It's your money!" went the refrain of Wayne Dolcefino's ABC 13 "exposé" of the Houston Arts Alliance last week. Dolcefino's four-night investigative series "The Color of Money" not only targeted the Houston Arts Alliance, it targeted art in general.
There are real issues surrounding public art in Houston, but in Dolcefino's tangent-filled series, he tackled a meandering range of subjects that did and didn't have anything to do with your money! Dolcefino's often snickering you call that art? tone reminded a lot of Houston artists of the Jesse Helms years. The series was more about Dolcefino's opinions on art rather than issues surrounding public art.
You can find a lot of people in the Houston arts community who feel that the public art process is flawed and absurdly bureaucratic. The nonprofit Houston Arts Alliance was established in June 2006, combining the former Cultural Arts Council of Houston Harris County with the Municipal Art Commission and the Civic Art Committee to supposedly address some of those problems. HAA works in "public/private partnership" with the City of Houston to manage Hotel Occupancy Tax funds for art, as well as the Percent for Art program, in which 1.75 percent of the eligible funds of a building's construction costs are put toward art.
reporter Wayne Dolcefino
In his series of reports, Dolcefino kept using "your tax dollars!" as his rallying cry. But as often as not he was referring to money from the Hotel Occupancy Tax, and unless you are engaging in daily nooners at the downtown Hilton, these are not tax dollars you are paying. This is money paid by tourists and businesspeople staying at hotels in the Houston area.
Dolcefino tried to get downright artsy in his series, projecting interviews on easels and on a palette surrounded by some tubes of paint. The artiest part of the segments came when dollops of yellow and blue were mixed to make the green paint used in a dollar sign, while Dolcefino cried, "Green is the color of money." I'm just sorry ol' Wayne didn't don a beret for the series.
The constant in each one of Wayne's pieces was a shot of a startled-looking Jonathon Glus, the director of the Houston Arts Alliance. Glus, who started the job 16 months ago, was interviewed while spotlighted against a blank wall. One only had to imagine a bare bulb hanging over his head. He was presented as if he was being interrogated for crimes against humanity.
According to Glus, Dolcefino's investigation of the HAA took place over the course of three months. Dolcefino and his staff dug through nearly 300 HAA grants from 2006 and 2007 to find damning material for his piece. For the first segment, he found somebody who said one of the benefits of a project would be an increase in "lesbian puppet tourism," some seemingly inflated attendance numbers on some grants, and a poet who apparently hadn't fulfilled the final part of his grant.
I'm sure "lesbian puppet tourism" reflects an undoubtedly small demographic and I don't doubt people sometimes inflate attendance numbers on grant reports, but these revelations don't seem to warrant a lead slot on the local news. As for the poet, he received an individual artist grant to create a collection of poetry during a grant cycle in which artists were, according to Glus, "encouraged to make the piece public, but it was not obligatory."
When I spoke with Glus over the phone concerning the Dolcefino series, he seemed competent and knowledgeable; not so in the "Color of Money" series. Dolcefino's piece featured Glus's responses to questions about grants awarded before his arrival at HAA in which Glus seems to struggle for an answer.
"My interview was an hour and 15 minutes," says Glus, "but there is more airtime of me pausing than of me talking."
Dolcefino's money shot came when he somehow convinced Glus to read aloud an excerpt from a play by Crystal Jackson: "I'm not a queer, but I want someone to fuck me in the ass pretty much as soon as possible." On Jackson's Web site, she includes the excerpt from her grant with the section Dolcefino chose to highlight.
"This monologue features a character from a town about 50 miles outside of a large, southern city. The man grew up with a homophobic father who constantly told him to 'watch out for the queers.' Though the character cannot admit it to himself, he is gay. His opening line (I'm not a queer, but I want someone to fuck me in the ass pretty much as soon as possible) was intended to surprise the audience and set the tone for the rest of the show. It did so, very effectively. The monologue was not written to shock or be titillating. Instead, it showed us a very conflicted man who grew up bashing gay men but who now desperately wants to be loved by a man. He cannot admit this to himself, so he creates an entire 'queer conspiracy' to explain away his actions."
Context doesn't seem to be especially important to Dolcefino.
