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Houston Artists Go On The Record Against HAA Rule-Bending

Houston artists Troy Stanley and Tracey Conwell appeared before City council and Houston Mayor Annise Parker on Tuesday to voice concerns over the Houston Arts Alliance’s mishandling of the George R. Brown Commission and the on-again-off-again selection of sculptor Ed Wilson.

Troy Stanley

Troy Stanley

Speaking during the public comments section of the December 16 city council meeting, Stanley, a veteran public artist with several commissions in Houston, said he was “here to express my concern about the ability of HAA to mitigate conflicts of interest within its own organization and with regards to civic art commissions.” He went on to detail to the council the story of Ed Wilson’s selection by a panel, and the subsequent overturning of that decision by HAA’s Civic Art Committee, which he called “affluent collectors and art consultants who can have vested financial interests in seeing certain artists win commissions.” Asked if and saying that “it is my belief that there is conflict of interest within Houston Arts Alliance.”

The remedy, he suggested, was putting artists in the mix. “I understand that some of the members on the board at HAA are mayoral appointees. I just want to ensure that if the process is being restarted again, local artists need to have a voice in the way that is being restructured. The way it is now, artists have no defense. We are not organizations, we don’t have community backup, if there’s no one on these committees who can back up individual artists whether it’s a dancer or visual artist or a sculptor we can’t continue to move forward. We’re losing faith in HAA.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

During the question-and-answer session that followed, Mayor Parker, who already appeared well acquainted with situation, downplayed the debacle, and described the Civic Art Committee as the “final authority” over artist selections, saying, “No one has brought anything forward to me or to the Arts Alliance other than the complaint that they didn’t like the fact that that the original recommendation was overturned. Mr. Stanley’s suggestion was that instead of art collectors of patrons we put working artists on the committee. That seems to me to invite its own set of conflicts of interest. But no one has brought anything forward to indicate that there was anything untoward. It was simply that the selection committee has the final say and apparently the recommended artist was selected prior to the final sign-off by the selection committee.”

stardigCouncilmember Brenda Stardig raised the red flag: “Mayor, I have issue that we aren’t asking more questions when I heard ‘conflict of interest.’ That is a red flag for me, sorry. That’s a serious thing to say if you mean it.” She pointed out that HAA is charged with spending tax money, and ended by asking the Mayor, “Could you also just highlight the fact that, in the event that he [Stanley] does bring forward evidence of conflict, what would be the process at that point? To which Mayor Parker replied: “Probably exactly what’s happening, which is to start the process over again. But I would seek to remove board members. The practical effect was that we started over again anyway. But if any board member was manipulating the process I would remove them as board members. If there was fraud or a criminal act, of course we would forward that [to the city’s attorneys].”

Stardig then cautioned Stanley about making unsupported allegations: “I just want to make sure that you understand those are the opportunities you have if you believe that you need to bring forward facts. But I also have the flipside of that: please be cautious when you say that because you’re talking about people’s reputations, and especially in this world as you were part of, it’s very sensitive to your future and to others so I just caution you. Without the facts, I would definitely be careful.”

Said Stanley: “I understand that. All I’m asking for is a series of checks and balances where artists are represented as well. Not strictly on the Civic Art Committee but they should have a significant portion of that. That’s all I’m asking for.”

Tracey Conwell

Tracey Conwell

Later in the session, Tracey Conwell, “attorney, an artist, and an advocate for the arts”, spoke, making even more specific allegations aimed at Brad Bucher, the civic Art Committee Chair:

Tracey Conwell: “I appear before you today to talk about the recent controversy regarding the George R. Brown contract. And I would like to go directly to the issue that was brought up by councilmember Stardig regarding the conflict of interest. I believe I can address that and I’ve come prepared to do so today. As an attorney of course I’m interested in what documents say so I went to the documents. I brought them for you so afterward you can check them if you are interested. I will briefly tell you how it proceeded and you can judge for yourselves if you see the conflict of interest that I see, glaringly.

First of all let’s point out that Houston Arts Alliance is a 501(c)(3) Corporation. It is run by the City of Houston and the board is appointed by the City of Houston. It is governed by its bylaws, its articles and it engages in contracts for various activities implementing the public arts programs here. One of those contracts called for was the George R. Brown renovation and the artwork to be situated in that renovation.

There is a director of Civic Art and design, or, should I say, there WAS a director of the Civic Art and Design group and that director resigned over this. And he set out that conflict of interest in the letter of resignation and the email he sent to the mayor regarding the matter. If it is true that you will remove anybody with a conflict of interest from the board, then I suggest there is somebody ripe for removal.

