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HAA Dogpile! Artists of Transported + Renewed Weigh In

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.

Inappropriate Communication/Administration

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.

Signed,

David Dove, Founding Director – Nameless Sound
Jorge Galvan Flores
Jack Massing, Board President – Nameless Sound
Gabriel Martinez
Chris Nelson, Nameless Sound Board Member
Garry Reece, Writer, Nameless Sound Board Member
Patrick Renner, Artist
Stephanie Saint Sanchez
Carrie Schneider
Monica Villarreal, Artist
Stalina Villarreal, Writer

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39 Responses

  1. Sarah

    Description of project from NEA:
    “To support Transported and Renewed, a three-month cultural celebration in Houston’s East End. Site-specific, community-based arts performances, installations, and participatory events will reflect the area’s history as a transportation hub and celebrate the East End’s historic and contemporary contributions to the cultural and commercial life of the city. Houston Arts Alliance will work with a collaborative of East End civic and transit partners ranging from the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to Houston METRORail, and with resident arts organizations including Talento Bilingue de Houston, Box 13, Freneticore, Mitchell Center for the Arts, Orange Show, Aerosol Warfare, TX/RX Labs, Houston Maritime Museum, Rincon Social, and Aurora Picture Show.”

    1. Dean Ruck

      I’d like to say that I’ve had a great experience with Pat Jasper, as the single person who brought together the appropriate musical talent and technical resources to kick off Havel Ruck Projects Fifth Ward Jam with stunning and magical live music. It was the prefect christening to our project, and an experience I will cherish forever, with credit to her.

      1. Ravel Huck

        Dean should not be making this letter about himself. These artists are completely professional and did what most people don’t, by signing their names to a document that is standing up against poor treatment of artists. It takes guts to type and post this letter; and regardless of your cushy little experience, Dean, not everyone’s opinion of Jasper is good (hence this letter).

        1. Dan Havel

          I applaud the courage of this group of artists to sign the letter. Things have got to change at HAA. Happily, HRP’s experience with Ms. Jasper was good. But it was one event on one day, not three months of events, a bear for anyone to manage. Obviously for some of the Transport/Renewed artists, it wasn’t a good experience. Let’s all work together to put pressure on the organization to change, not try to condemn certain people for their actions. If she was unprofessional, hopefully she will listen to the critisism and work to do a better job in the future, but let’s not get too personal.

        2. Dan Havel

          I sure hate it when people make comments anomalously. Why are you hiding behind such a cute name? What the hell does “cushy experience” mean anyway? The experience and process of HRP projects is far from cushy, believe me, including finding alternative sources of funding or proceeding with NO funding when the idea needs to be done. Go make things happen. Don’t rely on HAA to make things happen if you don’t like the organization. They are only one source of funding. Plan your own 3 month event and find funding. You have the power as artists.

        3. Dean Ruck

          My comment re: Pat Jasper was in direct response to an anonymous posting that the folk life program was a waste of money. Hey, I’ve got a different perspective and experience, even if it was a small sampling. My initial comment wasn’t about me, it was about a positive event brought to and for the public. That doesn’t diminish the concerns of those that may have had a different experience with T+R, just a counter to a cheap shot by an anonymous poster.
          It wasn’t that long ago in this town that there was virtually no municipal funding or support for ‘public art’. Perhaps all the faults that may have (I wasn’t involved, so I don’t know) occurred with T+R would balance out to it not being worthwhile. Then again, maybe it was, maybe it provided artists new opportunities they would not have had otherwise, maybe the program exposed new audience to Houston talent, etc. And maybe it exposed problems at HAA that need to be addressed. Bring it.
          I’ve got no torch to bear for HAA or anyone employed there. But for those that would like to see HAA implode, keep in mind there are other powerful civic constituents that don’t give a rats ass about art that would like that too, so they can get HAA money.

      2. Dan Havel

        I agree whole heartedly with the work Pat Jasper did for Fifth Ward Jam….watch who you throw under the bus. Not sure what support she received from above….

        1. so many questions

          With all due respect (and I mean that sincerely), I think it’s fair to say that two veteran artists may get slightly different treatment than a handful of more emerging artists. Also, these artists are being extremely diplomatic– the worst offenses weren’t explicitly detailed in that letter. There is absolutely no excuse for some of HAA staff’s behavior occurring during this project– behavior observed and corroborated by far more than the letter signatories.

          1. “Also, these artists are being extremely diplomatic– the worst offenses weren’t explicitly detailed in that letter.”

            Why not? What was gained by holding back? What was gained by not naming names? As written, this letter is about as incendiary as a bowl of corn chowder.

          2. so many questions

            Asked by someone who doesn’t receive HAA funds, Robert. People are terrified of retribution.

