Houston is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind

On May 7, 2013, the Houston Chronicle featured a front-page story on the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau’s new “Houston is Inspired” ad campaign.  The campaign was launched at Market Square with a ribbon-cutting for Aerosol Warfare founder Gonzo247’s new mural, which is the centerpiece of this campaign.

What could be more appropriate for the billboard capital of the world?
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I am not a fan.  Why?  The mural says nothing, absolutely nothing, it is nothing but empty hype–but let me back up for a minute.

I like murals.  I like street art.  I like public art.  I even like obnoxious ugly narcissistic tags with nothing but the writer’s name because those sing to me I AM // I EXIST // YOU DON’T SEE ME BUT I MATTER TOO.  And my standards for street art take into account that the artist is working quickly, often under cover of darkness with only one free hand while standing on a narrow ledge–it does not have to be expertly executed (though that doesn’t hurt).

That said, let’s start with the words.  Let’s start with the fact that the “y” in “tasty” is a fork.  Seriously?  What grade are we in again?  Are we finger-painting utensils, now?

When I was in pre-school we used chocolate pudding to finger-paint a mimeograph of a groundhog and we got to eat the pudding.  There was pudding all over the place, all over kids’ faces and the classroom, it was delicious.  This mural makes me want to finger-paint a fork, except that doesn’t make sense because you can’t eat pudding with a fork.  (You can, however, poke your eyes out with a fork.  Subliminal message?)  You know what else doesn’t make sense?  Grown-ass people making a fork out of the “y” on the end of “tasty” in an international ad campaign that’s posta make our city look grown.

Frankly, I don’t know how to organize my thoughts around this one.  I read those words and I wonder how they might have been represented visually, in a way that rings true for Houston. How is Houston “funky?”  Show me that.  How is Houston “hip?”  Show me that, please.  And what the fuck does “savvy” mean, anyway?  How is a city “savvy?”  Why isn’t the “y” in “savvy” a cute little spork?  Could it be because of the glaring contradiction between the meaning of “savvy” and turning a letter of the alphabet into a cutesy utensil, or did somebody run out of pudding?

I look at those random abstract curlicues and I take nothing from them–I wonder what else might have gone on this highly visible wall on Market Square where once stood a produce stand (Market Square’s namesake), a capital building of the Republic of Texas, three Houston city halls, and a busy bus depot.  Those are some things that stood at that site.  Instead we get curlicues.  Fucking rad.

Last summer, two of my good friends, Chris Benfield and Russel Howze, made a mural for a new Whole Foods location in San Francisco.  They did a ton of research on native flora and fauna, both living and extinct, and even looked at drawings of the Bay Area’s prehistoric topography.  Here are some images of that mural–it’s hard to get a wide shot because the mural wraps around a narrow hallway before going down stairs, but here are a ton of detail shots (they get bigger if you click on them):

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You see what I’m saying? That mural is tied to a place.  It says something about the past AND the present of that place, which makes the viewer think of what the future might bring and how present choices will impact that possible future.

What do you get from curlicues and a kindergartner’s skyline with some decontextualized words?

Nothing.  That’s what you get.  Nothing.  Just more vapid advertising for an unidentified product.

A few weeks ago I found myself in Venice Beach, California.  Have you seen Rip Cronk’s famous mural near the Venice Boardwalk?  It’s called “Venice Kinesis” and it references the artist’s own previous mural, “Venice on the Half Shell,” which in turn references Boticelli’s famous “Venus on the Half Shell.”

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Apart from referencing a classic work of art, this mural depicts so much of what makes Venice unique and vibrant.  There’s a flying dumbell to represent muscle beach, bongos, a surfer, sea gulls, a gondolier, people strolling on the beach, local eccentrics, California poppies, and Venus as a roller girl.

Now scroll back up to the mural called “Houston is…”  The one with the random words: inspired, hip, tasty, funky, savvy.  The one that stands at Market Square, near the convergence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous, right above Houston’s birthplace at Allen’s Landing and the place where the Houston Police Department beat Jose Campos Torres to death before dumping his body in the bayou, yet makes NO REFERENCE TO ANYTHING TANGIBLE in favor of some abstract curlicues and a “y” shaped like a fork.  Are you shaking your head yet?  Are you knitting your brow?  If not, please check your pulse immediately, like now, seriously.

I first caught wind of this mural on Facebook, where it was garnering a lot of unwarranted praise.  This was on a day when another national blog had made a post where Houston was in the top ten among cities for something desirable.  Cheap hype just grates my nerves, whether it’s coming from a faraway blogger who’s trying to be “edgy” by putting Houston above Austin on some stupid top 10 list or it’s the Houston Convention Bureau, itself.

I don’t think that blowing smoke up people’s asses is doing them a favor–in fact, I think it’s doing them a disservice.  The reason why Houston has stupid curlicues on its billboard mural instead of icons and scenes that are familiar to us all is because Houston doesn’t have a public life.  No amount of hype is going to change that–that requires a public policy that prioritizes public spaces, and that requires a culture which values public space in the first place.

We don’t have that.  Nor do we have a critical eye, apparently.  But we are “inspired” and “hip” and “tasty” and “funky” and “savvy.”  Oooookkkkkkkk.

When I went to take photos of this mural I ran into a family from Austin who were likewise snapping photos.  It was a woman, a man, and their two children–a girl and a boy.  They were pretty nice and said they like the colors.  Fair enough.

Later that night I wound up talking about it again at the nearby Clutch City Squire bar.  I met a man there who keeps an office nearby, and he was a huge fan of the mural, too.  Go figure.  Again, he said he likes the colors and that “it’s better than what was there before” (which was a mural of produce).  Ok.

Wait, before I go on, I want to share some photos of my favorite mural in the world.  It’s the mural that covers two walls of The Women’s Building in San Francisco.  I don’t have any images of my own to share with you, but you can find images here, here, here, and here.

But back to this HOU mural.  I saw heaps of unchecked praise being piled on it and it made me think that either a) the people who were congratulating the artist were being insincere, or b) the people who were congratulating the artist have no idea what a good mural really looks like–because that is not a mural that warrants praise–it is, at best, filler.

So I wrote the artist an email hoping to get some answers.  Below are the questions I posed:
  1. Do you see yourself working in any particular mural tradition?  I have spent a lot of time on the West Coast, so I have seen a ton of “political” murals in what I would call a “Latin American” or “Xican@” style, for lack of a better word.  I have seen a ton of graffiti all over the world, too.  I lived in New York City for five years.  I have seen Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico, San Francisco, and Detroit–I’d call those “labor murals,” again, for lack of a better word.  Which school of muraling does this mural belong to, from your point of view?
  2. Who are some of your influences?  How does this work compare to theirs?
  3. Was this commissioned?  Who commissioned it?
  4. How did you decide on the imagery and text?  Did that come from your funders or did you have a part in that decision-making?
  5. What do the words “Inspired,” “Hip,” “Tasty,” “Funky,” and “Savvy” mean to you? [In retrospect, I would add, “How might those words be represented visually?”]
  6. Do the patterns/lines/colors come from any particular school?  Do they have any meaning?  For example–what do the stars represent?  Why the sun?

