legacy document on her curriculum vitae.

“It takes other cities around two years to complete their cultural plans,” says Wagan, who thinks Houston’s plan is weighted toward the city’s known cultural institutions. “A lot more work needs to happen. It’s a living document that sets out some frameworks for future discussions. Lots of things will require resources. Will the Mayor and City Council come up with the resources?” 

Wagan is also pumped that the ratified plan stresses diversity as a major asset in Houston’s cultural core. According to the 2014 Center for Houston’s Future Arts and Cultural Heritage Community Indicator Report, Houston has been failing miserably with supporting local “ethnic and cultural awareness” nonprofit organizations. The study shows that “ethnic and cultural awareness” nonprofits represent 13 percent of local arts institutions, but capture less than 2 percent of the segment’s total revenue.

Visual artist Nathaniel Donnett says that the Houston Arts Alliance, the city’s officially designated arts and cultural organization, can take the lead in expanding the scope of Houston arts. 

“Houston is the fourth, soon to be third largest city. I think we’ve earned the right to create our own things under our own terms and let the rest of the world follow us for a change,” says Donnett, who won a 2015 Idea Fund/Andy Warhol Foundation grant to develop Not That But This, a blog that publishes profiles on local and national African-American artists and writers. “Can you say ‘Screw’ music? Can you say ‘Project Row Houses?’ It is now time to push further and forward.”

Donnett continues, “Is there a way to get more money by working with the corporations, institutions and development companies here in Houston? Are the Latino and African-American groups being viewed in a fair and equal footing, sans education or traditional art bias? If not, maybe one can begin by placing people who understand that language and who know the cultural and artistic value in the decision-making places. Wouldn’t that allow for true diversity to begin happening outside of trying to fit into anyone else’s box of expectations?”

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