          3. But they already signed their names to iit. So the people they are talking about in the letter know who they are and can blacklist them if they so choose. But being “extremely diplomatic,” as you say, they have written a vague, wishy-washy letter that is unlikely to produce any change.

            They made themselves targets by signing their names. Given this, it’s a shame thei opening salvo is so weak.

          4. Cameron Armstrong

            In discussing this situation with several notable artists, I found resistance to speaking out due to [in my interpretation], a) doubt that speaking out could change anything and, b) absolute certainty that they would suffer directly, personally and economically, whether or not change occurred. Those are not unreasonable concerns, and are only the tip of the iceberg re: the chill put on Houston due to how public art is managed.

          5. Tommy Gregory

            I am tired of being silent and hushed in regards to speaking out against foul play and unprofessional people in professional positions. When I worked for HAA I saw first had some of the issues mentioned in this letter. I admire the artists who wrote this. Dan and Dean, your support of the folk life department here has no merit in this situation.

            The artists in this state are strong, and their voices should be heard and considered. People continue to speak about support and culture, but those who enjoy the work rarely contribute in the back breaking efforts.

            Happy Holidays artists in Texas, the best is yet to come

          6. Jenni Rebecca Stephenson

            I appreciate that artists from a variety of perspectives have weighed in here. However, I do find it disappointing that the prevailing response to artists taking issue with their treatment by those in authority falls into two categories: criticism that they’re too whiney and criticism that they haven’t gone far enough. That’s a really fine line for artists to walk– artists who just want a seat at the table and to be treated with a degree of respect. I really admire that they would come forward with their concerns about their experiences. That took the sort of courage that seems in short supply these days. And I would strongly encourage anyone acquainted with these artists who has questions about the specifics spurring this letter to give them the benefit of the doubt in this instance… and to, should the appropriate opportunity arise, ask them about those specifics.

            It is clear that the art community at large is having difficulty navigating the appropriate times to speak up, to stay silent, to rise above, and to rally. In an ideal situation, there would be more open, safe forums for sharing productive feedback and engaging in meaningful dialogue. So many of us are operating and discussing these matters in our respective siloes, but these conversations absolutely need to occur across disciplines, budget sizes, organizational structures (or lack thereof) and districts. The first line of HAA’s vision statement reads: “Houston Arts Alliance is the leading voice for the arts in Houston.” If that be the case, an open airing of these artists’ concerns and a thoughtful response seems not only appropriate, but necessary.

        2. Public Artist At-Large

          It appears that what’s needed is a safe space and place to have this conversation in the open with the primary responsible parties at the table- HAA leaders, COH leaders, art org leadership and artists. Without the right people at the table then the artists will continue to preach to the choir and folks from HAA and the COH will continue to monitor and troll these message boards to get a pinpoint of the trouble makers and continue the blackballing techniques the money and power is renown for.

          Can the Center for Arts Leadership at UH serve as a facilitator in such a conversation?

          1. The Center for Arts Leadership at the University of Houston is open to facilitating important conversations that our community needs to have. In January, we will host a community meeting to discuss the next steps necessary for making Houston a more robust 21st Century arts community. However, if a different conversation needs to be had, we are open to adjusting the agenda.
            As logistics are confirmed, The Center for Arts Leadership will share those details.

          2. Public Artist At-Large

            Thank you for the reply Sixto. Sounds like the January forum and topic is actually on target with what needs to be addressed with some of these issues with HAA. For a more robust 21st Century arts community Houston must have a city-wide arts organization, like HAA, that the arts community and community at-large can trust, hold accountable and actually partner with. Again, the key part is having the leadership from HAA, COH and local arts community at the table together to have a real dialogue focused on transparency, accountability and change. IMHO

  2. Flood

    Seriously, HAA or mayors office whatever- if the straw hasn’t broken the camels back yet then you’re just waiting on the anvil…and it ‘s coming next.

    HAA- Speak to someone with a brain and right the wrong, quick. You are making the holidays more depressing…and the “leadership” just looks like they are still on vacation.

  3. Patrick Renner

    As a signatory of this letter I want to make a personal addendum (which is not intended to represent the opinion of others involved in the T + R project beyond my own):

    Whatever the challenges I encountered, my experience working with Diane Barber [independent curator–D, inc.] who functioned as my liaison to HAA on this project, was overwhelmingly positive. She and I have worked in conjunction on 3 large-scale projects over the last year or so, and Diane has proven to be a strong advocate and skilled professional in facilitating civic art opportunities.

    1. Ryan Jackson

      Well, Patrick…
      It seems as if you have an advocate in Diane Barber that’ll help correct this disconnect between HAA and local artists.
      We need to discredit and boycott the T + R project.

