Will Cheap Oil Kill the Houston Art Scene?

by Robert Boyd February 19, 2016

Other than a blip in 2008 with the financial panic, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil climbed pretty steadily from 2000 until late 2013, reaching highs of well over $100 a barrel. Even if you had nothing to do with oil and gas, if you lived in Houston, you were swept along with this 15-year boom. This includes Houston’s art institutions and non-profits. Corporate sponsorship was available, and individuals who worked in the energy industry opened their wallets.

Then the price of oil began to drop, slowly but inexorably. On January 19 of this year, WTI was $28.47/barrel and dropping, sending shivers through Houstonians who remember the grim days of the mid-1980s, when the price fell to under $10 a barrel and the city was awash in empty office buildings and bankrupt former oil executives.

oil prices

[A better measure than the price of oil is the rig count. In the last year, the number of drilling rigs operating in the United States has declined from 1,358 to 541. Consider that each of these rigs accounts for 60-odd blue-collar jobs. And in aggregate, they represent any number of back-office jobs—engineers, geologists, accountants, land men, etc. Every rig that is “laid down” represents jobs lost and decreased revenue for Houston.]

And individuals have been hit hard. As of late November of last year, the energy industry had already laid off 250,000 people. Since then, the industry has laid off tens of thousands more (including me).

The slowdown doesn’t just affect energy companies and their employees. Real estate developers will be tightening their belts. Services all over Houston that depend to some degree on energy workers—doctors, lawyers, accountants, interior decorators, personal trainers, dry cleaners, etc.—will see some of their business dry up. Restaurants and shops will have fewer customers. And so will museums.

Have Houston’s local arts organizations been hit yet by this slowdown? I talked to several art leaders in Houston to suss out what they’re seeing. In particular, I was wondering if they had noticed anything in 2015. Did they sense a slowdown in 2016 in revenue? And how did they plan for it?


Painting from George Grammer’s Oil Wells at Night series, 1950s.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston takes the longest view—the second-largest museum in the country, it has an endowment of $1.18 billion invested in a diversified selection of income-producing investments, mostly equities. About 52% of their operating revenue comes from the endowment. A little over 20% comes from philanthropy, and the rest comes from earned income (membership fees, admissions fees, the museum store, Glassell School tuition, etc.). Because so much comes from admissions and memberships, they depend on popular blockbuster shows. Of the money earned from investments, 40% is reserved for accessions and the rest goes to operating expenses. The endowment is highly diversified, so what matters to the MFAH are large-scale macroeconomic movements—major economic downturns—more than the price of a barrel of oil.

This is not to say that they are completely insulated from energy. If you read their 2013-14 annual report, a lot of their large gifts (which as mentioned above account for some 20-odd percent of the operating budget) come from individuals and companies associated with the energy industry. In the 2013-2014 report, in the category of gifts over $500,000, we see “Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Kinder” of Kinder-Morgan. In the $100,000 to $499,000 category, we see names such as Apache Corporation, Aramco Services Company and ExxonMobil. But all in all, in 2013-2014 philanthropic gifts totaled $12.8 million, 20% of the total $62 million total operating support and revenue. Of that, most of the philanthropy comes from foundations and high net-worth individuals. The percent that comes directly from energy companies seems relatively small. I would suggest that as long as the MFAH continues to put on crowd-pleasing shows (like the upcoming “cool cars” exhibit), they’ll be fine. Even after 2008-2009 bank crisis, when everyone’s investments lost money, they were still in the black.

jerry bywaters oilfield

Jerry Bywaters, Oil Field Girls, 1940, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 in. x 24 1/2 in., collection of the Blanton Museum of Art.

And I suspect that the Glassell School might get an uptick in enrollment. When talking to Art League Houston Executive Director, Michael Peranteau, he pointed out that when a community is in a recession, people often choose to take classes instead of going on vacations. Perhaps it’s an instinct for self-improvement kicking in. MFAH chief financial officer Eric O. Anyah concurred, pointing out this is an observable phenomenon in recessions. So maybe the Art League and the Glassell School will benefit from this downturn. Peranteau explained that about 33% of the Art League’s income came from school fees, and this year that income is up a bit because they are over-enrolled. “The truth is, it hasn’t affected us so much yet,” he said, referring to the energy industry downturn.

