HAA’s New Review Process: a Line-Item Critique

by Bill Davenport January 4, 2015

Since the imbroglio over the Ed Wilson/GRB Commission, the Houston Arts Alliance has posted an outline of its public art selection procedures on its website for the first time ever, in response to calls for more transparency from artists, the public, and HAA’s own Civic Art Committee. It’s clear as mud, but at least it’s honest. This is exactly the slippery, euphemistic procedure that led to the Ed Wilson debacle in the first place.

Let’s do a line-item critique:

Houston Arts Alliance’s Review Process for Public Art Commissions

After HAA has been contracted by a department of the City of Houston, HAA works closely with that department’s staff to scope the parameters of a project or commission (size, budget, location, etc.), and then announces the opportunity.

Who is working with whom here? Does HAA mean HAA staff? The Civic Art Committee, or individual  HAA board members?  This is the big bang of a new project: the initial phase, where the basic nature and purpose of the piece is born, and the “scoping” is being done by an undefined set of people. There is no provision for the inclusion of artists, yet this is the point where artistic input can make the biggest a difference for the better. Artists are great sources of ideas. Including them in this initial phase might even save money: they’re experts at how to do more with less.

Some opportunities are open call (any artist may apply regardless of residency, medium, etc.); some are directed at regional artists, etc., based on the size of the project, complexity of the project, time line, etc. All scoping is approved by the commissioning department (client) before announced.

Which commissions are for whom? The new policy fails to specify. Some are open, some are closed, some are national, some regional. This sentence defines exactly nothing, except that it’s all approved by the clients, as so, is not HAA’s responsibility. Deciding whom to invite is almost as important as deciding what to do, and once again, the HAA has left authority for making these crucial initial selections blowing in the wind.

This was one of the problems in the Ed Wilson case. HAA public art staff suggested a long list of potential artists for the GRB project. The Civic Art Committee was also asked to submit artists, but it’s unclear whether later CAC complaints about the candidate pool resulted from their own apathy in not putting forward their own suggestions or from resistance to their suggestions by HAA public art staff, or both. Either way, there was a lack of clarity in who was allowed or required to suggest potential artists for a selection pool.

From this murky pool, HAA staff trimmed approximately 30 candidates down to seven via a completely opaque process, in consultation with the clients, but not the CAC or an officially constituted selection panel. What went on in this consultation? Obviously, the HAA staff, representatives of the GRB and their architects got together to evaluate artists. Was this evaluation based on their artistic reputations, their actual past performance, or just who their friends were? No one knows. This initial choosing of candidates, I argue, is the real selection process, and it went on completely behind closed doors, leading to the later CAC outrage and veto.

To review proposals for commissions or for direct acquisitions, a panel of professionals is invited to review the submissions. Panels typically include a representative from the facility at which the artwork will be placed, the facility architect if new construction, and arts professionals, which may include working artists, curators, conservators, museum directors, etc. Silent observers may also be present, representing the client and/or the Civic Art Committee. In the case of a commission, based on review criteria specific to each project – conservation needs, security concerns, weather issues, etc., the panel will review all submissions and will then recommend one or more artists or artist design teams to create a more thorough proposal, which is then reviewed at a second meeting.

So far, so good: A little late to bring in artists and outside professionals, but a selection panel of professionals and stakeholders with a defined membership that considers proposals and chooses is good. But then, the uh-oh sentence:

From those proposals, it is the prerogative of the panel to recommend all, one, or none of the proposals for consideration by HAA’s Civic Art Committee, HAA Executive Committee or full Board, and, ultimately, the City department for approval. If a gift, an artwork is accepted into the City Artwork Collection at the approval of City Council.

This sentence takes it all back, terming the panel’s choices “recommendations” and allowing most anyone to overrule them, making the panel of outside professionals’ decisions moot, and throwing the final decision back to insiders: HAA board, and CAC, or the City Department, without defining any criteria or procedure for this final, all-important choice:

While the charge of a panel is to recommend the most suitable artwork or proposal for the site, it is the charge of HAA’s Civic Art Committee to review the recommendation of the panel within the context 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.

The guidelines given the CAC in this paragraph are no guidelines. What does “in context of all policies and procedures” mean? Does that mean that HAA has policies and procedures other than the ones outlined here? If CAC determines a piece lacks something as vague as “appropriateness” then it’s out.

Once approved, the City department that is commissioning the piece determines whether or not to accept the recommendation.

This last sentence is quadruple-strength ass covering. The buck is passed back to the city department that commissioned the art in the first place, after they have handed HAA a 17% fee to help them make up their minds.

I don’t have a magic bullet that will make the public art selection process work, and, frankly, I’m a pessimist. I can’t see any bureaucratic process that will get Houston any really good art. But, if we must have an art bureaucracy, let it be an open, honest, efficient one. This uselessly vague, self-serving statement needs to be replaced with clear, specific procedures that assign responsibility for important aesthetic decisions to specific people. Whether they appoint an Art Czar, convene a committee, or draw straws, whatever HAA does is public business, and ought to be done with clarity, economy, and transparency.