At the meeting on September 18 of the [Civic Art] Committee which was attended by [Conwell refers councilmembers to her notes] . . . for the staff it was Matthew Lennon. He was there; he was the director of the CAD committee at the time. That meeting, at which Brad Bucher attended (and please correct me if I’m wrong about the pronunciation, I don’t really know the man, even though I believe he does have a conflict of interest, in his own words.) He was there. He’s been appointed by the mayor, and he did say that he thought the GRB proposal, in his words, was “personal for him” because he had promised them an exceptional product. I actually don’t know it is his position to do that, but apparently he believed it was personal.”

Conwell brought along a stack of documents, including the unofficial minutes of the meetings containing the Bucher’s quotes, which she distributed to council members, and continued: “Pursuant to the regular process a contract was actually issued to Ed. But of the two finalists it was narrowed down to, Mr. Bucher has refrained from being involved because he said that he was friends with one of the finalists. He was fine through the process when the first seven were selected. He was fine when it was narrowed to two. But then, when his friend was not selected and Wilson was instead selected, then he stepped in and even know a contract had been issued and sent out to Mr. Wilson pursuant to standard operating procedures he said he wanted to change the process and revoke it because he did not, basically, he did not like that art.”

Council member Stardig asked, “Your position is that they may be picking winners?”

To which Conwell replied, “Yes and I don’t believe that within their authority. I think it’s an ultra vires act by them, to go outside the process and the contracts, and that is why the director resigned and stated so in his resignation.”

Reached for comment later, Stanley said, “I’m someone who has civic contracts with HAA, and I’ve received individual artists grants. I’m in it, and I’ve been through the process, and I was really upset that the Civic Art Committee can come in and disregard what’s happening with the selection panel.” Conwell agreed: “You can’t let the Mayor’s biggest donors pick the art for the city. That’s why they set up the process.”

 

Video of the proceedings is available online; Troy Stanley appears in “Public Speakers Part 2”, at 7:00 into the video, Tracey Conwell speaks at 73:16.

Glasstire originally  reported the full story of the Ed Wilson/GRB controversy here.

Matthew Lennon’s letter of resignation detailing his criticisms of HAA is here.

Clark Flood’s satirical takedown of HAA (neé CACHH) from 2006 shows just how long this kind of thing has been going on.

 

 

 

also by Bill Davenport
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19 Responses

  1. WHAT!?

    So the Mayor of Houston had to tell us that the artist’s commission is dead, and that “they” are going to start the selection process over? This is a crappy mini-series where the ending seems obvious. Eliminate the CEO. In any other business, if there is this much mishandling of a pretty simple process (you are picking art here people not saving a life), the head is held responsible.

    People are quitting, being harassed and artists are being treated like garbage (from the head of the city as well). The quote “suggestion was that instead of art collectors or patrons we put working artists on the committee. That seems to me to invite its own set of conflicts of interest”, said Parker. That translates to me that artists are not as capable as collectors to decide what good art is. We have studied, researched, trained and paid big tuitions to gain knowledge and hope to make it through this art world. The laborers who spoke regarding their treatment at the GRB as well as the poor citizens having to deal with that Valero debacle got more lip service than Stanley did- whom they just tried to brush off and disrespect. Unbelievable

    1. that’s exactly how I felt after the reading. “WHAT’s in Ms. Parker’s mind?” I’m very proud for Mr. Stanley’s speech, but so sad to see him to be lashed by the politician forked tongue.

  2. Dan Havel

    So the Mayor says that artists can’t be on the board and trusted to be professionals with their significant art knowledge, but instead they would be swayed to just select their friends….unlike the way it seems to be now with a collector selecting a friend who is an artist and will help add value to his collection…..

    So much for support of the arts from above….lets just step out of the way, the rich people know what to do with the money….trust them.

  3. Robert Proctor

    “No one has brought anything forward to me or to the Arts Alliance other than the complaint that they didn’t like the fact that that the original recommendation was overturned.” Either Mayor Parker hasn’t been paying attention or she is trying to whitewash the process. It is not so much ” the fact the original recommendation was overturned” but that there has been absolutely no explanation from the CIvic Arts Committee why they overturned it. Speaking of conflict of interest, I am wondering what the Mayor’s relationship to the members of Civic Arts Committee might be?

  4. Que?!

    If this doesn’t get the Houston art community fired up, then I don’t think anything will. This un-united feel on social networks and here is actually quite depressing. The City Councilmembers are welcoming you to speak to them, but artists would rather preach to the choir. Sad

    Btw, Glus is not made a statement in regards to the T-R artists or the status of this big commission. The coals are already cooling off, and the Houston art community looks divided.