The general word so far is that the effects have not filtered down to individual arts organizations. Everyone is waiting to see what happens with local foundations (the Brown Foundation, the Houston Endowment, the Cullen Foundation, etc.) and with the Houston Arts Alliance, which distributes grants from hotel occupancy taxes to most of Houston’s non-profit arts organizations. Lawndale Art Center executive director Stephanie Mitchell said about foundations, “We won’t know about foundation giving until spring.” I’ve heard rumors that HAA’s grants may be lower this year. Hotel occupancy taxes, which fund most of HAA’s grants, are lower in 2015 than was budgeted by about $8 million (8%). Houston First Corporation, which collects HOT from hotels, ascribes this shortfall to the energy industry. In their December 2015 report, they wrote: “Oil price decline deeper and longer than anticipated; HOT revenues higher than last year although under budget.” As for the foundations, their endowments are likely dependent on widely diversified investments. They may be hurt by the weakness of the stock market, but not so much by what is happening in the energy industry.

We’ve been through this before in the ’80s and ’90s. One of the survivors of that era is DiverseWorks, which was founded in 1982. (Another survivor is Fotofest, founded in 1985. They almost went under in 1992 when they lost the support of Kodak.) Michael Peranteau, one of the co-founders of DiverseWorks, said of the difficult years in the ’80s, “DiverseWorks’ content and programming was too radical for mainstream corporate giving. We were supported by indivuals like Louisa Stude Sarofim and others like her, which kept us insulated from oil.”

No one knows how long this slowdown will last. When oil collapsed in the early ’80s, it took years for the effects to filter through the Houston economy. Energy companies stopped hiring for a generation. People hired between 1998 (the nadir of the price of oil after 1980) and now noticed their offices were full of young graduates and managers 20 years older than the new guys. Could the current slowdown last nearly 20 years like the last one did? If you listen to analysts in Houston, you hear a lot of optimistic forecasts. But that seems like wishful thinking to me.

Because corporate giving is a minor part of the picture for small visual arts organizations (as opposed to foundation grants, which account for a big chunk of everyone’s annual revenue), it may be that places like DiverseWorks, Lawndale and the Art League are still somewhat insulated. The MFAH, with its huge endowment, doesn’t have to worry too much about Houston’s largest industry—although it certainly can’t be helpful while they’re trying to raise $450 million for a construction project. But everyone I talked to is looking to the future. The bad news takes a while to filter into the economy as a whole. It’s already affecting real estate and construction. If the current environment persists, it will eventually have an effect on the rest of Houston’s economy. This suggests that 2017 and 2018 may be key years for the survival of Houston’s art institutions.




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Michael Galbreth February 19, 2016 - 15:18

Artists make an “art scene,” not arts organizations.

nestor topchy February 21, 2016 - 14:21

How right you are Michael Galbreth, in fact it doesn’t stop there; artists attract economic development which usurps their presence …

Paul English February 21, 2016 - 15:36

Amen, Brother Michael!

Great Scott February 19, 2016 - 17:34

Yeah, I think we should be more worried about certain councilmembers killing the art scene. That and all the Urban Living garbage destroying any cool alternative spaces.

Robert Boyd February 19, 2016 - 21:19

The City Council is going to be faced with big shortfalls in taxes in the coming year. The mayor has already warned of layoffs. If redirecting HOT revenue prevents a garbage man from getting laid off, I’m not sure I would oppose that.

As for Urban Living, if real estate crashes in Houston, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about those guys much longer.

Troy Stanley February 19, 2016 - 18:21

Interesting article. I’m an artist working currently as a fabricator for the natural science museum. Talking with our outsourced fabricators that typically work in oil fab., many of them have lost up to 80% of their buisness and are taking on smaller gigs just to scrape by. Many others are closing doors and going out of business.

