(UPDATE) Councilman Al Hoang On Public Art Funding: Here We Go Again

Update, Wednesday, November 24: Houston Arts Alliance communications director Ryland Holmes weighs in. Her statements after the jump.

Update, Tuesday, November 23: Councilmember Ed Gonzales (Heights, Near North Side) talked with us. See his statements after the jump.

Yet again the debate over public art funding is back. Last Thursday, City councilman Al Hoang said he thinks the city's public arts ordinance should be revised. Currently the ordinance puts aside 1.75 percent of the city's construction budget for art. Hoang thinks it should be reduced to one percent. "This is nothing against art, but this is about priorities," he said.

Hoang's statement came after the Houston Arts Alliance unveiled a $360,000 sculpture by James Surls, Standing Vase with Five Flowers, at the parks and recreation department's headquarters on Wayside.

City Council approved the purchase in August before the news that Houston could face a $50 to $80 million budget shortfall by the end of the fiscal year.

The Arts Alliance says it purchases art from funds it receives through the Hotel Occupancy Tax (its own pocket really).

The sculpture isn't even original or a first for Houston. Art Attack found evidence of at least three existing copies--one in New York, one in Hamilton, New Jersey, and one at Rice University. Begs the questions: Did Houston really need another vase with flowers? Is the Arts Alliance playing favorites with Surls? Downtown's Market Square already has another prominent Surls piece, and it's kind of an eyesore.

Hoang sent us this statement today: "Moving forward, I think we need to look at how we're spending every penny so that we can continue to provide necessary core services. I know the administration is working diligently to find cost-savings and I hope they will take a look at the civic art ordinance, which mandates council allocate 1.75% of capital improvement monies for art.

I think re-evaluating this decade-old ordinance would be appropriate at a time when we're looking across the board for savings."

He reiterated: "It's nothing against art, it's simply about priorities. We need to look into every program for possible savings.

I hope this will be an issue we can openly discus in our budget committee. I intend to ask our committee chair to consider my request for discussion on this topic at an upcoming budget meeting."

We've put out calls other city council members, as well as the Arts Alliance. We'll report back with an update.

Update: Tuesday, November 23: Councilmember Ed Gonzales talked with us. He feels the city should be very cautious before cutting any arts funding.

"In my opinion we should be looking to do more [public art], not less," he said. "I'm very supportive of the arts. I think that in this new economy, it's cities that have vibrant arts communities that are attracting top talent. It's an important aspect of the quality of life."

He's been involved with /supportive of Bayou City Art Festival and FotoFest, among others.

"The economic return to the city is very high. There is a strong return of investment of those dollars [spent on the arts]."

"I think we have to be mindful before we just start cutting things. We have to look a little bit deeper and make some honest, touch choices. We have to look at what's the return of investment here, not only in dollars but in quality of life."

"Do we need to do our due diligence? Do we need to review everything? Absolutely. Obviously, we have limited dollars, but I think we need to be very strategic and look at the broader picture. First we need to look at internal inefficiencies, duplication of services. I would be very cautious before we just started cutting the arts across the board."

"Public art provides opportunities to everyone, regardless of the demographics, to be exposed to different forms of art. Beyond that, it's a beautifying element and it's a source of pride.

He represents Heights, Near North Side where Luis Jimenez's sculpture Vaquero has been standing for years.

"I grew up seeing it and I remember the discussions about it. Some people were for it and other people were against it. But that's the beauty of art, that it sparks discussion, to make us think. Now it's become a landmark.

"I would ask for more discussion just to make sure we're making the right decision. I don't think it should be just a line item that we cut without any questions."

Update: Tuesday, November 23: HAA communications director Ryland Holmes corrected our inference that the Surls' piece existed in many editions. It is indeed the one that was displayed in New York City and at Rice University. However, she said that it's very much an exception to the rule for a city department to puchase an existing artwork rather than commission original works for public construction projects. The parks department was simply set on purchasing that particular piece, feeling it was the right match for its headquarters.

Holmes also clarified that public artworks are not purchased or commisioned through HOT funds (hotel occupancy tax)--only through the percent-for-art ordinance on eligible capital improvement projects.

"When they say eligible capital improvement, there's a monetary minimum--it's for projects at $500,000 or more. So if the city pays $30,000 to rework some plumbing in a police station, that's not eligible. But when the parks department builds a new facility, or when the airport has a large construction project, Houston Arts Alliance contracts on behalf of the city of Houston with the airport's general services department, fire, police, CEFD. There is a civic art panel that meets, and they select the artist and the proposed project on behalf of whatever department is getting the project, and our civic art and design team works with the department and the artist as well as fabricators and contractors to make the piece come to fruition."

Holmes also speculated, saying a cut in the ordinance could mean that the caliber of artists chosen could change, or the works could move to a smaller scale. "Each project is so unique and individual to the space where it's going," she said. "If the plan for a new construction is to have an enormous sculpture and the money goes down, then perhaps the artist changes."

Art Attack was surprised to learn that Houston's percent-for-art ordinance is higher than cities like Philadelphia and New York, which only allocate one percent.

Seems like Hoang's not really aware of how the city funds its public art. If he gets his way, improvements will still get done, just with less money in their overall budgets for flourishes. Unless the projects' overall budgets come down, cutting the percent-for-art ordinance hardly seems like a significant solution to mending the city's shortfall. It's just a politician's way of taking a phillistine swing at a municipal management problem.

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