Seven Topics No Artist Town Hall Meeting Should Miss

by Bill Davenport February 18, 2014

Tonight, artists of Houston will assemble for a Town Hall Meeting, organized by Art League Houston and Fresh Arts, “to collectively discuss the growing needs of artists living and working in the Houston area.”

I’ll be there, but there’s probably won’t be time for me to air all my many ideas an opinions in detail, so I’m using my Glasstire soapbox to jumpstart the discussion by putting a few on the table ahead of time.

hens1. Needs of artists vs. needs of art scene. Not the same thing. Artists are people, and their needs are simple: food, shelter, respect, a sense of purpose, and some friends, like anyone else. From the get-go, let’s chuck the idea that people who make art are more entitled to help in obtaining these things than anyone else, just because they’re artists. That’s Kickstarter culture, where the first move in a creative project is to beg for support.

Some artists make valuable contributions to the community, giving time, enthusiasm, intelligence, or excellence. It is these contributions that deserve our encouragement. Sure, we should foster an environment that makes it easy to experiment, with cheap studios, accessible venues, and transparent dialog, but continuing support needs to be earned, otherwise nothing means anything, and people stop trying.

2. Good schools. This means schools that attract talented people to Houston, connect them with the city, and smooth their postgraduate transition into the local scene. Dallas/Fort Worth is doing a great job at this. Houston can do better. UH and TSU aren’t the only art programs in Houston, although you might think so from their impact. Rice, HBU, SHSU, where are you? All three of these schools have art programs, all three could potentially to do for Houston what UTD, SMU, UNT and TCU do for the Metroplex.

3. Good Residencies. Houston’s doing pretty well here, but it’s the new programs like Lawndale‘s that have made the biggest impact recently. The MFAH’s CORE residents have, for several years now, been too academic, too careerist, and too transient to make much difference to the city. Easily fixed. Let’s start today!

4. Participation from the elders. Ironically, many of the best artists living in Houston don’t get out much. Artists with decent careers in New York and elsewhere, or comfy tenured teaching gigs don’t need to. It’s a lot of work: why bother? There’s no money in it, and no fame. Worse, jealous commercial galleries sometimes forbid their artists to show locally, lest they be undersold. But younger artists need living, local, real-world role models. Get out of your studios to mentor, collaborate, or exhibit, you elders! You owe it to your city. Think of the veneration that can be yours!

5. Money, Doh! This means that art must be perceived, by non-specialists, as worthwhile. The best way, of course, is for it to be undeniably, unforgettably great, but that’s not the main reason people support art. Mostly it’s pride and vanity, which sound like bad reasons, but aren’t. People naturally want to feel good about themselves, and look good in front of others, and if part of getting those good feelings involves supporting art, great! Art that makes people feel good isn’t necessarily good art, but, like a headache, bad art goes away eventually. The good feeling you get from supporting good art lasts and lasts.

 5a.  Financial support isn’t just sales and grants. It’s also rent and jobs. There’s a fascinating thing going on in Dallas, where individual contemporary artists are being used as a tool for real estate development, being given free rent by developers looking to attract attention to areas of the city they’re promoting. I’m going to call it “stimulated gentrification” similar to what’s being tried with Houston’s MATCH performing arts center, or Project Row Houses. Using individuals makes these projects aggressive, agile and idiosyncratic, and I suspect, much more temporary.

5b. Art Jobs. Employers: hire the best artists you know, pay them well, and don’t work them too hard.  They are insightful, creative, and often educated people who work for comparative peanuts. You’ll be doing yourselves a favor. If there were part-time jobs or a sabbatical program for all the talented artists worn down by working long hours for HISD, we’d all be culturally richer. The community colleges can’t employ everyone, and they don’t pay enough for adjunct faculty.

