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Rendering of the new lobby and for the George R. Brown Convention Center (image courtesy Visit Houston)

A major art commission in Houston has been suddenly placed on hold, prompting the resignation of a director at the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) and causing an outcry in the city’s art community, the Houston Chronicle reported. The commission was an $830,000 project to be undertaken by sculptor Ed Wilson for the new lobby of the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB).

The nonprofit Houston Arts Alliance has been managing the commission on behalf of Houston First Corporation since September, Glasstire explained, first inviting 30 artists to submit proposals and then slimming that list down to seven. Following that, a selection panel consisting of three local arts professionals, the GRB project architect, and a representative of the GRB chose two semi-finalists, artists Christian Eckart and Ed Wilson, and after seeing more detailed proposals unanimously voted for Wilson. His plan called for “a monumental hanging sculpture, a stainless steel mobile of about 60 by 30 feet,” according to the Chronicle.

But last Thursday the HAA suddenly withdrew the draft contract it had given Wilson. “I was told the civic art committee had decided something was wrong with the process, and they withdrew my commission,” Wilson told the Chronicle. “It seemed very irregular and very political.”

Reached by email, HAA director of communications Marie Jacinto told Hyperallergic that Wilson’s project is still “the only proposal under consideration” and that “it is just going through the chain of stakeholders as part of the review process.” She also sent an official statement on behalf of HAA, which reads in part, “It is unfortunate that artist Ed Wilson received a premature communication regarding the status of his proposal in the review process.”

But in the wake of the controversy, Matthew Lennon, HAA’s director of Civic Art and Design (CAD), has resigned. In a detailed letter explaining his decision, published on Glasstire, Lennon calls a recent meeting of the organization’s Civic Art Committee (CAC) “disingenuous” and alludes to tensions within the organization over the importance of engaging with the local versus the international art communities (a tension seemingly exemplified in an earlier rendering of the GRB’s new lobby, which prominently features a Jeff Koons balloon dog):

To undermine a process that has served HAA well, to denigrate local art professionals and belittle local talent — no matter how cleverly masked — is not the job of CAC. They were not formed to select or reject artists or to decide who or what is ‘Blue Chip’ (see September Minutes). …

The CAD team has successfully delivered permanent and temporary projects.  To treat those successes as insignificant because they’re not perceived as iconic, displays an insular understanding of civic art. As director I negotiated the first 3 year contract, the 17% fee, the contracts with SWA and GRB. I did this with the benefits to HAA in mind and fully aware that it’s the clients requirements that drive the projects.

Glasstire has requested the minutes from the aforementioned September meeting but has not yet received them. Jacinto’s comments to Hyperallergic imply that the GRB and Houston First will move forward with Wilson’s project, but this remains unconfirmed.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

5 replies on “Official Resigns, Contract Withdrawn in Houston Public Art Fiasco”

  1. “it is just going through the chain of stakeholders as part
    of the review process.”

    This is a misrepresentation of the facts. This review process is not a standard
    practice at HAA. In fact the client had
    previously requested previewing the artit’s model at their executive
    meeting. HAA’s civic art team had made
    the arrangements to have it delivered to them. This was in accordance with the client’s
    contractual right to review and see any documentation. HAA’s leadership
    stopped the delivery.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Matthew. So, what you’re saying is this is a new, made-up procedure that they’re making to sound standard?

      1. That’s right Jillian. Neither the city ordinance nor contracts in any way mention the committee. Let alone appoint them as a deciding body.

        It’s not that theprocess failed. It’s that a small cadre, misled by the leadership, want control of the process.

        This demonstration of entitlement is ill-conceived. ‘We know what’s best/who’s
        best, we are the curators for the city collection, we want …’ Is this anything
        more than a vulgar display of elitism?

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