  5. LOLI Fernandez (-A Kolber)

    The real sad part of all of this is that artists will feel hopeless and disbelieve the democratic process to obtain a grant. Of course an institution is only as good as its components. There is no guarantee that an artist will be less buyable or partial than a non artist, being as we are all human. One thing is sure, if money and influence buys decisions about art, there goes the quality of what is being selected. Maybe the world has not changed after all…( I think this is an understatement)

  6. Houston Arts Alliance

    Regarding commissioning civic art on behalf of the city, it is the policy of Houston Arts Alliance that an artist or design team is issued a contract only after all approvals are in place, which include a panel, civic art committee, HAA executive committee or board, and, ultimately, the client department of the city. The ultimate decision is the client department of the city.

    Unfortunately, this is not what happened in this case. HAA regrets any unintended stress that this may cause Mr. Wilson. However, with public funds, it is important that the appropriate process is followed. For the full process, please see http://www.houstonartsalliance.com/civicart/commissions/process/

    Houston Arts Alliance is an independent nonprofit, a 501C3, governed by an independent board, and is funded by both public and private monies. Although five board members are appointed by the City of Houston through the Mayor, the remaining members are board-appointed.

    1. Avery Tollar

      Houston Arts Alliance, can you explain why the committee is not accepting the piece?

      Did someone spend this amount of time convincing the client that the piece is not appropriate?

      Would you have stopped the process if another artist was selected, i.e. Eckart instead of Wilson?

      last question is for the Houston Art Community- Do you think it is odd that the same process that selected work at various locations is not under the same dissection? Do the people and artists of this city believe that HAA, specifically Jonathan Glus, fought for the artist’s commission during these many weeks?

      It is odd that the last big holiday, Thanksgiving, was when they decided to reject the art work, and now, Christmas, they make a statement on Glasstire rejecting it and seem to be opening it back up.

      Looks like Stanley, or another artist needs to make a trip back to council, since HAA “is an independent nonprofit, a 501C3, governed by an independent board, and is funded by both public and private monies. Although five board members are appointed by the City of Houston through the Mayor, the remaining members are board-appointed”. Thanks for pointing that out by the way.

      Pat Jasper and folklore department, you are not forgotten yet so don’t think being quiet absolves you of anything (harassment, lies, and poor treatment of local art professionals).

  7. My god, you (HAA) posted here to say you’re opening up the commission due to bad “process”. So you sucked, your rich ass Enron alum committee sucks, and the artist pay?

    Get ready for fire

  8. HAA’s reactionary recant to the Ed Wilson selection still appears duplicitous. The procedures they refer to were not in place during the GRB contract and selection process. How can staff or any of the artists be held to them?

    It’s also important to remember that the city ordinance and subsequent contracts clearly state that HAA is not to reject or accept art on behalf of the client.

    Until HAA’s recent publication of its new processes (December 2014) neither the CAC nor the executive board were required for acceptance or approval of an artists.

    There were two stages in the GRB selection panel process. The committee provided a silent observer for each. Neither CAC observer objected to the process. That was entirely the doing of the chair. The unedited minutes from the August through September meetings will make it clear as to the inconsistencies of the CAC and it’s denigration of local professionals. Why won’t HAA release them?

    The processes used during the GRB selection were consistent with established best practices. Particularly on the points that selection is done by a panel of peers, the staff’s compliance to the Houston First contract and that the client has the final say.

    The client requested to see the Wilson model at their November executive board meeting. HAA staff were in the process of complying, moving the model to the GRB for review and Ed Wilson was prepared to make a presentation.

    HAA’s CEO stopped this from happening. It was this decision of noncompliance with the contract and the client’s request which wrecked the process.

  9. Ed Wilson

    Very interesting that HAA has chosen to apologize to the public over the stress their actions may have caused me. Yet no one in that organization has had the decency or honesty to contact me directly to explain what the state of my commission is or to make an apology. I’ve heard nothing from Mr. Jonathan Glus, CEO. , or Ms. Sara Kellner, Interim Director of Civic Art and Design. Mr. Marc Melcher, Chairman of the Board, or any one else on the board has made any attempt to express regrets to me. Nor has Mr. Brad Bucher, Chairman of the Civic Art Committee, or other committee members chosen to explain their actions to me. All that I have been told directly by Mr. Glus, is that my commission is still in process. That was 4 weeks ago. It would seem that they are more concerned with public perception and that I am only an insignificant casualty in this fiasco. Maybe this satisfies the public, yet I wait in limbo

  10. Loli Fernández-A Kolber

    So I have noticed and, I am sure others have as well. Let us hope that they will do so after New Year’s. Doing the right thing is never wrong.

  11. Public Artist At-Large

    A Freedom of Information request to HAA should bring some of these details to the surface. Let the paper shredding begin.

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