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Two Cents for Houston’s New Cultural Plan

With much fanfare, the City of Houston is currently writing a new arts and cultural plan, outlining recommendations for city government action on the arts for the future. It’s an update of the last plan, done in 1993. They want our input. The most visible part of the plan so far has been the publicity announcing the orgy of public forums, focus groups and committee meetings the plan-writing has spawned. There’s even a website, By You City, where you can put in your two cents. Here are two of mine:

1. No Zoning

Until recently, Houston has been a city of chaos, and from this mess were born some of the our defining cultural landmarks: the Beer Can House, The Orange Show, the Flower Man’s House, Mother Dog Studios, Artcrawl, David Addickes, notsuoH, Project Row Houses. In each case, Houston’s lax enforcement of building codes allowed artists free rein to pursue their visions, literally contributing to the city’s diverse landscape.

Nestor Topchy's Templo/Zocalo circa 1992

Nestor Topchy’s Templo/Zocalo circa 1992

Its famous lack of zoning is one of the few things Houston offers artists that other cities can’t. It’s been a defining feature of the city, and one of its main attractions for artists for decades. But this isn’t happening anymore. Prosperity has put teeth into Houston code enforcement, whose numerous inspectors now patrol the streets, ready to red-tag any unconventional building activity.

It’s vital that we preserve a loophole for artistic expression on an architectural scale. What once was an opportunity created naturally by low property prices and underfunded city government must now be maintained purposefully if Houston’s unique character as a city of artistic entrepreneurship is to continue. As part of the new cultural plan, Houston city Council should create an ordinance making an exception to the building codes for artistic projects.

Of course, there will need to be safeguards against abuse. No one wants to see sleazy builders putting up unsafe, substandard structures. I propose that the city create an alternative path to compliance for creative projects in art and architecture, in which building officials will approve structures on a case-by-case basis, by assessing them on their merits, rather than on whether they conform to the rigid conventions of the International Building Code.

Imagine the effect! If you are artist or architect in San Antonio or Sri Lanka with a great, crazy idea, and you heard that, in Houston, projects like yours were welcomed as part of the city’s freewheeling culture, where would you go? Such an ordinance would be a powerful magnet, drawing talented, ambitious people from across the globe to settle and practice here.

2. Art Czar

Despite the bad feelings over the Ed Wilson/GRB commission, one surprising thing that stands out is that all parties were doing what they were supposed to be doing: trying to get the best art for the city. There have been no accusations of real malfeasance; the Ed Wilson debacle was simply an internal squabble between HAA staff and the HAA Civic Art Committee over whose vision of the GRB project would prevail.

But who cares about HAA’s internal politics? It’s results that count. Does this way of doing things produce great civic art? Demonstrably, no, but it’s not the autocracy that’s to blame, it’s the autocrats. If Dominique De Menil were running things over at HAA, the city would do well to shove money at her and not sweat the details.

Dominique de Menil as Art Czar.

Dominique de Menil as Art Czar.

I want an official Houston Art Czar. Look at the benefits:

Transparency. Instead of a set of self-appointed mini-czars, operating semi-covertly, which is what we’ve got now, we’d have only one person to blame when Jaume Plensa comes calling again. We’d axe the Czar, topple those new-age garden gnomes into the bayou and be done with it! Committees make bad artistic decisions anyway.

Open dialog. A reigning Czar wouldn’t need to soft-pedal the failures of his or her predecessors. Take Richard Serra’s famously controversial Tilted Arc: a piece any Czar would love, cruelly mishandled and eventually destroyed by committees. An Art Czar could have sneered at public outcry against the piece and made everyone walk around it, as Serra intended, or simply cut a door through it.

Efficiency. Say you’re a city department, busy building a new waterworks or police substation, and the damned percent-for-art ordinance says you need to spend some money on art. Just ask the Czar! No selection committees to convene, no stakeholders to consult, no sham public hearings or token community input. Done and done!

But how can you be sure your Czar won’t just pick something awful? You can’t, but preventing awfulness should not be the aim of a public art selection process. Avoiding  embarrassing screw-ups is the primary purpose of the HAA’s current process, and it mostly works.