6. Private museums. Several wealthy people in Dallas have private museums. Sure, they’re doing it for snob value, but The Power Station, the Rachofsky Collection, and the Goss-Michael Foundation are bringing some very interesting art to their city, and maybe more importantly, they’re hiring Dallas artists, at living wages, to manage them. Every one of those artists has turned around, cashed their paycheck and sunk their own hard-earned money into the DIY alternative spaces that are currently lighting up the city. Dominique de Menil was Houston art’s fairy godmother, but she’s dead. The Station Museum has drastically cut back their programming. Come on, you richies! Indulge yourselves, and help the rest of us, too! You know you want to.


The Houston Artist Town Hall Meeting is Tonight, at the Eldorado Ballroom, from 6:30-8:30. Talk amongst yourselves . . .






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Allison Currie February 19, 2014 - 02:16

Re: Point 2,

There should be classes in the BFA programs at universities to teach the basics of how to be an entrepreneur, because that’s what artists are.

I enjoyed my time getting my BFA at UH, but came out of it saying ok, how do I organize a show for myself? How do I approach galleries (or do I back the heck up and wait to be “discovered”??) How do I manage sales taxes in Texas? How do I write to apply for grants??? <- Seriously. The art side was fine, but the practical skills were not there. I don't mean this to be rude to my professors, I just want to air this need. These are the things that I came out of graduation and into Houston's art world asking myself, how the hell do I get started??? As someone that has little desire to go to (read: pay for) grad school, I needed this to get covered in my BFA. Maybe they do this in grad, but I don't know. Re: 5b, Art Jobs, Dear MFAH - Does one really need to have an MFA to be an ASSISTANT to a curator??

Seth Mittag February 19, 2014 - 14:27

Well put Bill!

Katie Mulholland February 20, 2014 - 09:56

So before I say anything, I’ll state that I was one of less than 10 people under the age of 30 at this meeting. It’s not my job to call out or chastise people for what they are or are not interested in…but to all those who didn’t go to this and are currently represented, or seeking to be, and are around the early 30s or under:

you were given an opportunity to be listened to by several active & evolving non profits in YOUR home town (& were called to participate in evolving Houston to actually be better than a city with sucky taste in art(for starters))…and pissed the chance away.

You know who you are, I know who you are, instead of commenting on here with your concerns… write an e-mail to Fresh Arts or Art League stating your concerns and actually do something to change things instead of being passive and non consequential about it.

POST TOWN HALL MEETING THOUGHTS/SELECTIVE SUMMARY: Houston needs more temporary, incubatory, project spaces… We, as a city, place too much importance on permanence, boat loads of funding, and longevity as a marker of success. These things don’t always have to be single serving over-the-top “pop up”s or stale like museums…. they just need to serve until they have served their purpose & discarded when no longer fresh or doing the job.

Every idea/institution has an expiration date if it’s purpose doesn’t keep evolving. Some exist, with the same burned-out figure heads or continue the same way of doing things because it’s mindless and works… and they have become too large for failure to be an option or a legitimate means to grow. It’s ok, people will still give them money and they will probably still be existing when our children are our age because they are fail-safe and pull off extravagant ideas/shows/events. However, for the most part, they keep existing as relics because we allow them to or believe that they are an integral part of the Fine Arts infrastructure… even when they are no longer relevant or contributing to society. This is where incubatory project spaces come into play. They can be two dimensional and stationary in purpose & seize to exist when they must… or evolve into something completely different to fill some other need.

These individually ran & temporary project spaces help keep the larger institutions fresh by shedding light on progressive & relevant ideas from touring artists and the unestablished… they also help diversify & shift the city’s art making demographics ( currently predominantly middle aged, white, & middle class)…. leading to better art & art making opportunities. The money’s out there… lets get things in gear to shake stuff up. The goal should be to keep things fresh, relevant, & moving forward.

