Amid the blizzard of anti-HAA ink coming in from all quarters of the Houston art scene, Glasstire today received a collective letter voicing complaints about the recently completed Transported + Renewed initiative organized by the Houston Arts Alliance in Houston’s East End. Here it is:
This letter has been drafted to articulate concerns regarding our direct experience with the administration and execution of HAA’s creative placemaking project Transported + Renewed. The signatories of this statement include artists and organizations who participated in the project, were applicants to the project or were contacted to participate outside of the grant process. As primary stakeholders and long-time participants in Houston’s arts community, we have drafted this letter in the interest of a healthy Houston Arts Alliance that serves its city by supporting the work of its artists and arts organizations in a fair manner.
There has been little critical response to Transported + Renewed and it is our concern that with the recent negative publicity around other HAA departments and projects, Transported + Renewed will be seen as a success and may act as a model for future projects. As participating artists and organizations, we would strongly disagree with that assessment and discourage the consideration of Transported + Renewed as a precedent for moving forward.
This statement addresses both administrative problems and ethical concerns. Our problems and concerns were articulated at a 2.5 hour meeting with Transported + Renewed project managers at Houston Arts Alliance gallery on the evening of July 31. No response or follow-up has been received from the project managers since that meeting.
Lack of Responsiveness and Responsibility Toward Critical Questions
Throughout the planning, initiation, and implementation of the project, concerns that might seem basic to creative placemaking projects were either dismissed or met with a defensive and disrespectful response:
- Inquiries at the application orientation about proportionate representation of Latino artists were not given serious consideration.
- At a project orientation meeting on April 3, a project manager interpreted a question about the lack of Latino grantees as an accusation of gentrification and implicated the integrity of a grantee’s project.
- In the calendar orientation meeting on April 28, when asked about marketing efforts to the residents of the East End, we were told that the priority target of marketing was not the people of the neighborhood, but people outside of the East End. We were told that the primary marketing effort was to attract people to the neighborhood who wouldn’t otherwise go there.
- In response to the inquiry about the lack of Latino artists selected, we were told that there wasn’t enough time for outreach. Subsequently, we learned of Latino artists and longtime residents who applied and were declined. Other Latino artists were then approached for inclusion within established grantee’s projects or as “content providers”.
- During a meeting on July 8, grantees introduced a thorough discussion about the importance of having bilingual marketing materials. Project managers were reluctant to comply, but eventually agreed to this request when a participant volunteered to translate materials at no cost.
At the July 31 meeting, we asked if community stakeholders were involved in the planning of Transported + Renewed (prior to a meeting informing them about the project several months into its planning). In response, we were handed a calendar of programs featuring Latino artists. While Latino participants may have been curated into this project, inclusion of longtime residents and Latino artists in the development of this project was not a demonstrably consistent priority. We are concerned about this project’s artistic representation of a population without their full participation.
Inconsistent Representation of Project’s Intention and Grantee Involvement
The application and contracts for Transported + Renewed were consistent with typical HAA project grants. But only after receiving award notification did grantees became aware of the extent to which their projects were being fully folded into a larger festival with its own message and mission. These priorities were made explicit at the meeting on April 28, when a calendar of additional parades, public events, and marketing outreach was introduced, and the aforementioned statement about prioritizing an audience from outside of the East End was made. This was after artists had presented their projects, provided materials in cooperation with the grant protocol, and signed contracts. At this point it became clear that participating artists had been misled about the nature of their involvement and the motivations of the project with which they were now associated. We are concerned about an agenda which instrumentalizes artists to attract attention to a neighborhood as part of a renewal campaign.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability
- The project managers stepped outside of the granting process to extend invitations to specific artists without any proposal protocol or disclosed criteria to fill the roster, while declined Transported + Renewed grantees waited months for feedback on their grant applications.
- Project leaders chose a location for the public sculpture of a participating artist but failed to provide proper access to the civic channels necessary to realize the project on city property.
- When the artists advocated for themselves and asked for basic assistance and infrastructure, they were put off or told to do it themselves.
- Grantees were asked to solicit uncompensated participation of colleagues from their networks for parades and events that were not initially stated in the scope of the project.
- Artists were faulted for expecting basic professional protocol. At the meeting on July 31, these concerns were met with a response differentiating “fine artists” from “traditional artists”, stating “I think the core of this project, which is emblematic of the kind of work I do, is that I don’t generally work with fine artists, which I think most of you all would be categorized as, and I often work with artists who don’t call themselves artists and don’t expect to be paid.”
We are concerned about the lack of consistency, transparency, and accountability in the HAA’s treatment of artists.
Many efforts of project managers at communicating with grantees over their questions were inappropriate.
- Communication bordered on intimidation: repetitive questioning to change project timeline, aggressive attempts to expand project scope, personal accusations directed at participants in informal settings, unsolicited suggestions to change content, dismissive and defensive responses to requests.