“Not bad” is a respectable standard for economic policy, public health, law enforcement and the like. It’s built into the fundamental concept of American government: those colonial pessimists designed our constitution not to create good government, but to avoid awful government, shrewdly figuring that anything not actually bad would be a monumental improvement. They were right: “not bad” is actually very good, historically speaking. But not so with art. Public art that’s merely not bad displaces better art, and debases public taste. It’s worse than no art at all.

Art history tells us that bloody tyrants, self-serving oligarchies and inhumane theocracies have produced the best public art. The more pluralistic, secular and fair a society is, the worse the public art is. We admire the public art of the bad old days, when the peasantry could be coerced into building a pyramid or cathedral filled with looted gold, but our society places people ahead of monuments, and money ahead of both. We get the art we want, the art we can agree on: the executive paperweight. Clean, bland, and clever, made from shiny metal, polished granite and ipe wood. When necessary, these gewgaws can be rendered meaningful via interpretive text, or made entertaining through shallow technological gimmicks. Only a Czar can save us from ourselves.

Yvonne Domenge,Wind Waves

Yvonne Domenge, Wind Waves

also by Bill Davenport
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18 Responses

  1. Cecily

    I nominate myself. My mother always said I was aspiring to be Empress of the Known Universe. I will make do with Art Czar.

  2. Linda Harmes

    The problem with czars and oligarchs is that they don’t care about budgets nor do they care if they have to destroy someone’s house or business if they deem that the ideal place for their latest art project. Today’s oligarchs are big business and many of these large companies have deep pockets for art work. In addition to the fascinating entrepreneurial art projects around the city, we have also benefitted from sculpture and art exhibits on the grounds and in the lobbies of these big companies.
    Having been a public servant for the beginning of my career, I do believe that it’s important for the public to feel it has a voice in public art. For public art that might not meet the tastes of a public committee, we should turn to private funding, although I dare say you will find a few committees even among those private funding sources.

  3. Techang

    Bill, I agree. Art Czar all the way. The battle will be vicious, but the blood would be worth it to see the Czar streamline things. LAX has a few people respected and with little micromanagement and they got a Mark Bradford over the TSA! Granted, not the most effective public art piece, but it shows strength and their risk is greatly respected. If that few people turned into one, they probably would be able to celebrate it more instead of defend it. Benevolent dictatorship is cool, if “I’m” the dictator.

  4. The only relationship between the two topics covered in this article is geography. Both of these ideas are bad.

    Regarding the first idea: It is unnecessary. There will always be those people and elements who will live and operate outside of official standards. Unpredictable people like John (Milkovisch – The Beer Can House) and Nestor (Zocalo) don’t need “safeguards” and will always find a different way, regardless of codes. Art environments are already mostly allowed, if not protected, through existing building codes, deed restrictions and historical designations. Recognition and appreciation in any official manner will neither encourage nor discourage phenomena like the Beer Can House or Zocalo. Each was created outside of any expectations or architectural/zoning/societal norms. Weeds always find the cracks.

    Regarding the second idea – the so-called “art-czar”: This is a horrible idea and one worth fighting against. Aside from the continued silly deification of Dominique de Menil and the Menil Collection, the suggestion of an “Art Czar” is as grotesque as the term.

    The specific situation of the “Ed” thing was not “simply an internal squabble.” All parties were not doing what they were supposed to be doing. It certainly had little to do with trying to get the best art for the city. It WAS malfeasance. Hence the reaction. The reason it was wrongdoing by public officials is because the particular people involved are not experts in public art, nor were they acting with the best interests of the city in mind. The reason wrongdoing by public officials occurs now and will continue to happen is because of the deep structural flaws that currently exist with public art in Houston. Unless and until this is understood and corrected, it will continue to be more of the same.

    You can’t cure cancer with aspirin. Trust me on this.

    1. Bill Davenport

      Michael, I agree that the weeds will find the cracks, but the cracks in Houston are closing. It’s much harder to be left alone to do your own thing here than it used to be.

      1. This is what I’m hearing as well. It would be difficult for a Commerce Street Warehouse to exist now as it did in its heyday–the second a city inspector found it, it’d be red-tagged.

    2. Randy Twaddle

      Michael, in reference to the “Ed” thing, when you say “public officials,” whom do you mean, specifically?