My email was dated April 10.  As of May 14, I have seen no reply.  In the meantime, I have rediscovered this mural, on the side of the Midtown Art Center on Holman @ La Branch.

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I believe that one is by Floyd Newsum and I’ve always thought the lady who’s face is depicted is supposed to be Emma Goldman, but I’m just guessing on both counts.  In any case, THAT is a good mural to represent Houston.  Why?  It depicts the nearby freeway (288) that rent this neighborhood in two!  And we ALL know that the freeways are simultaneously the most beautiful yet ugly features of this sprawling metropolis.  Where do you go to catch a killer view of the skyline like in the HOU mural?  To a freeway overpass, where else?

Going back to that nothing mural and the the random words and this whole vapid “Houston is Inspired!” campaign…I hate to quote Margaret Thatcher (this hurts me more than it hurts you), but as Maggie once said, “Power [or “inspiration” or “savviness” or whathaveyou] is like being a lady; if you have to say you are, you aren’t” (emphasis mine).

So settle down and take a deep breath, Houston, then take a cue from South Dakota.  If your self-worth is contingent on what national bloggers are writing about you, you are looking for inspiration in all the wrong funky places.

37 thoughts on “Houston is Insipid // Enmired State of Mind

  1. Robert Boyd

    I don’t know if Gonzo247 came up with those words or not, but to me they sound like the result of a brainstorming session at an ad agency. And that ain’t good.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Ironic, isn’t it? Usually I expect the “hive mind” to be more creative and better at problem-solving than the individual mind, but that “truth” rarely translates to the realm of aesthetics.

      Reply
    2. Rainey Knudson

      In one of the recent articles about Houston being the hip new destination, they credited the city for the “Houston. It’s Worth It.” campaign. As we all know, the city didn’t come up with that fantastic and highly successful campaign — an independent creative firm, Ttweak, did.

      Rule #1 in business: surround yourself with people who do things better than you do. The city should have hired Ttweak to do the branding that they are clearly incapable of doing themselves. “Houston is Inspired” (which has been panned in art circles) is the latest half-baked effort in the grand tradition of “Houston: It’s Hot!” and “My Houston”. How many times does the GHCVB need to fall on its face for someone wielding the levers of branding power to take the job away from them?

      Reply
      1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

        “Fantastic and highly successful?” By what metric?

        I can’t tell if you are being sincere or sarcastic. What I do know is that BRANDING is something that is done to livestock and chattel slaves, and no thank you–I will pass on being branded. I will, however, continue to invite and host the people that I love to my hometown, despite bullshit like this, because this bullshit is really just the tip of the funky iceturd, if you follow. We’s WAY funkier ‘neath the surface, and it’s high time we embraced it.

        Reply
        1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

          Oh wait, sorry, you are referring to the “HIWI” campaign, not the “Houston is” campaign. I still stand by what I said, though–who are the people who actually pay attention to these campaigns, and how many of them are swayed by them?

          I can tell you this–the people who pay attention to and are swayed by bollocks like this do not carry much, if any, “cultural capital.” They are not the sought-after hubs or influential people or whatever the marketers call them. They are not the influential trend-setters–people like that see right through this kind of empty rhetoric and are more likely turned off than turned on by it. I know, because I am someone whose opinion people seek when looking for stuff to do and places to go. (Not to toot my own horn, and like I said, I will continue to sell Houston despite these bollocks, because Houston is way cooler than GHVCB even knows.)

          Reply
  2. Manuel

    Robert is correct that Gonzo has become the puppet for a dim marketing bureau. Gonzo is both a nice guy and prolific illustrator, but not very interesting as an artist. But I have no beef with Gonzo, I hope they paid him well for this inconsequential psychedelia.

    Let us return to the core of the issue, Houston cheerleaders are Insipid.
    There in the Houston Chronicle I see a turgid James Rodriguez on a scissor lift next to Gonzo. Keep it up James, we guarantee the votes will flood through like nocturnal emissions.
    This question should be posed to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureaus: Why litter us with inanity? And next time could you offer the brainstorming session to some people who did not study marketing? If you want people to celebrate Houston, then we should display some complexity.
    I should not be so perturbed by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureaus, I know they are a provincial propaganda department for a humid city with broken roads and a toy tram called lite rail. The point is, secretly I am a Nepotist and my friends could do better.

    I love Houston too, such ambivalence…oh well.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Right. Who are the people consulted by GHVCB in their focus-groups? What questions did GHVCB ask them?

      I get your ambivalence–I think it’s a function of complexity.

      Reply
  3. KP

    Thank God! I’m so happy to FINALLY see an intelligent response to this vapid mural and ridiculous slogan!

    Really, Houston, what has happened that we are praising this garbage just because we want to show support for the artist? This mural and the city’s reaction to it highlight the art community’s largest problem at the moment; lack of critical writing and discussion around the art being created here.

    Thank you, Harbeer, for writing this. I hope more people see it.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Thank you for your reply, Kelly. I agree that we need to raise the bar and expect more from ourselves and those who would claim us for their audience. I’m glad to do my part, but we’re all in this together!

      Reply
  4. Jennifer

    I imagine that it’s purpose is to be a “snapshot” for the big tourism push Houston is going to be unleashing. I can see the mural being background or a visual in brochures and hotel information guides now… its a commercial, not an artisitc statement.

    Reply
  5. Muna

    wow, the women’s building in san fran looks amazing! there are some really powerful murals that i’ve seen in philly as well. i think my major critique of the houston mural is that it SAYS houston. murals should speak for themselves. adding words to them really takes away from the message (though I didn’t really even get what the message was in this case). so my comment isn’t totally negative…i will say that this wall would be great to look at while on a shrooms induced journey. amiright?

    Reply
  6. Allyn West

    Look, I’m susceptible to garish colors and curlicues and “inconsequential psychedelia,” as Manuel wonderfully calls it, and I’ve been one of those giddy Instagrammers posting images of this mural to his Facebook page. And I have to confess that I was fooled — or shocked, maybe — by the spectacle of it.

    My reaction was “Oh! Pretty!” And then I drove away.

    But this essay talks me out of that. This point nails it: “[The Whole Foods] mural is tied to a place. It says something about the past AND the present of that place, which makes the viewer think of what the future might bring and how present choices will impact that possible future.”