Along those lines… check this place out! perfect example of what a temporary project space could be:

The Lost Word. Check it out: Secret Art Demolition Gathering for the Lost Ward Gallery

Robert Boyd February 20, 2014 - 11:55

“Every idea/institution has an expiration date if it’s purpose doesn’t keep evolving. Some exist, with the same burned-out figure heads or continue the same way of doing things because it’s mindless and works… and they have become too large for failure to be an option or a legitimate means to grow. It’s ok, people will still give them money and they will probably still be existing when our children are our age because they are fail-safe and pull off extravagant ideas/shows/events. However, for the most part, they keep existing as relics because we allow them to or believe that they are an integral part of the Fine Arts infrastructure… even when they are no longer relevant or contributing to society.”

When I read pungent condemnations like this, my only response is, “Name names.”

Katie Mulholland February 27, 2014 - 20:45

Naming names wouldn’t do any good, except fuel unecessary drama mongering & finger pointing. All you have to do is sit and listen and maintain a good memory of the present & past to know who and what and when I am talking about. I promise it is no big new news.

People getting burned out is a part of the natural cycle of any seemingly large non profit organization taking on a huge chunk of a cities demands. The fact of the matter is that there are rarely no more than 10 people running them, and a ton of interns… most fairly underpaid (the experience is payment enough most of the time, maybe) for what they are doing… if paid at all (major museums included).

It’s SUPER important for non profits to change up the game every once in a while… because the fact of the matter is that they run on pure magic and unicorn piss, which I can only assume is a stressful job locating reliable sources of either. DiverseWorks has spent the past 4 years+ playing musical chairs with directors and staff, Art League gutted its ranks not too long ago by one means or another, Spacetaker evolved, severed a limb or two & sprouted Fresh Arts, The Houston Area Women’s center has been seeing some change too this past year & a half.

Thinking anyone that is doing their job and kicking ass is going to stay somewhere forever is just ludicrous. Kicking ass takes a lot of energy and creativity to focus 9-5 for 5, sometimes 7 days a week, for several years and not eventually feel like moving on to the next thing. On a similar note and not entirely unrelated, it’s like how all THE WORST professors I have ever had were sitting pretty with a tenured position. Teaching is something they just show up for and throw a bone or two to the TAs. In summary, if someone is skating by somewhere and is not moving over to keep things fresh with new people and ideas, then it’s time to question the quality of service they are giving to our community.

Katie Mulholland February 20, 2014 - 10:09

also, the link above ^^^^ is the place where that photograph is from. The one that Bill/Glasstire used to head this article when you query/link from the main page.

It features wall drawings & paintings by Josh Urban Davis & Ronald L. Jones

Joe Spurlock February 24, 2014 - 08:54

Spot on on all points

gabriel martinez February 24, 2014 - 20:25

Artists Talking Endlessly
i was glad to participate in the artist town hall-even if a town full of artists is a frightening prospect. i didnt know what to expect, or what, if any, of the things on my list would be of concern to a large group of strangers. i was happy to see that everyone took it seriously. ayanna patrick and carrie managed to keep the meeting on track despite the bedlam. i am a fan of all three and i might not have participated had they not been involved.
some thoughts as to the limitations of such a meeting might be helpful.
as would some restrictions on subject matter: this should be a time to talk collectively as a group. it is through this collective voice that we have any political clout.
individual artists who were looking to get a show or get their name out there or get more time with Houston gallerists wasted the time of any attempts at a collective voice. fuck off and get a show. this isnt the place for it.
there are lots of resources available to Houston artists. perhaps art league, HAA, fresh arts, TALA, lawndale, etc should organize a resource fair to advertise some of the services they offer. these services are actually what make houstons art scene special. they are the result of dedicated individuals and they should be shared, just maybe not at a town hall meeting. resource sharing is an important part of building an art scene: the acknowledgement of dependence and vulnerability and the collective address of these issues. this benefits all artists.
but real estate agents asking artists to volunteer their talents in the service of urban development?
the only answer is to meet again
and again

Felipe Contreras February 27, 2014 - 01:49

Some good points, Bill.
I wish I would have been able to make it to the meeting.

Tommy Gregory February 27, 2014 - 10:37

I am especially fond of 4 and 5b. Some great points overall.


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