At a meeting of Houston Arts Alliance’s Civic Art Committee on November 20, tensions between the powerful committee and the staff of HAA’s Civic Arts + Design program erupted into an open break. Unhappy with the process that resulted in the selection of Houston artist Ed Wilson for a high-profile commission at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the committee set aside the decision of HAA’s selection panel and decided to re-start the entire process with new rules, leading to the resignation of Matthew Lennon, HAA’s Civic Art + Design Director, a few days later.
According to informed sources, it began when CAC chair Brad Bucher took issue with both the slate of artists presented by the HAA staff as candidates for the GRB commission, and the members of the selection panel.
They weren’t new complaints. Bucher and others on the CAC had raised the same concerns months earlier when the lists of seven artists and five panelists was first presented at the CAC’s tense September meeting. Back then, CAC members balked at HAA’s short, staff-selected list of local artists and called for a broader selection of what CAC member Judy Nyquist called “blue chip” artists, with Lennon insisting that locals could “do great things” within the project’s substantial, but less-than-blue-chip, budget. Bucher also complained back in September that the CAC “was being pushed out” of the panel selection process, and that Civic Art + Design staff should always submit the names of panelists for the committee’s approval. He suggested alternates for two of the five selection panel members, but not for sculptor Paul Kittelson, who he called “great.”
Although some attempt was reportedly made to comply with the CAC’s wishes, none of the five HAA-selected panelists was ever changed. The original panel went on to choose from the original list of local artists, and unanimously chose Ed Wilson’s proposal for the GRB commission.
Two months later, at the November CAC meeting, Bucher had problems with Kittelson’s participation. He pointed out that Kittelson had “known Wilson a long time” and raised the issue of conflict of interest, again questioning HAA staff about their policies for selecting panelists.
Committee member Janet Hobby suggested that a flawed selection process wasn’t the real problem. She asked Bucher, “So the real issue is you don’t like the artwork? That it’s not world-class enough?” To which Bucher replied, “I feel like we should have come in with our own list of artists.”
One CAC member asked if HAA had a written procedure for nominating people for selection panels. Matthew Lennon explained that staff recommended panelists to HAA head Jonathon Glus for approval. Glus defended the murky process, saying, “We manage the grant panels with conflict of interest. We have a model at HAA.”
Committee members felt there ought to be a more formal procedure for choosing panelists and for managing conflicts of interest. Glus offered to hire a consultant to ensure best practices were being followed. Sara Kellner‘s name was mentioned.
Nyquist suggested that the CAC revisit the project with a fresh panel and a new list of artists. Discussion followed on this possibility. Questions were raised about whether Houston First, the clients for the GRB project, needed to approve the change, and whether a new, even more hurried process would be better. Lennon objected, saying the original selection process “was not done in a vacuum. It took months.”
A vote was taken. With Mayor’s Assistant for Cultural Affairs Minnette Boesel and the committee’s lone artist-member, Randy Twaddle, abstaining, the rest of the CAC voted to reject the selection panel’s recommendation of Wilson. A second vote, to reconsider the GRB project in context of a new “Selection Process Policy Statement” to be developed jointly by the CAC and HAA staff, was approved.
After this vote, the CAC turned its attention to the Southwest Airlines project at Hobby Airport, which also awarded some large commissions recently, one to Christian Eckhart, the runner-up for the GRB commission. Selection panel decisions for these commissions were left standing, despite the acknowledgement that the same selection process had been used.
Lennon resigned in protest a few days after this meeting. Sara Kellner has been hired as Interim Director of Civic Art + Design at HAA. The exact membership and authority of the Civic Art Committee remain hard to discover, as do the details of any new selection processes HAA will use when it reconsiders the GRB project in the next few weeks.