    And this mural is, as others have pointed, the outcome of Gonzo247’s patronage. And of course it’s circumscribed by the wishes of Houston’s tourism bureau and the downtown management district and whatever other entity is paying for all the paint. Houston’s got this whole glossy campaign featuring our celebrity chefs and our linebackers and our Rice Village boutique owners, the kind of campaign that you see in in-flight magazines, and now it’s got a street-level billboard, too.

    So maybe it fails on that level.

    But I would say that you don’t have to go to Venice Beach or San Francisco to see murals that work in the terms you lay out here. The East End is full of them. There’s Leo Tanguma’s crumbling, crackling block-long mural on Canal St. — it’s amazing. The scale of it. And it’s so violent and so fraught with the story of the U.S.-Mexico border, with all the arms desperately reaching and the figures stepping on the skulls of their ancestors, that it resonates — even with me, a white guy from the Midwest.

    And if you drive up and down Harrisburg Blvd., you’ll see several others that are representative of that neighborhood’s working-class history: You’ll see freight trains and roosters and cargo ships and refinery smokestacks.

    There’s one thing I’m wondering at, though. The murals you (and I both) bring up as successful examples are representational. And this one’s clearly abstract. Same with Daniel Anguilu’s work in Midtown. Would it be possible to critique an abstract mural on these same grounds? Could you say that Anguilu’s work doesn’t capture the past or the future of Houston?

    I’m interested to hear what you all have to say about that.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Absolutely, Allyn, we have great murals all over town, especially the East End, and I am also a fan of Leo Tanguma’s huge, crackling mural. I tried, however, in this post, to limit my discussion to murals which could be said to represent whole cities, rather than certain segments of their populations, exclusively. (I did cheat a little by mentioning the Women’s Building mural, but only because it’s my all-time favorite, and even then, I give the reader links rather than images.)

      You raise a good question about representation, though. Again, since we’re talking about civic-themed murals, I almost think that it would have to be representational. That said, I am a big fan of Daniel Anguilu and his abstract styles. (And that said, I would not place so much import on my own subjective tastes to use whether I “like” or “dislike” a work as the only yardstick by which I measure any given work.)

      Could Anguilu capture the past or future of Houston? I wouldn’t put it past him–but I wouldn’t put it past Gonzo, either, if he were liberated from the dictates of focus-groups and committees and given free reign to make his own aesthetic choices.

      Check out this video I co-produced with Mark Armes on Daniel Anguilu: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3SBrZLbooM

      Reply
  7. Pingback: When is a Mural just a Billboard? | The Texas Observer

    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      I agree–that is a great mural and I wanted to include it in this discussion but in the end I chose to limit my discussion to murals which can be said to represent a whole city.

      I will probably do a whole post on just Tanguma’s mural in the near future–I’ve already got great photos of it. (I wish the mural was in as good shape as my photos, though.)

      Reply
  8. manuel

    A lazy formalist reading for Allyn West.

    All lines are hard edge, the preferred mark making for a mediocre spray painter. The colors are predictably saturated. The psychedelic bands converge at the center, focusing our attention at the words “Houston inspired hip tasty funky savvy” and the baby bottle skyline above it. The baby bottles have a halo above, exerting more focus toward the center and reminding us of our happy city. It would be generous to call this mural child’s play. I could go on, but I can’t be bothered.

    Reply
  9. Jenni-Beck

    I’m going to go out on a limb and respond to your post here… not necessarily out of defensiveness or because I disagree with many of your points, but because I feel context is important to understand how all this came about and how we might approach the question of promoting Houston in better ways in the future.

    First, let’s address the need to promote Houston: This is a tough one. How to do it effectively? One of the things I find so enchanting about Houston is that it defies categorization. Off the top of my head, the words I most associate with Houston are: diverse, ephemeral, frontier, sprawling… but the best most of us can agree upon is that it’s hot, humid, and gridlocked. We love to complain about our city, and frankly, that’s OK. I firmly believe the Tweak/HIWI guys handled it best in their “Houston, It’s Worth It” efforts years ago (http://www.houstonitsworthit.com/), but sadly, HIWI didn’t have much of a shelf-life outside a niche community and even sadder, not everyone appreciated the wry take on the best/worst our city had to offer. However, HIWI was never going to be a means to draw tourists to Houston and that remains a goal. Why should the art community be invested in that goal? Because it is the hotel occupancy tax (HOT funds) that go towards public funding for the arts in Houston via the Houston Arts Alliance. (And before we go down the rabbit hole debate of public funding for the arts, let me say that the art community will always complain about how there’s never enough funding, how it’s too hard to obtain, how it’s going to the wrong people/groups, etc…. and yet, I’d argue that we, as a sector, are likely better off having at least the opportunity to receive those funds than otherwise.) So, aside from investing in an even more vibrant art scene (which I’d argue is goal numero uno), how do we attract tourists? If not a fan of the GHCVB, can you get on board with their ultimate goal?

    On to the backstory on the campaign (and by campaign, I mean the glossy images you may or may not have seen utilizing these “hip, tasty, inspired” words http://www.visithoustontexas.com/hip/): the GHCVB’s research informed them that, in our region, Houston owns the categories of cuisine and culture. Whether anyone else agrees or not, that is what their research is saying today in 2012/2013. So, the GHCVB invested substantial time and energy in finding a way to brand Houston on a national level as the culture and food capitals of the region via a series of national print ads… primarily in the Times and Journal. I won’t discuss the descriptors used in the tagline (hip, tasty, inspired, etc.), but I’ll share my personal opinion of the images. While being gorgeous photographs and featuring some of my favorite local celebrities, my first reaction was uncertainty they were an effective way to engage interest from a largely unfamiliar audience on the other side of the country. (The ad campaign targeted a few key cities like NYC and DC.) While undoubtedly attractive, the images strike me as fairly generic and failing to capture Houston’s flavor. That said, the GHCVB assured us that they had extensively tested the ads and they had been met with overwhelming praise (from an unaffiliated audience)… so at some point, despite my own misgivings, I had to accept that perhaps I was in the minority and the ads would perform decently. (I still completely agree about the unnecessary and unsophisticated details like the top hat on the “hip” text and the spark in the “tasty” text… but you know what they say about opinions and assholes!) In any case, here’s the big takeaway: the GHCVB is investing considerable resources in branding Houston as a food and culture capital. That means they are marketing US… not energy, not real estate, not sports… US. I hope the art community will see value in that, regardless of the tactics… tactics we will NEVER agree upon, nor should we.

    As for the Chron article, a few members of art community (namely HAA and the leaders of the museum and theatre districts) thought it a good idea to piggyback on the GHCVB’s national efforts and to create a local campaign to raise awareness of our arts scene. That is why you may see/hear “Houston is Inspired” pulled from the GHCVB’s original efforts quoted over and over again. Once others (like myself) got involved, it was determined that the first simple goal was an effort to unite the art community in one message to spark conversation about what excites us about our art scene. The two big challenges here are: a) the inevitable criticism of the slogan de jour and b) how to give any campaign legs beyond the predictable cheering section.