In the next two segments of his investigation, Dolcefino focused on works created as a part of the Percent for Art program. Margo Sawyer's Synchronicity of Color at Discovery Green came under fire. Sawyer's piece creates a multicolored exterior for the parking garage exits. For the project, the artist fabricated and powder-coated approximately 3,000 individual interlocking metal boxes of various sizes and depths. "What purpose does it serve?" says a parent visiting the park. Dolcefino tries to evoke horror at the work's cost. When he asks a visitor to estimate how much, she guesses $3,000. "Try $352,000 for three!" Dolcefino crows.
A project by the collaborative artist duo Manual for the Houston Wastewater Treatment Laboratory is sneered at as "art for the poop plant." Dolcefino inaccurately identifies it as being paid for by HOT money. According to Glus, the project was executed back when Percent for Art guidelines required that the art be placed at the exact construction site the funds came from. Now, funds can be pooled and work can be presented at more public sites.
It was in the fourth segment that Dolcefino really veered off course. He took on the Museum District, with shots of crumbling curbs and a street sign with graffiti on it. Why wasn't Hotel Occupancy Tax money being use to repair these things for tourists? Well, um, Wayne, because it can't.
"We went around and around with Wayne on this," says Nancy Sims, sounding like an exhausted civics teacher who's been working with a particularly dull student. Sims, a policy advisor to the museum district, again explains what she tried to explain to Dolcefino. "We cannot use hotel-motel tax money for structural improvements. Those are the city's responsibilities."
In the same segment, Dolcefino also took on the salaries of Susan Young, director of the Museum District Association, and Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, which have nothing to do with HOT money. He projected Young's $145,000 salary and Marzio's $888,173 total compensation on a screen and showed the museum's 990 tax return listing its $1.2 billion endowment.
Sims explains, "I think for the museum district and really the MFA, the frustration with last night's story is that none of the stuff that Wayne talked about concerning salaries has anything to do with tax dollars, nothing, nothing. The endowment is for accruing and collecting and expanding collections. None of it involves tax money. The tax money is used to market exhibits."
Marzio's level of compensation and, as noted by Dolcefino, the low (3.5%) interest-rate $518,400 loan given him by the museum for a Memorial condo are a story, but it's just not a story that has anything to do with HAA.
The problem with Dolcefino's series, other than factual errors, is that its sensationalistic and sneering you call that art? tone overwhelms any valid questions about HAA.
And Dolcefino's scattered series did touch on an issue of real concern. On night two of the series, Dolcefino noted the lack of production from HAA -- Synchronicity of Color is the only public artwork completed in the last two years. This is where the story seems to have legs. It also seems to be the reason for the seemingly strange participation of Houston Controller Annise Parker, always known as a friend to the arts, in the series.
Each segment in the series used the same clip of Parker saying, "It seems as if we've created a piggy bank that other people wanted to get their fingers in," bracketed by clips of someone smashing a piggy bank with change spilling out. But like most of the other interviews in the four-part series, the interviewee's answer was truncated.
In an e-mailed statement, Parker says, "My main concern is that there has been just one civic art project completed in two-and-a-half years. During this same time, HAA's budget has grown dramatically. In short, there was more art being produced and for far less cost prior to HAA taking over the program."
When I asked Glus about production issues, he cited the length of time fabrication takes and said there haven't been any projects recently because "HAA is only two years old. We had a series of competitions before I got here. We are now seeing the installation of Bert Long's piece [at Looscan Library], and we will see another five sizeable civic artworks installed within the next year. And then we have at least another three scheduled to come on by the end of '09."
About the increased costs, he says the alliance is expanding into a "fully staffed civic art department," and that funds were required to attract talented personnel to "manage a program of national standard."
Parker's part in the Dolcefino report gave the arts community pause. Aside from her past support for the arts, her bio on the Office of the Controller Web site lists her life partner; one wonders how she felt about the report's unconcealed contempt for art addressing gay issues.
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In her statement, Parker sidesteps condemning anything in Dolcefino's report but says:
"My job is to ensure financial accountability in the spending of city funds. Please don't mistake the comments I expressed in the recent 13 Undercover investigative series as reflecting opposition to the local arts community, its wonderful work or its artists. I have always been an avid supporter of the local performing and visual arts, serving two terms on the board of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum and working hard to create the percent-for-art program as a Houston City Council member. That has not changed. However, after conducting my own research, I believe HAA can do a better job of managing that program."
And can HAA do a better job of managing their civic art programs? In early December, we'll ask that question of artists who have been on the bureaucratic front lines of public art.
Full disclosure: Kelly Klaasmeyer is an editor at Glasstire, a local online art publication which receives some funding from Houston Arts Alliance.