  4. Michelle Rodriguez

    If you go door to door and ask my neighbors what they thought of the events for this thing, 6 out of 10 will say they were not pleased or felt disrespected–the other 4 would have not known about it.

  5. Dan Havel

    I have to agree with Patrick. With all my dealings with Diane Barber throughout the years, she has been an amazing professional and advocate for the artist.
    Obviously, this mess was bound to happen with the loosey-goosy way the organization is run, with little or no management from HAA leadership. They seem to make up their own rules. Let’s hope HAA learns from this.

  6. I’d like to ask everyone to get involved with an authentic artist driven effort down along the Bayou called exquisite corps wherein a bunch of shipping containers provided for our houston community arts and other orgs are set up in a year long deployment/ field workshop with a public party / exhibition monthly to celebrate a collaborative situation.
    It is simultaneously the goal of hivehouston.org to establish authenticity by sharing a program like this as our pioneering phase . Who wants to plant harvest grain, make flour , dough, bread….?

  7. Zach Moser

    Hi all,
    I was also a funded grantee for the T+R and wanted to give my perspective and express a degree of solidarity with the artist that chose to speak up in this way. Although I agreed with many aspects of the letter there were certain major points that did not align with my experience so I decided to not put my name on it.

    That said, I primarily wanted to echo the sentiment in the letter that states that HAA should not be using Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds, designated for individual artists, for curated/thematic/HAA branded programming. Unfortunately it was only after participating that I was able to see just how problematic and unfair to the city’s artists and smaller cultural organizations this arrangement, demonstrated by T+R, is.

    The primary issue as I see it is one of competition. For T+R, HOT money was clearly used to expand the scope and scale of the project as well as market it. The ability of HAA to tap these funds at its discretion to serve its own needs puts other arts programming organizations at a severe disadvantage in competing for funding from outside sources such as the NEA.

    Using individual artists grants within a programmatic structure is also unfair to the artists and creates another point of competition, the artist project versus the HAA brand. The way that T+R was marketed showed that while working within these structures HAA would focus more on their own brand than in providing exposure for individual artists. I don’t believe that this should be the role HAA takes while being charged to support individual artists.

    I believe the core problem is that T+R is being positioned as a direction that HAA will pivot towards in future programing. It is my hope that by speaking out the artists that signed this letter will help prevent HAA from adopting T+R as a model for using HOT funds and refocus on efforts to support the independent arts orgs and individual artists that are their core mission.

  8. HAA Alum

    I am concerned about the artists role in this. I really am. I think they should be fairly compensated, consulted with heavily and should play an important role in the planning and execution of Creative Place Making projects. I think they should represent and reflect the community, and I think they should understand the needs of the people they hope to create for. Especially those funded by HOT and the NEA; public money for public art. That seems to be the focus of discussion here.

    But at the end of the day HAA spent over 200K on events that were supposed to reach a large, underserved and historic community in Houston. I worry that the real losers here are them. The attendance of these events was less than 1,500* people (*generous). The direct psychological impact of this project on the community isn’t negative, because they just didn’t know about it.

    That is the gross misconduct.

    1. Joe Spurlock

      How is that hate? Some of this is numbers and personal testimony (backed up by numerous contributing sources). HAA and the mayor’s office tried to polish a turd.

  9. roger benton

    Looks like they released a piece on the entire T+R project. Seems pretty immense, I wish I could’ve gone to any of it. I’d be surprised if no one was unhappy about something or another having to do with the project.

    https://vimeo.com/124528621

  10. Tai chi master

    Roger, my name is more real. You are obviously an organization supporter and not an artist or performance supporter. You say hater, we call you scab.

  11. roger benton

    I don’t live in Houston and I am an artist, and a producer and am simply impressed by the T+R project. I can’t help just wonder if folks throw out the good along with the bad.

    I agree with many of the artists’ points and sympathize with their point of view. I think this letter has many valid points, but as being organized it is not. I am dizzy as I make my way halfway through it. I truly doubt that agencies like the HAA are out to get artists. Try sending this letter to the NEA.
    These agencies are in place to help and as such, public Feedback is good. Mostly it’s just understaffed workplaces scrambling to make things happen. I know how hairy things get when you have many moving parts.

    It all seems a bit undiscerning. If only there could be focused discussion that moves towards realizing what the artists need from their local arts orgs related to any given project. Hopefully HAA will hear the cries and answer the call. I wonder how the chorus will respond.

  12. roger benton

    I see how this works. It’s a curated piece of Glasstire dogma. Deleting my posts, keeping it one sided. Very interesting dear moderator(s).

  13. Transported and gentrified attendee

    Anyone remember how they had a number of employees who complained about harassment during this project? I am surprised no one has ever addressed it,,,I guess it will come out in 10 years or so

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