    Here’s how entities like the GHCVB (and everyone involved in the campaign) are fighting an uphill battle: their primary points of contact are the biggest institutions in the city and they are obligated to serve such a broad audience that hands are tied when it comes to the most edgy or exciting marketing campaigns. I wish (and here’s my optimism and naiveté showing), instead of dismissing them as insipid, we could open up a dialogue about different tactics. I know there are at least a handful of people in the room (myself included) who are interested in what independent artists have to say about these marketing efforts. What are some better ideas? If you were to market Houston’s art scene outside the city (or even inside the city), how would you recommend doing it? I’ll admit I’m constantly frustrated by the siloing of the art community– particularly between independent artists and our institutions. A degree of tension is natural (and perhaps valuable to keep us all on our toes), but at some point, the “us against them” attitude grows tiresome and counterproductive. But is there value in uniting and collaborating? You tell me.

    On to the mural: I think your criticizing ANY mural for its aesthetic value is totally valid. I think there needs to be more constructive criticism of work in this city, and I think everyone (independent artists and institutions alike) should be primed to receive it. But it’s helpful to know the story of the mural’s creation and it’s role as a tangible marker of the GHCVB’s campaign. Calling it a billboard may not be unjustified… but I love Gonzo247 to death and I think, in this case, he did exactly what he was commissioned to do. We can debate the mural’s value (and I think you offered some very constructive points if this was approached as a self-generated or community-responsive work of art), but the reality is that many, many people genuinely loved it. (Tangentially, I’m glad your post has sparked conversation about other murals around town in the comments… just so you all know, HAA is working on a public art database as we speak. Many believe murals and other street art should be a part of that… so now is the time to let your voice be known. And loudly.)

    Lastly, your Margaret Thatcher quote… “if you have to say you are, you aren’t.” Believe me, that same quote was echoed around the room repeatedly during discussions of this campaign, and the sentiment was not lost on key figures at the GHCVB itself. But context plays a big role here. So, the questions remain: do we participate in the conversation and efforts? Do we offer better alternatives… and when we disagree or are outvoted, do we participate anyways? Do we independently initiate our own bold efforts? Or do we criticize amongst ourselves? These are not rhetorical questions. Let’s discuss.

    Reply
  10. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

    Hi Jenni,

    First of all, thank you for all the work you do in our arts community. It’s awesome and it’s crucial and I totally appreciate it, as do all the local artists that we know in common. Thank you, also, for your very thorough and thoughtful comment, patience, and willingness to engage. Ironically, if more arts administrators were like you (soliciting feedback and engagement), then we probably would not even be having this discussion.

    That said, now please don’t be offended, but my initial reaction to your comment was “tl;dr.” I don’t say this to be mean or snarky, but because I am trained in post-structuralist criticism and, as a critic, I am not the least bit concerned with authorial/artistic intent (“the intentional fallacy”) but only in “the text,” the object. (And when I say “text” in this context, I mean the whole mural, not just the words on the mural.)

    The back-story is predictable. I think we all know what happened. It was a series of aesthetic decisions made by a committee–a committee where commercial interests and politicians held most of the clout, I’m guessing–and the result is likewise predictable. It’s safe. In attempting to please everybody and offend nobody, it makes for something…meh. (And some people are indeed pleased, and very few people are offended, so, on those levels, you could call it a success. My sincere congratulations to everybody involved–I accept that I am not the target audience for this mural.)

    BUT, I am not just a critic. I am also a proud Houstonian and a working artist in this city, so I am invested in its future and its culture. In that capacity, I respect and appreciate you as an ally and I will do my best to respond to your questions and the issues you raise, after I get all these disclaimers out of the way: I am but one man; I don’t claim to have all the answers; I remain hopeful and open-minded, and I say all these things in the spirit of humility and civic-minded helpfulness, not to score sarcastic points.

    But I’m going to be blunt now, because I think our city needs that I and I know that we can handle it. I’ll respond in the order that you raise the issues.

    You say we have a need to promote Houston. I do not accept that as a given. I, personally, do not feel that need, but if that is the priority of FreshArts and the Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau (Who REALLY need to reevaluate their name and acronym–what a mouthful of consonants!) then I think you are putting the cart before the horse.

    The cliché goes, “If you build it, they will come,” not “If you hype it, they will come.”

    Let’s pause for a moment for a recent article on Tijuana’s artist-led, artist-funded cultural renaissance:

    [M]any cultural initiatives spear-headed by Institutions like the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) were seen as suspect by Tijuana intellectuals, destined to be be subsumed by Municipal, State and Federal tactics seeking to attract tourism, and other more nefarious forms of foreign investment and redevelopment. Tijuana’s art scene became plagued by the weight of its own appeal and promise, unable to escape the shadow of free-trade economics.

    GHVCB works with trade groups to bring conventions to Houston, and I’m sure they do a great job of it. But put yourself in the shoes of a convention visitor who books a hotel downtown. Let’s say they get a place at the Hilton or the Four Season near Discovery Green. At the end of their day, what do they see? Downtown is a veritable ghost town, and there is no way to get out, except for a rental car or a taxi, and we all know how great cab service is here. Convention at the Galleria or the Energy Corridor? Even worse.

    You can get those visitors here once, but will they come back? And what will they tell their friends, coworkers, and neighbors when they go back home? When they return to where they come from, are they going to encourage others to come to Houston, or are they going to say, “It’s weird, man. There’s nobody on the streets after 5 pm. You can’t get anywhere without a car, and that’s if you can even figure out where to go.”

    If attracting visitors is the goal, then I say let’s prioritize some infrastructure, first. Two needs: public transportation and public space. Have you read Philip Lopate’s article “Pursuing the Unicorn: Public Space in Houston?” It was published in CITE magazine in 1984, and it still rings true, it still remains pertinent. It was written during a previous boom-time in our city, when there was much talk of achieving “world class” status. We’re still talking about the same things–so much so that I recently wrote a summary of that article for Free Press Houston.

    You mentioned Discovery Green as an unqualified success in one of your Facebook comments. Discovery Green is a pretty great start, but it’s not public space. Public space allows for free speech, but I have never seen a busker in Disco Green. On the other hand, I have seen people kicked out for flyering and I’ve seen GoREALah Soul/You(genius) kicked out for unsanctioned performance. We don’t need to ask for permission to flyer, perform, and speak our minds in public space because it BELONGS TO US.

    Disco Green is some kind of public/private partnership, and like GHVCB, the programming they offer is “safe” (read “bland,” for the most part, although we can all think of exceptions). The same goes for Miller Outdoor Theater. Compare the offerings at Disco Green and Miller Outdoor and the International Festival here in Houston with some other free concert series like San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival or Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell. (Actually, I-Fest isn’t even free–you have to PAY MONEY to see 300 vendors selling the same tapestries and incense.)

