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HAA Civic Art Committee’s Big Do-Over

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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20 Responses

  1. Troy Stanley

    The CAC, which from what I gather is composed of something like 13 art collectors and 1 artist (can someone correct me on this). Why does the CAC have so much power in this instance to call for completely new system to secure an artist to their liking. Their role should not be “Taste Makers”.

    To discredit Paul Kittleson and to infer that he cannot remain objective to the selection of the artist flies in the face of his BFA, his MFA, and his tenure position at the University of Houston since 1992. To say that his knowing Ed for many years poses a conflict of interest???? I think perhaps this CAC should re-evaluate their credentials and their “Interests”

  2. Will Cutting

    The statement I have issues with is “the powerful committee”. I have read this in the Chronicle and here.

    I think someone needs to clarify that their role is to be supportive of HAA, and if needed, make recommendations if there is anything inappropriate; they are not meant to act as curators.

  3. For six years the staff has had the autonomy to develop the program, consult with clients and deliver successful projects.

    It’s not that the process failed. It’s that a small cadre, misled by the leadership, want control of the process.

    This demonstration of entitlement is ill-conceived. ‘We know what’s best/who’s best, we are the curators for the city collection, we want …’ Is this anything more than a vulgar display of elitism?

    The ordinance and contracts in no way mention the committee. Let alone appoint them as a deciding body.

    The position of the leadership towards art and artists was made clear at the end of the committee’s meeting. The chair stated his dislike for the placement of the Plensa sculptures on Allen Parkway. Staff informed him that the artist had visited Houston and sited the work. This was inconsequential. When staff said the artist should be consulted the chair’s response was a succinct curatorial statement:

    “We bought. We own it. We can do whatever we want with it.”

  4. sharon engelstein

    Without a doubt I believe Paul could and DID remain impartial. And it is due to his keen eye and solid character (not his college degrees).
    I am sure he selected what he believed to be the best of the proposals–without favoritism. Unfortunately it sounds like his judgement is in question when he is another victim of this whole debacle.

  5. I know Houston is a large city, but the sculpture world in Houston is small as is the sculpture community in Texas. I live in rural West Texas and I know both Paul and Ed. I will venture to say Paul knew everyone asked to submitt for the project. Both Paul and Ed are professional sculptors who have had work all over both in and out of the state. It was definantly not a case of either one of them not being qualified for this project. Has anyone considered how devestating it is for an artist to work to submit a proposal and experience the high of being selected only to have that project yanked away……

    1. Steve Wellman

      Thank You for bringing this entire multi-layered thread of comments into a more “Personal” realm about Ed Wilson-Artist/Human being.

      A very unpleasant roller coaster ride for Ed.

      I have known Ed since we were both at Lawndale in the 80’s.
      I was lucky enough to be in Houston recently where I first heard the news that Ed was a candidate for a major commission at the GFB convention center.
      I found out from Ed that the selection process had been going on for a couple of months and that after a rather long and drawn out sifting process of many Houston artists it all boiled down to Ed and one other candidate.
      Ed was on pins and needles having spent many hours creating a scale mock up of his piece knowing that in a few days he would be given the thumbs up or thumbs down.
      I was informed while having lunch with some friends at a restaurant that Ed received the green light for his proposal.
      The table spontaneously erupted in cheers.
      A few days later I had the great pleasure to be shown the scale model of Ed’s piece by Ed Wilson himself. Stunning.
      Ed was filled with excitement, honor and pure gratitude to have been Unanimously selected by the panel of judges and he vowed to me that he was going to make this The Best Piece he has ever made.

      Fast forward-weeks later-sitting at my computer in Butte, MT reading in shock and stunned disbelief a story from a Glasstire email that the powers that be pulled the carpet out from under Ed’s feet.
      Now you see it. Now you don’t. Like some absurd magic trick. I almost had to laugh but I couldn’t.
      Then the firestorm of controversy began in earnest and rightfully so.
      How odd I thought that such a poetic, spiritual, lyrical, wonderful work of art could generate a polar opposite situation that I truly believe Ed never meant to create or be a part of.

      A very unpleasant roller coaster ride for Ed Wilson-Artist/Human being.

  6. Was Brad Bucher featured in the photographic works by christian eckhart or another board member? It sounds like someone is getting a back room deal here. Is it Bob McClain, Christian’s dealer, a board member of HAA, or the director of HAA. Any guesses? This whole thing is a black eye on HAA. How does the mayor not demand resignations here? This is bad for the artist, bad for the city and bad for the reputation of HAA. The whole thing makes me sad. Good for Matthew standing up for what he believes is right.

  7. Essentially the process they have printed is the one used all along.
    The change in wording is this:

    “It is the charge of HAA’s Civic Art Committee to review the recommendation of the panel within the context of all policies and procedures as well as appropriateness of the artwork at the site. A similar charge is the duty of HAA’s Executive Committee or full Board. Ultimately, these review steps produce a recommendation that is forwarded to the City department, which has the final say.”

    Reviewing the process is not an action requiring a vote. It’s informational.

    When donors have sent a drawing or conceptual design to this committee the committee objected to the idea of making a recommendation to accept based on a concept. GRB selection was never meant to be an action item up for acceptance or rejection. This was forced by the HAA leadership. Why?

    Giving the exec a vote was something they removed years ago because it is an unnecessary step.
    Who has led them to think their opinion is more substantial than a peer/client based panel?

    The committee remains inconsistent in their actions, bloated and comprised of board members, collectors and art consultants with one artist, one architect. How many artists, independent curators are on the executive board?

    1. Cameron Armstrong

      We should recognize that would-be collectors and philanthropists do have a place in the public art process, and can play important roles. But they shouldn’t be the Deciders for all sorts of obvious reasons, especially including the matter of basic competency. Thanks Seth

  8. Liza Littlefield

    The sculpture in question was to be ready by 2017. Is there any way in heaven that a new call, new considerations etc. will ever be ready in time? It’s only two years. What are they thinking????
    Oh, I forgot, apparently they don’t think, they just have knee jerk reactions.
    ED rocks!

  9. Ed does rock. And ‘the sculpture in question’ was contracted, with Houston First/HAA, for completion Dec 2015. Intense but achievable in the hands of a capable artist like Ed Wilson or any of the other local artist in the mix.

  10. Shaw

    HAA’s latest attempt at controlling the release of misinformation while feigning openness was to have their CEO explain proper procedures and the complications of public art on KPFT radio (2/5/2015, 6PM). If you want to know what’s wrong with HAA give it a listen.

    While the arts, education and business communities are addressing issues of innovation and streamlining Glus assures us that his public art program is stridently bureaucratic. It seems obvious where HAA’s obsession with process comes from; at the cost of efficiency, intelligence and, in the case of Ed Wilson, fairness.

    To make sure HAA pursues outdated practices Glus and his board have added two unnecessary layers to the selection process- approval by the Civic Art Committee and the Executive Board. Isn’t this just a sneaky way of providing concentrated entitlements to an insular and elite group? To manufacture significance where none exists?

    There was also something strange in his comments about the CAC. He said it was comprised of artists. Plural. At last count there was one artist on the CAC. He says he has people who are trained as curators. What does that mean? You’re either a curator or you’re not. Dabblers don’t count.

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t HAA created so that the process wouldn’t get bogged down in layers of costly city delays?

    Given Glus’s mastery of the bureaucratic lifestyle and the engineering of problems perhaps Mayor Parker should assign him to fixing the city’s pothole problem. Nothing will get done but it will not get done through proper procedures.

    Glus reminds me of Mel Brooks’s governor in Blazing Saddles. Process, process, process.

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