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Mike Conner January 5, 2015 - 10:56

Enough already! Just give the go-ahead for Ed Wilson to start building the commission he fairly was awarded by unanimous vote of an appropriately formed selection panel.
GRB; Houston First – where are you? Stand up. Tell HAA to get over itself and let Wilson get to work on “your” sculpture.
And, Mrs. Mayor – have you seen the exquisite maquette? What are we waiting for?

Houston Arts Alliance January 6, 2015 - 14:28

In regards to Mr. Davenport’s post on January 4th, HAA offers some clarity.

These are not new procedures for the review process; these are procedures endorsed by the Quality of Life Committee of City Council beginning as early as 2007, and periodically reconfirmed annually to the Quality of Life Committee of City Council.

The City of Houston’s civic art acquisition process is, in fact, complex. It is based on state bond language, the civic art ordinance adopted by city council, and multiple contracts HAA has with various departments of the city and affiliate agencies. Because the funds are capital improvement program monies, not HOT grant monies, the process and accountability procedures are very different from that of an HAA grant to an individual artist or organization. A civic art contract is more akin to a construction contract.

Contrary to Mr. Davenport’s comments, it is, per all contracts, the decision of the contracting department to ultimately choose a proposal as recommended by HAA.

HAA is committed to making the process as accessible and transparent as possible. It is unfortunate that Mr. Davenport chose not to meet with HAA in November so that HAA could better explain the process so that Glasstire can, in fact, provide the service it has charged itself to do for the visual arts community, which is information and dialogue. We continue to be willing to meet to discuss the details and nuances of the program, including the challenges. The more information the better.

It is also unfortunate that Mr. Ed Wilson chose to post a statement that was unilaterally untrue, stating that HAA leadership had at no time reached out to him. Both the CEO and interim civic art director have over the past five weeks been in contact with Mr. Wilson, by phone, in person at HAA, and in person at the studio of Mr. Wilson.

HAA is proud to have commissioned or acquired literally hundreds of artworks during the past seven years, most from regional artists. We are also proud of the fact that HAA is one of only a comparatively small number of local arts agencies across the country that have continued to provide direct grants to individual artists of all disciplines through the recent recession. That was a priority for both staff and board. We would welcome a comprehensive conversation with Mr. Davenport about these programs and HAA’s commitment to Houston’s individual artists. We believe that would well serve the very community both HAA and Glasstire serve.

Michael Galbreth January 7, 2015 - 08:56

Your commitment to clarity and transparency is demonstrated by your signature.
Michael Galbreth

artstroller January 7, 2015 - 10:49

“Unilaterally untrue,” I do not sink zis word means what you sink it means.

Lancelot January 7, 2015 - 17:17

Well, that clears things right up!

Lancelot January 7, 2015 - 17:19

Could the HAA use some of its moolah to hire a proofreader?

Michelle Rodriguez January 7, 2015 - 08:40

HAA, can someone put a name on this? Did your media department draft this and Glus approve it? Did you have Clifford Group write it, and your young smarter staff, that doesn’t get paid a retainer, clean it up for a Board approval? Some accountability please. Just like T and R, the powers that be there do not have the decency to face the people they have wronged. I guess we’ll just have to keep enjoying seeing your pictures in Paper City and other social garbs, instead of in the community.

As an Eastsider, I haven’t seen any follow up events from your great “placemaking” project.

Robert Proctor January 8, 2015 - 11:44

Perhaps a convuluted process is intrinsic of a complicated bureaucracy like HAA but, as for clarity and transparency, the most important question of exactly why the CAC rejected the unanimous decision of the jurors has never been answered. This ommission is compounded by the fact that the CAC are quoted as saying that they would have been happy with any of the selection of the 7 applicants Mr. Wilson was chosen from.

On another note, the further berating of Mr. Wilson and Glasstire would not seem to be helping HAA regain any credibility on this subject!

Cameron Armstrong January 10, 2015 - 15:29

The HAA’s new review process is clear as mud but (to the Civic Art Committee) that may be a feature, not a bug. The import for artists is clear: cultivate friends in positions of authority because they are the ones who can cut through this vagueness, and deliver HAA commissions.

dhstout January 12, 2015 - 23:15

So other than HAA dodging the bullet and blaming everyone but themselves for not giving the final approval for Ed’s piece, from what I can tell NO CHANGE HAS OCCURRED. The only new artists included in the panel process are those that applied, so now they can shoot down their own art? I wonder if those are the only artists HAA knows or if they are even taking this uprising of the community seriously. I have it on good authority that HAA is waiting for “this” to blow over and that THEY DO NOT CARE WHAT THE COMMUNITY THINKS. HAA why not just close the public art process and pay your friends or the friends of the board to make art? Then you can pretend to promote them through “ethnic” programming in underserved neighborhoods, while really just promoting yourself.

tax payer and voter in Hou January 15, 2015 - 08:54

I is very sad that art processes in this city are handled so poorly. I hope art applicants are treated with more respect in the future. Some of these people are heard saying they want world class art, when they can barely treat the artists they want with class

Flood January 25, 2015 - 09:23 Reply

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