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.
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.
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.