    I guarantee that there will be children at those concerts in San Francisco and Brooklyn who will hear some swear words and might even see one or two performers grab their crotch. I guarantee that they will not be scarred for life by that, and they will not be at higher risk for STDs or unwanted pregnancies as a result of that. STILL our local arts administrators and decision-makers COWER IN FEAR of boorish, uncultured [hate to say it for the racist connotations but there’s no word that means the same thing] philistines like Wayne Dolcefino. Where were our public intellectuals and arts administrators when Dolcefino ran his smear campaign against HAA? Why did they not stand up to him, tell him to get back to the hole he crawled out from? (I didn’t live here then, and maybe some folks did, in which case I apologize, but someone needs to tell clowns like him that when culture is relevant it is not always pretty, and when it is pretty, well…see the billboard, above.)

    And it’s not just in reaction to the Wayne Dolcefinos that we, as a city, self-censor and neuter ourselves. Last fall I worked on a self-styled flea market/concert/circus event. I wanted to hire a pole dancer to perform because I think they do amazing athletic things–I think we may see pole dancing as an Olympic sport some time in the near future–but the event owners were afraid of offending parental sensibilities because (to them) pole dancing is associated with strip clubs. Talk about insulting your audience! Personally, I think the owners of that event exaggerated the “conservatism” of their potential audience. (Their event fell through and never happened, so it’s likely you never even heard about it.)

    Can we put our big boy pants on now, please? Will somebody please tell these people that, in a democracy, you have a lot of rights and with those rights come responsibilities but nobody has the right to never be offended? I am offended by the statues of GHW Bush and James Baker downtown but I deal with them. I am offended by not one but multiple giant crosses on my skyline, but I deal with them. I am offended by before-and-after liposuction billboards but I deal with them. If I had kids, I might point to those billboards as a “teachable moment” about consumerism and healthy vs. unhealthy choices, and as a writer of satirical fiction, I am grateful to have such an easy target to lampoon.

    Boy, am I off-topic! Or am I? Sorry, I’m rambling, let me get back to your comment.

    You say, “it is the hotel occupancy taxes that go towards public funding for the arts in Houston.” This is why we should support increased tourism to Houston, in your opinion. I’m sorry, but could you walk me through this, please?

    I get the party line. I’ve won one of those HAA individual artist grants, and I gave that spiel about how my work would draw tourists here, but let’s be honest, what would this look like?

    Are you suggesting that collectors are coming from New York and LA and Milwaukee and Boise to buy local art from galleries? And they’re staying at hotels on these buying trips, and thus pumping money into the local economy?

    Are you saying that theater and/or orchestral audiences are flying in from far-flung places to attend events at Jones Hall and the Wortham?

    That is a ridiculous assertion. Those collectors may exist, but any local artist who is attracting collectors from those places is going to have gallery representation IN THOSE PLACES. And nobody is flying anywhere to see a touring production of a Broadway show or a revival or something like the Philip Glass doing Dracula that I saw at Jones Hall for a lot of money last week which will be presented for free at the Prospect Park Bandshell this summer.

    But maybe you are thinking more of regional tourists–people from Katy and Waller and the Woodlands and Baytown and Angleton. I have no doubt that the Houston arts scene brings people from around the region into town, but I doubt they stay to spend the night in hotels. I suppose there’s self-justifying studies that might prove my assumption incorrect, but I really think that’s a stretch.

    Neither of these–not the big national collectors and curators nor the regional art aficionados (day trippers) amount to a significant hotel guest population in Houston. There’s just no way. I don’t even see the possibility. (Sex-workers also rent hotel rooms, so…?)

    You know who draws a significant number of out-of-towners? Free Press Summer Fest, but they don’t even benefit from the HOT taxes–they PAY the city permitting fees rather than take money from the city.

    I have benefitted from the HAA grant program, but I would have done my same work whether I’d gotten funded or not, because I am an artist–that’s what I do.

    On to your second point: I don’t see the value in empty hype–I think it can do more damage than good. I have a friend who puts on a “rock and roll circus.” I was even part of the first one and invited to be part of the second but I was out of town the second time around. To call that event a “circus” is a bald-faced lie. It is not a circus, it is local bands performing in circus costumes.

    Likewise, for Gonzo to call his commercial illustration “Aerosol Warfare” is a bit of a stretch. I get that “bombing” means to cover a wall in paint, and there is a bomb in the logo, but doesn’t the name beg the question, “If you are a warrior, then which side are you on?” The side of monied interests and commercial illustration, clearly. (I really don’t want to harp on Gonzo too much, because I honestly like and respect the guy, sincerely, but it’s strange for someone who does work-for-hire to sign their work. I’ve done copywriting for at least one client that I share in common with Gonzo, and my name does not appear on that work.)

    Compare that to the Precita Eyes Muralists in San Francisco, who work with at-risk youth to teach them not just art, but also self-respect in a world which is geared to drive them into the ground. And their art is dope! Have you walked down Balmy Alley in San Francisco’s mission district? Wow–that is good stuff.

    Again, I’m not saying any of these things to diss anybody, but I feel like we use words without thinking through their meanings, and that can start to feel like empty hype. I know what a good “alternative” circus looks like–I’ve seen Bindlestiff and Mystic Family and Teatro Zinzanni and the Bask Festival and a host of others that I can’t think of right now (some of which were just ad hoc freakshows with no name)–this local show that I’m talking about really should not be promoting itself as a “circus” unless it seriously levels-up its game.

    I want to back up to your question about “How do we increase tourism?” Again, that is not a goal of mine–I don’t necessarily see the value in that–but I do want my out-of-town friends to visit me more.

    It used to be that if/when I wanted to visit my people in other parts of the country or even the world, I would have to save up and plan to go visit them. I felt like I had nothing to offer them here. That has changed in recent years. I have entertained many of my dearest friends in Houston, and shown them a great time, and my friends tend to be world travelers belonging to a discriminating audience. I am excited to host my friends and family in Houston for the first time in my life!

    Those friends go home and tell their friends, and because these relationships are based on trust and shared tastes and values, this “hype” means a lot more than any manufactured hype from GHVCB, whom we all know gets paid to generate hype. That is organic. That is real. It takes a lot more time than one fiscal cycle and it’s much harder to quantify, but that’s the only real way to accomplish your stated goal of increasing tourism.

    And as for all these other necessary cultural changes, I’ll leave you with a message of hope and empowerment. We, as artists, have the power to change the culture; we have the power to influence people’s values. Let’s do that. Let’s be ambitious and expect more from ourselves, and let’s hold each other accountable and expect more from each other.

    To that end, I think good criticism is a crucial ingredient, and I hope that I can do my small part in that. Let’s stop patting each other on our backs for phoning in a mediocre job. Let’s demand excellence.

