Performance Art for HOT Funded Art Accountability

Woman in gallery
Wayne Dolcefino recently completed an expose called The Color of Money about Houston Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) dollars funding Art to increase art tourism in Houston. From his story on the ABC 13 web site:

HOUSTON (KTRK) — We've put aside millions of your dollars to get art for the city. So why is some of the money collecting dust for nearly a decade? Where's the art?

We've gotten an earful from artists about my supposed lack of culture because they are under the mistaken impression we spend tax money just to create art. In fact, we spend hotel tax money on art to bring in tourists to fill up hotel rooms.

That's why our focus is the color of money; your money.

This has been posted on the Houston Arts Alliance blog (a client) and commented on by several influential artists in the Houston Community. As well as on the ABC 13 site. How can you resist talking about a story that includes the phrase "Lesbian puppet theater"?

As best I can ascertain the themes of Wayne's report are:

  1. Some Art is inaccessible – art at a wastewater treatment plant is not attracting tourists and now it is behind locked doors in a post 9-11 world. Jonathon Glus in the interview agrees with Wayne that this art should be moved to be accessible saying: ""I think civic art monies need to be focused on very public spaces," This can and should be fixed.
  2. Everyday citizens may question if something is art, consider it bad art, or overpriced art at times. Fair enough. Yet we are limited in what we can do here. Specifically government must decide to fund art or not fund art, but it can't cross the first amendment.
    1. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires the government to spend taxpayer dollars to fund
      artistic expression. If the government chooses to fund the arts, however, it must do so
      in a manner consistent with the First Amendment
  3. It's YOUR Money. Or maybe it's not your money. The report opens with "your dollars" and day two has "You spend millions of dollars on art to bring in tourists." but later Wayne is careful to say "The millions we collect in hotel taxes are required to go to tourism, stadiums, conventions and art. " My take? During Hurricane Ike many of us stayed in hotels. So if it is HOT money at least a portion of it can be referred to as "my taxes".  I think this is semantics and not the point as far as I am concerned.
  4. Not much HOT Money has been spent on the most obvious tourist location – the Houston Museum District. And some signs have grafiti on them. And the "banners that are tattered." Hard to argue with this one. This can and should be fixed.
  5. Some people in the museum district make too much money. "$145,000 a year salary" and "compensation last year was $475,000 a year, but with bonuses it came to $888,173". Those are big numbers. But this is purely subjective and right now I am too busy being upset at AIG giving Christmas bonuses to worry about the cost of a world class curator. It's like sports – if you can earn it then good for you. That's just the American way. Dan Rather versus a local station. Sorry kiddo, life's not fair.
  6. Only one piece has been delivered.  True, but to be balanced perhaps look at the works refurbished as well? But on that note, deadlines do matter so this can improve with better oversight.

What did Wayne miss? Well, he was either kind (uncharacteristic, no?) or did not  know about ignoble past of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County. The mismanagement at CACHH, as I understand it, even caused a backlash within the arts community. Did ABC13 report on this at the time?

One other aspect of the "story" that I have trouble with is going from "we shouldn't spend tax dollars on art" to "why aren't you spending tax dollars on art fast enough?" but I'll chalk that up to journalistic license.

What can Wayne do better next time?

  1. Be balanced. Interview a few people who LIKE art in the city of Houston! This is just basic journalism to look at the other side. I know, I know, Fox News, but still I can dream, right? Plus he might have found an art lover who was similarly outraged at timing/location/etc which might have led to constructive dialog.
  2. Give people a chance to respond before airing a sensational piece timed to show the week the National Arts Marketing Conference and the Latin Grammy's are in Houston. This was just a PT Barnumesque stunt that hurt the city in front of two very influential groups. Very clever I'll give you. But if it's all about ratings maybe I need to listen to my own advice "life's not fair".
  3. Release the FULL interview of Glus from the story as background material. At least the transcript. Soundbites with dramatic music are just silly and taken out of context destructive.

I was wondering what exactly are the duties of a journalist? Is it art, or reporting. And if art, shouldn't it be labelled as such?

From the National Union of Journalists Code of Professional Conduct it says things like "strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship" and "ensure that the information he or she disseminates is fair and accurate". So I'd have to say that reporting is more Art than Journalism in this case. And he is quite entertaining when your community is not the target of the attack. Like watching ultimate fighting I guess.

Dan Keeney (a client) had a constructive comment on the HAA Blog:

Love him or hate him, I think Wayne Dolcefino has plopped a big
stinkin….OPPORTUNITY in the lap of the Houston arts community. He
repeatedly has acknowledged that there is a direct connection between
the arts and the city’s economy, which is typically the hardest concept
for critics to grasp.

He is making that difficult argument on your
behalf — but he is also demanding accountability.

Hard to argue with Dan's point on accountability. HAA and the arts community should work to improve transparency and accountability. And the citizens and hopefully the media should help the entire city move in that direction. Just hopefully without ripping ourselves apart or timing it to make us look like backwater fools the week of the Arts Conference Wayne. Oh please, that wasjust disingenuous.

The bottom line for me?  I am going to view the whole thing as some amazing performance art with a few grains of truth. And for that I tip my hat to Mr. Dolcefino on a ratings grabbing performance. Now this way to The Egress please.

Disclaimers: HAA, Discovery Green, Dan Keeney and numerous others (over 300) actually are clients. Those that aren't clients, many are friends. I am sure I missed an asterisk somewhere, but this is a blog and I am not pretending to be impartial.