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.