    If we build it, they will come.

    Any and all responses are welcome. Oh, and here’s one more great article you should read about the power of mutual aid in an arts scene: http://badatsports.com/2013/what-chicagos-art-scene-can-learn-from-vampire-bats

    And here are some alternative slogans I’ve come up with:

    UNAPOLOGETICALLY HOUSTON
    ALL UP IN YO GRILL LIKE HOUSTON
    HOUSTON: BESOS LOADED
    HOUSTON: WE DONE OUR KEGELS

    And let’s give some credit to our experimental/avant garde/noise music scenes. We are world-renown for that, too, and fittingly so. As Leonard Cohen sings of Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin, “We are ugly, but we have the music.”

    Humble apologies for any offense.

    Reply
  11. Jenni-Beck

    Harbeer, supposing I might be offended is supposing I disagree with many of your points… I do not. I am merely approaching the issue from a different angle, as someone who has– for whatever reason– been let in the room to see how these things happen. As I said in my last reply and will repeat here, I absolutely agree that criticism is a crucial ingredient in our approach to demand better. I may, however, question the means, venues, and spirit in which it is sometimes posed. We can challenge the tactics, but I can’t fault our city’s cheerleaders for their intention… they are not the city planners, but are merely doing their job with the tools currently at their disposal and through the filter of their perspective. You aptly recognize the issue is much deeper and more complicated.

    You also echoed my sentiment (“goal numero uno”) about prematurely prioritizing the promotion of Houston over an investment in infrastructure and cultural life. No argument there. But again, that part is not necessarily the GHCVB’s job… that responsibility falls elsewhere– on our city’s institutions and artists, as well as the leadership who can/should/do champion us.

    In regards to tourists, I agree with you 100% about the average tourist rendered unable to truly appreciate what Houston has to offer due to a lack of infrastructure and public space. Honestly, what troubles me even MORE is that the same applies to the average Houstonian… those who may have ventured to Discovery Green or the International Fest, but have never attended (or heard of) the Menil or the Orange Show, for example.

    I think your point about Discovery Green as a public space is also very interesting, and I’d love to discuss with the powers that be. It’s tough to be at the helm of a large (substantially) publicly-funded entity which ostensibly caters to all walks of life. But given who is at the helm (people formerly affiliated with some of the more visionary projects in Houston’s history), I don’t think your point would be lost on them. But here’s one thing I’d say about Discovery Green: we can agree/disagree about the aesthetics/quality of the programming, but each and every time I visit, I see a genuine reflection of Houston– culturally, socioeconomically, etc. I would challenge you to question whether there’s a difference between self-censoring and aiming to provide an environment which doesn’t alienate. Perhaps we can find a better balance… I won’t argue that.

    It’s funny to me that most of the examples you bring up are concerts. As someone who bangs her head against the wall regarding arts marketing, I can tell you that concerts tend to follow entirely different rules, despite having the ability to incorporate art, public engagement, and activism in one tidy/messy experience. (We fret over how to get young professionals to “invest” $50-70 in a ticket to world-renowned productions/performances… but significantly less upwardly mobile kids think nothing of dropping $100+ on FPSF tickets. Is it a question of relevance? I’d love to know.)

    You mention Dolcefino… what a damn dolt. I, too, was surprised the art community didn’t come out swinging. I believe the leadership was advised to take the higher ground. But some of us spoke out before we had any real platforms to do so: http://ladamesansregrets.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/open-letter-to-wayne-dolcefino/ (At the time, this exchange was picked up by the Chron, but admittedly, 5 years later and hopefully wiser, I’m not sure I would have taken that approach.) But why was Dolcefino’s appeal so scary to the art community? I think it’s because so many fear his sentiments are shared by the bulk of our neighbors. In that way, you’re right that a lot of assumptions are made about what Houston can and cannot handle. One of the biggest convenings of Houstonians– the Art Car parade– is when we wave our freak flag highest. Why, then, are we so afraid? You’re preaching to the choir. (I booked a stripping clown– she hates when I use that description– for some of our public programming.) But this isn’t about congratulating ourselves for our “daring”… this is about asking why “challenging” can’t be an acceptable facet of public art programming in Houston. A valid question.

    Now… on the other hand, being culturally relevant doesn’t simply mean exchanging one set of values (bland, safe, approachable) for another (edgy, agit-prop, sensational, risqué). Something genuinely reflective of our city would encompass both– would you not agree?

    You pin me down about the HOT funds and party line as though I’m part of the machine and understand the logic… to the contrary, we apply for those grants just as you did. So, yes, we’ve benefited by the existence of those funds– funds which, given our current system, wax and wane with the amount of tourists sleeping in hotel beds in our city. (I make the distinction of sleeping in hotel beds, because the regional tourism you cite does not count.) And we could discuss dozens of different scenarios for why this makes sense or doesn’t make sense, but the fact remains that this is how the system is structured in Houston. Despite the pathetic share of public funds dedicated to culture in Texas, the idea is that we’re lucky to have this system in place to secure what funds we can. (I genuinely believe there are legitimate arguments against tying cultural funding to tourism, as well as challenging public funding for the arts in general– but those are much larger conversations for another time.)

    I really respect your putting thought into all the examples of people doing good work in other cities, as well as cool events offered for free. However, we could cherry-pick similar examples in Houston– Phillip Glass for FREE at Menil, etc. I imagine we can find good, bad, and meh most anywhere. With all due respect, it feels a little like comparing apples and oranges. What’s different is perhaps a critical mass, degree of consistency and/or persistence, and general awareness. I would suggest the more important question (pertinent to this discussion) is: who is doing the good work in Houston? Who knows about it and how? What gives it relevance and public value in defining our city? What’s holding them back? What tools and resources are needed to broaden that reach and amplify that voice? And who (or what) can be the enabler?

    You’re absolutely right about deep, organic, word-of-mouth engagement– when it comes to tourism or otherwise. The GHCVB knows this as well as we do. But it is their job to employ different tactics that work on a broader spectrum, so I hesitate to crucify them on this altar when some of the fundamental investments you call for need to come from elsewhere. It’s funny… their campaign was discussed at length last night (the Monday morning quarterback contingent has been in full force for weeks!) and the party in question, while disliking the campaign herself, shared that her colleagues (art coterie) from Dallas (perhaps wrong example, I know!) and Chicago LOVED it. There’s no disputing tastes, as they say.

    As for your proposed slogans… “unapologetically Houston.” Man, you may jest, but that one hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?

    Let’s continue these conversations. Like I said before, I am CERTAIN there are those who want to hear this.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      supposing I might be offended is supposing I disagree with many of your points

      No, I didn’t want you to be offended that I said that my initial reaction to your comment was “tl;dr” and that I don’t care about yours, Gonzo’s, or GHVCB’s “intentions” or the story of the focus-groups and the making of the mural.