But i think if you want a more vibrant and interesting art scene/art world you might be surprised when the trickle down lowers some of the rental bubble that drove a lot of artists out of the city the past couple years. The city got expensive overnight and a lot of us couldn’t keep up. Time = money

Thinking back to undergrad, I had nothing, limited funds for materials, no real source of income. But luckily I had cheap tuition, a space to work, and free time. Still managed to make good work and take risks. I made it to to more art shows and happenings. Anything was possible. I felt more creative back then, now not so much.

If artist don’t have to be as creative in making ends meet with higher rent, higher food, higher transportation, limited space, and materials then they can be creative in just being creative. Maybe Houston could become an artist sanctuary again.

Artist are too resilient…

Robert Boyd February 19, 2016 - 21:14

No one has cheap tuition anymore, but it is true that rents may come down and the cost of living may improve. (It already has for all of us who have to pay for gasoline.)

Lulu February 23, 2016 - 12:35

@Robert: We have been offering $15 drawing classes and $35 painting classes (including supplies) at Houston Art Lessons for the last 4 years, so that’s an alternative for people who can’t afford college classes.
As someone who grew up going to a privately-owned art studio and then transitioning to public school art classes and then university art classes, I’d say that the best education I got was in those art studio sessions before high school. LA has tons of high quality inexpensive art workshops, but there’s really not enough of those here in Houston.

Cathy Power February 20, 2016 - 09:14

Should the headline be Will Cheap Oil Kill the Established Houston Art Scene? I’m with Michael.

Robert Boyd February 20, 2016 - 11:31

“Kill” is a much stronger word than I would have used. I think infrastructure (places to display art, places to study art, places to see art) are more important than you or Michael give them credit for. See Art Worlds by Howard Becker for more.

If anything, I think commercial galleries are more at risk than most of the nonprofits I talked to. How many went under during the period from 1981 to 1998? Of course, galleries are like restaurants–they are inherently difficult businesses to sustain even in the best of times.

Michael Peranteau February 22, 2016 - 21:24

Artists have always gotten together and created arts or artist organizations. Lawndale, DiverseWorks, Box 13, the Art League, Project Row Houses, and many, many other arts organizations were created by artists. Artists decide Art League Houston’s programs and teach in Art League’s school and get paid well to do that. Art League is also W.A.G.E. certified so we pay $1100’and $1800 to artists who exhibit in our exhibition spaces plus materials and travel expenses. We are an “artist organization” and artists make us who we are and we all make up Houston’s “art scene.”

Iva Kinnaird February 23, 2016 - 15:29

Michael makes a good point, but I’m with Michael.

Bobby Bacon February 21, 2016 - 11:36

Still a vibrant medical scene. Doc’s like art too… Of course the market for the “cowboys sauntering into the small town on horseback with the drilling rigs in the background” prints may suffer a bit.
On a more serious note this is a city in transformation with amenities improving by the day. Great parks, good transition to “walkable” cities and a bunch of energetic young artists making the news. We should get through this one.

Robert Boyd February 21, 2016 - 12:31

Will amenities keep improving if the tax base for the city dries up?

Medical services do seem to one portion of our total economy that is growing because we have successful exports (people traveling to Houston for medical treatment) and the ever-increasing cost of medical services. But there has to be some relationship between Houston’s energy-fueled growth between 1998 and 2013 and the growth of its medical complex, no? They aren’t completely independent of one another. All those oil energy professionals who got laid off in 2015-2016 were using medical services, too.

Brad Creel February 21, 2016 - 18:47

Is the economy the reason why traffic at The Art Crawl has slowed considerably compared to several years ago? Or is it because there are so many more galleries and studios today than in the past the reason why crowds are thinning? One of the artists at Mother Dog Studios says The Art Crawl has just lost steam. But why?

Iva February 27, 2016 - 20:19

Thanks for writing about this, Robert. I’ve been wondering what it will mean for our arts orgs and for rent.

Looking forward to the scene tonight!


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