  5. I’ve been looking for something to do now that I’m scaling back The Great God Pan Is Dead, and being the actual Art Czar sounds perfect. After all, I am already the Art Czar in my mind.

    And as your Art Czar, I promise that I will attend no galas. I’ll deal with the city and county and with artists, of course, but anyone else who wants to influence me will have to come to me and kiss my ring.

    My reign will never be about making some plutocrat’s collection more valuable by commissioning artists he collects; it will be about pleasing myself by making the city a more interesting place.

  6. Zoning codes in cities like Dallas and San Antonio have effectively caused economic and educational segregation that have hindered the arts. I like Houston’s model. I lived in Houston 50 years ago, and where it was ugly, it was very very ugly, and where it housed the wealthy it was breathtakingly beautiful. That changed in the fifty years since 1960 and now we see a blending of cityscapes and public, corporate and private art venues throughout the city. Choose your art czar carefully and your city will be alive with music, drama, visual arts, and a fusion of landscaping with architectural structures that have merit.

  7. jeffrey green

    Those guys are held to their stupid boulders by about 6 tiny bolts, size 8 I think. I hope those aren’t permanent. I hope a car goes airborne and dives into one. all Buddha did was sit on his fat ass.

  8. Lou Mires

    Can you provide an actual working model of these propositions in a similar city? History is a great teacher, and I’ve often found failure repeated for lack of historical knowledge and success for understanding it well.

      1. Bill Davenport

        Naw. Surprisingly, fascist dictatorships have not done as well at public art as other repellent, authoritarian forms of government – not because they lack autocratic authority, but, I theorize, because of their fundamental insecurity.

        1. Authoritarian governments of all types create bad public art because such art generally seeks to legitimize and aggrandize the dictator/state/party/race. (At least those within the past 100 years or so.) But what Bill is suggesting is quite different and therefore interesting (if unrealistic and probably fraught with political problems)–someone who has no particular political power within local government except the power to commission public art. So we go back to Lou Mires question–has anyone done this (as opposed to the usual commission-by-committee process that I assume most municipalities employ)?

  9. Cameron Armstrong

    What Michael said, 100%. But also this:

    Our artist-driven public art and venues – from Lawndale and Commerce Street, to Zocalo, Row Houses, the Artery, and on and on – suggest that a civic culture wired to the city’s social and spiritual fundamentals is possible. Sounds highfalutin but where else have artists so often tackled a city at its own scale and on its own terms, as only one more conventional medium for their work? Vacant land, buildings, blocks, and even whole quadrants of the city have been transformed by the likes of Ruck and Havel, Topchy, Pirtle, Lowe, the Art Guys and many others in making new realities from old places. Don’t forget Bill’s Junk! It’s been exemplary in terms of public art, but also quite a typical move for Houston artists to make, and it’s a real basis for developing a civic art culture. It is past time for the City of Houston to acknowledge this legacy, and discard its gate-keeper mentality in favor of instituting an open conversation.

  10. Dan Havel

    It’s gone from the “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges” to asking Mom if it’s OK to put art out on the lawn……..

  11. Bill Davenport

    I think an essential corollary of the Art Czar scheme is a Darwinian disposal program where the pieces no one cares about are quietly removed and destroyed. Not the pieces eveyone hates or loves- just the ones nobody will miss. If it’s done properly, no one will even notice!

  12. When Havel Ruck Projects was commissioned by HAA to create “Fifth Ward Jam”, it was under the premise that it was temporary (although 5th CRC decided to keep and maintain it). We needed to obtain a permit to move the shack we used for the piece to the empty lot where it stands today. With the help of Fifth Ward CRC, we met with city permit people and discussed that we were not creating a dwelling, but a work of art. They said we needed a building permit to move the house. We said it was our desire that we did not need a building permit after moving the house because it was going to be made into a work of art. So, saying they never have done this before, they wrote us up a creative permit that deemed the house a dwelling while it was being picked up and moved, but it would be officially deemed an “art structure” after it was on the site, thus allowing us not to need building permits to construct piece. With a little education and persuasion, the permit people can be pretty accommodating….seems back in the day, us artists did stuff and then apologized later….

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