      We can challenge the tactics, but I can’t fault our city’s cheerleaders for their intention… they are not the city planners, but are merely doing their job with the tools currently at their disposal and through the filter of their perspective.

      I don’t even know what this means. Are you saying these people are not qualified for their jobs? What are you saying?

      You aptly recognize the issue is much deeper and more complicated.

      Did you read the articles I linked to? I’m not the only one saying this, but we are all being ignored. Phillip Lopate said these things in 1984. Thirty years is a LONG time to still be yelling into the same echo chamber. Too long. Enough excuses. Enough hand-holding and back-patting.

      that part is not necessarily the GHCVB’s job

      They should start by getting themselves a new acronym. (I hope they don’t have to do a plethora of surveys and focus-groups to do that, though.) How can we trust this agency to promote Houston when their own acronym makes it almost impossible to promote even themselves?

      Calling Pat Sajak! I’d like to buy a vowel.

      I agree with you 100% about the average tourist rendered unable to truly appreciate what Houston has to offer due to a lack of infrastructure and public space. Honestly, what troubles me even MORE is that the same applies to the average Houstonian…

      Hear, hear. Improving the quality of life and culture for Houstonions is my priority. The rest will follow naturally, organically from that.

      I would challenge you to question whether there’s a difference between self-censoring and aiming to provide an environment which doesn’t alienate.

      Point taken. I don’t think that every event needs to cater to a broad audience, though. I think a different approach to a similar end would be to have a whole season of programing with events catering to different niche audiences that could conceivably provide more depth and breadth simultaneously.

      It’s funny to me that most of the examples you bring up are concerts.

      I am going with what I know, and what I know that people will travel for. I got a HAA individual artist grant in 2010. I would love to think that people would come from far and wide to the public readings I scheduled as part of that, but even on my most delusional days that would be laughable. On the other hand, I have traveled far and wide for concerts and music festivals. I know many people, like me, who have traveled far and wide for concerts and music festivals.

      I might go check out the upcoming Turrell show at the Guggenheim this fall, even though it will also show at the MFAH, because I also have friends and family and a client to visit in New York. I would not go to Minneapolis to see that same show in that same space (if that were possible), because I wouldn’t have those additional reasons to go to Minneapolis AND because I don’t have to pay for hotels in New York.

      Those are some reasons I bring up concerts–because your stated goal is to generate tourism, and I think concerts have a more legitimate claim to generating tourism than the other arts, including my own, which is literature. Concerts are public events; reading is a private activity.

      We could cherry-pick similar examples in Houston…I imagine we can find good, bad, and meh most anywhere…What’s different is perhaps a critical mass, degree of consistency and/or persistence, and general awareness.

      Fair enough.

      Who is doing the good work in Houston? Who knows about it and how? What gives it relevance and public value in defining our city? What’s holding them back? What tools and resources are needed to broaden that reach and amplify that voice? And who (or what) can be the enabler?

      Great questions.

      As for your proposed slogans… “unapologetically Houston.” Man, you may jest, but that one hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?

      I’m serious as a heart attack! I like that one, too. That is a slogan that even I can get behind (and not just because it’s of my coinage). ;-)

      Reply
  12. Devon Britt-Darby

    Hear, hear. We enter very dangerous territory when arts institutions deviate from their missions to promote a city agency’s — in this case, the GHCVB’s — agenda. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s mission, for example, is “excellence in collecting, exhibiting, preserving and interpreting art for all people,” not to “provide the infrastructure to make us the central destination, the hub for all things cultural,” as Gary Tinterow told me. Since I’ve been covering it, the MFAH has all too frequently put the lion’s share of its marketing machine behind rental shows that are essentially rehangs of somebody else’s collection at the expense of its scholarly exhibitions. The fact that I and every other art writer in town wasn’t getting bugged constantly about the recent, phenomenal Jacques Callot survey — the first in 40 years — or Mari Carmen Ramirez’s interesting mash-up of a few Latin American pieces with other parts of the contemporary collection — or Emily Neff and Christine Gervais’s American Made survey — is a travesty.

    These were three homegrown shows that should have made us all Houston Proud, to recycle an old slogan, but the MFAH was more concerned with selling Prado and Picasso tickets and presumably helping the GHCVB put heads in beds. Meanwhile, ticketed (and occasionally non-ticketed) shows have taken up space in Upper Beck’s permanent collection galleries for most of the last three years. It was so nice to see the Strauss Collection finally return and some of the great long-term loans — e.g. the Tintoretto — finally return, but what does it say about the MFAH’s opinion of its own collection that it can come down anytime for a ticketed rehang of somebody else’s? And don’t get me starting on rehashing the MFAH’s hideously opaque arrangement with the for-profit organizer of what I really hope will be our last once-in-a-lifetime chance to see artifacts from Tut’s tomb for $33 bucks a pop. Think shows like that build the kind of deep, lasting relationships with the museum that make people want to brag about it to everyone they know? The hell they do. I stood outside Tut interviewing the opening-day visitors. Most had very little familiarity with the MFAH and had no idea until I told them that there was this huge collection they could check out. And LACMA’s experience with its Tut show was that membership jumped so people could save on the tickets, but within three years they had fallen back to their core membership — the base of genuine support that takes longer to build honestly.

    Meanwhile, I just got back from the Menil Collection’s shockingly beautiful Byzantine Things in the World exhibition, which has been up since May 3 and which has had no press preview and pretty much the opposite of a barrage of emails, because all the works are drawn from its own holdings — which, you know, happen to be among the best in the world. Ho hum, right? What if we hyped those shows the way we hype the fluff?

    I like Unapologetically Houston. I kind of wonder if amending HIWI for cultural tourists (and it does seem that the GHVCB at least knows that most of its tourism will come from within Texas or very nearby) to say Houston. It’s Worth It If You Know Where to Look would work, along with three-bullet checklists (Menil. Margaritas. Mercury Baroque. Houston’s worth it if you know where to look.) Because that’s what I tell people all the time. We’re the opposite of fabulous cities like San Francisco where you notice everything gorgeous and wonderful first and then notice all the horrible stuff.

    Hey, how about this? “We don’t make the greatest first impression. Just an unforgettable second one.”

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Wow, thank you for this honest, insightful comment, Devon. I am jealous of your knowledge–I want to know all this stuff you know.

      This sentence stands out to me, “We’re the opposite of fabulous cities like San Francisco where you notice everything gorgeous and wonderful first and then notice all the horrible stuff.”

      My friend Torry puts it this way, “Houston: It’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit.”