- Grantees’ attempts to establish a line of communication and air concerns about the project were met with dismissive, unprofessional, and disrespectful response. This response was defended on the basis of how busy and overwhelmed the project managers were. Many of the concerns raised were deflected as the responsibility of other HAA departments which were readily blamed, still leaving questions unaddressed.
- While making multiple requests that HAA host a group meeting to address a range of concerns, the contact grantee was singled out, called on a weekend, and asked to set up a last minute informal gathering after-hours at a bar. Meanwhile, a declined applicant who requested feedback on their application was told that they could meet over a beer for feedback in 2015.
Project managers were insensitive to artists’/organizations’ vulnerability in the grantee/grantor relationship. We are concerned about the lack of a forum where HAA grantees and potential grantees can safely voice their questions without fear of consequence.
Coercive Efforts to Control the Artists’ and Organizations’ Marketing and Publicity to Serve the Message of Transported + Renewed
- Grantees were strongly discouraged from creating their own marketing or representing their projects independently.
- As per the request of participating artists/organizations, participants were guaranteed approval over marketing materials, but this was not consistently met.
- Project managers circumvented a grantee organization, contacting the project’s participants on their personal phone numbers to coerce them into marketing efforts.
- Boxes of marketing materials were dropped off at grantees’ doorsteps at their homes without notice.
- On one occasion, project managers arrived unannounced with media and camera crew at a community center that was the site of a project, ignoring protocols, permissions and the sensitive context of the site.
As applicants to a project grant, artists and organizations of Transported + Renewed were contracted to execute their own projects with support from HAA. We are concerned about a program where grantees’ projects are used to support the message of the grantor. Artists and organizations should be free to represent and market themselves with the support of the grantor (not the other way around). We are concerned that the message of Transported + Renewed does not reflect the intentions of its artists and organizations. We are concerned that the actions of HAA have negative influence on the reputations of artists.
Attempted Influence Over Projects’ Content and Execution
- The date of a grantee’s event was changed without the consent of the grantee. The grantee organization only learned of this once marketing materials were released.
- There were attempts to exert influence over artists’ working methods and the content of their work.
- Throughout and even at the conclusion of certain projects, some project managers still seemed to lack an accurate basic comprehension of, or be able to accurately represent, certain projects.
We are concerned about a policy of top-down curatorial programming from the city arts agency.
As stated at the July 31 meeting, we request:
- Make public HAA’s application to the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant program, which partially funded Transported + Renewed.
- Make public the timeline and selection criteria for artists selected through HAA matching funds and the Our Town grant, distinctively.
- Make public the demographic makeup of the grant panel for Transported + Renewed.
- Devote equal resources towards cultivating awareness of residents’ rights, development processes, and community organizing as is devoted towards attracting people to visit the neighborhood.
- Invite artists to attend and participate in subsequent forums on Creative Placemaking in Houston.
- The plans for an independent review of Transported + Renewed are made public and a full range of perspectives are represented.
We suggested that any project of this scope requires:
- A safe forum for open critical dialog from its inception throughout its planning process.
- Pre-planning that is open and includes the broadest range of representation from the community.
- Oversight of qualified experts in the field from inside and outside of Houston.
- Prioritized discussions and planning about the potential negative effects of the project.
- Accountability and feedback from the residents and participants who the project effects.
No follow-up or response from HAA has been received since the July 31 meeting.
Transported + Renewed appears emblematic of HAA’s drive to expand beyond their contract with the City of Houston to responsibly redistribute a portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax to artists and organizations. The suggestions above represent a minimum degree of transparency and accountability that should be built into the process of any qualified project of this scope. They are not proposed as concessions that would render such expansion acceptable to us.
Transported + Renewed is a project beyond the range of a department unfamiliar with the concerns of contemporary art practices. The potential effects and sensitive issues that a creative placemaking project should hold as most important were neglected and navigated uncritically. The Houston Arts Alliance allowed its Folklife Department to manage, frame, and instrumentalize artist involvement towards the aims of the overarching project and to the detriment of artistic independence and the equitable treatment of artists. We feel that HAA insensitively and opportunistically used the project, artists, and community for their own self promotion.
We are concerned about a policy in which the transactional agency entrusted with redistributing public funds will determine grantees according to their compliance with the motives of programming curated by HAA as an arts presenter.
As members of Houston’s arts community, convinced of its quality and potential, and dedicated to its independence and health, we feel the Houston Arts Alliance should serve Houston artists and arts organizations, not the other way around.
David Dove, Founding Director – Nameless Sound
Jorge Galvan Flores
Jack Massing, Board President – Nameless Sound
Chris Nelson, Nameless Sound Board Member
Garry Reece, Writer, Nameless Sound Board Member
Patrick Renner, Artist
Stephanie Saint Sanchez
Monica Villarreal, Artist
Stalina Villarreal, Writer