      We are indeed known, even in the “cultural capitals,” for the Menil compound (including the Twomblys and the Rothkos and the Flavins), for screw music and Dirty Third coast rap, for our restaurants (and our waistlines), and for experimental/avant garde music (thank you Pauline Oliveros and David Dove). We used to be a blues town, too, but a lot of those juke joints have closed down (long live the Silver Slipper!) We have long had a somewhat interesting, local, underground visual/performance art scene, but it suffers from too much back-patting and a dearth of constructive criticism compounded by low expectations from both artists and audiences.

      But with the exception of the restaurants, these are not what “Houston is Inspired!” is promoting. Like in the examples I gave above, by hyping things that aren’t our strengths and ignoring things which we are actually good it, much of this rings as false-advertising. And as I said above–that might get someone in the door once, but they won’t come back and they’ll discourage others from doing likewise.

      I had forgotten “Houston Proud.” There is a whole list of these short-lived slogans that Brad Tyer linked to in his re-blog of this post at the Texas Observer: http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2006/07/houston-branding-identity-week-history.html

      Reply
  13. Jenni-Beck

    I like this dialogue and hope to share it with some of my colleagues… I hope, with your blessings.

    I’m going to try not to post a lengthy response again, because I feel this thread could continue forever and that would not be as productive as opening up the conversation in a public forum. (I’m all for identifying the “actionable!”)

    I have to take issue with your closing remarks: “But with the exception of the restaurants, these are not what “Houston is Inspired!” is promoting. Like in the examples I gave above, by hyping things that aren’t our strengths and ignoring things which we are actually good it, much of this rings as false-advertising.”

    I’m unclear what you mean. For example, you mention the Menil as an example of what is good, but suggest it doesn’t seem to be at the heart of the “Houston is inspired” campaign… which is incorrect. One of the key images of this campaign was taken… at the Menil. That wasn’t an accident.

    “Houston is inspired” was intended to be a broad and inclusive campaign– to get the ENTIRE arts community singing the same song. That, in and of itself, is not a bad goal… IF the community at large is allowed to participate from the outset, is bought-in, and the process isn’t rushed. On this level, it failed. However, I disagree that we have to wait for our city to transform into Shangri-La before we endeavor to promote it. Perhaps the effort to get everyone on the same page about what is “good” about Houston could be a galvanizing force for simultaneously identifying what’s NOT good from a variety of voices… in 2013, not 1984. But I digress… the point is that the campaign was meant to be broad. And though my heart may be rooted as yours is in the indie community, some of our giant institutions (the opera, ballet, etc.) are world-class and worthy– just as much as our noise scene– of proud promotion. Subjective preferences shouldn’t cloud the bigger picture. That said, the GHCVB made a legitimate effort to show both sides of that coin: please look again at who is pictured in the performing arts images. It may not include David Dove (who is fantastic), but there is Joel Orr, who is simultaneously obscure in Houston and nationally recognized for his puppetry.

    In closing, I agree with all points about advertising our city as something it’s not and heaping unconditional praise on a city with so much important work to do, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’d suggest we find a better way to tell our (conflicted, but promising) story, rather than simply stay mum.

    Reply
    1. Jenni-Beck

      PS: To further just one of the examples I used, Houston Grand Opera is presenting Wagner’s full Ring Cycle starting in 2014. During normal seasons, my godfather and his partner travel all the way from Hamburg with the sole goal of seeing opera in Houston and San Francisco… with the production of such an ambitious series of works, this is DEFINITELY the sort of thing that will draw tourists from not only all over the state, but the country.

      Reply
    2. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      you mention the Menil as an example of what is good, but suggest it doesn’t seem to be at the heart of the “Houston is inspired” campaign… which is incorrect. One of the key images of this campaign was taken…

      You are right–we are talking about two different things. I am talking about this stupid ugly billboard and you are talking about a “campaign” that also includes an embarrassing website. Who is the audience for that website? Probably just convention organizers, definitely not Houstonians or even regional audiences. Please, stop it. Nobody cares about that vapid crap. It is too heavy-handed in the sales department–I get the feeling that you, as a salesperson, are never going to understand the true authenticity that I think really matters, and I am never going to agree with your urgent mission to promote tourism.

      “Houston is inspired” was intended to be a broad and inclusive campaign– to get the ENTIRE arts community singing the same song.

      Well, they failed. You know what they say about the road to somewhere being paved with good intentions….If that is what GHVCB wanted, they should have had Houston artists (not to be confused with arts ADMINISTRATORS) sitting at the table from the outset.

      I disagree that we have to wait for our city to transform into Shangri-La before we endeavor to promote it

      Please do what you need to do. You promote tourism, I will do my best to transform it to my liking to the best of my ability. Those need not be at odds with each other, but we have different goals.

      the effort to get everyone on the same page about what is “good” about Houston could be a galvanizing force

      I will never have real estate developers and highway construction men and the county judges they own on “my” page. That is not my goal. Good luck convincing those vultures the value of culture and public space. I am at odds with those people. They have money; I have art. They will win, but I will put up the best fight I am capable of fighting. I will lose a pyrrhic loss, but I will retain my integrity.

      Subjective preferences shouldn’t cloud the bigger picture

      What you don’t seem to get is that it is precisely those “subjective preferences” which make us unique. We are not unique for our ballet and our symphony–if it’s tourists your after, the Nutcracker is not going to bring in tourists, no matter how you and the legions of PR hacks spin it.

      Finally, I made puppets and participated in puppet theater in San Francisco for four years. Bobbindoctrin really ain’t all that, and I’m not just saying that because Joel Orr never returned my queries to work with him when I first moved back in 2004. Even amateur west coast puppeteers are worlds ahead. Worlds. This city’s standards are way too low. Rather than trying to attract tourists here and have them be disappointed, we might be better off sending our artists abroad to expand their horizons and ambitions. Sorry.

      Reply
      1. Jenni-Beck

        Harbeer, I have endeavored, up to this point, to engage in a constructive dialogue, because I genuinely respected your opinion. But frankly, your last response is just rude. I am not a salesperson– where did you get that anyways? Nor do I work for the GHCVB. I do, however, know how the case is made for the funding Houston artists and arts organizations receive– including the grant you yourself received from HAA– which is contingent on bolstering tourism. As I’ve said before and will say again, that’s the system with which we’re stuck– don’t shoot the messenger. My end goal is for the greater art community to be better funded– for a variety of projects which may or may not fall within your subjective guidelines of worth.

        And furthermore, there were reasons (timeframe among them) the first part of the campaign had to come from a small team… but it feels like you’re slapping me in the face, when I would have argued (and did argue) that artists needed to be at the table from the outset. Know your audience, Harbeer.

        Lastly, I think your comments about Houston not being known for our larger institutions really betrays a very narrow perspective– one that similarly fails to be truly reflective of Houston. I will always be the biggest fan of our indie and grassroots arts scene, but if you don’t think the Alley Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, and the Houston Ballet have put us on the map in some other regions, you’re painfully mistaken.

        Reply
      2. Devon Britt-Darby

        I hate “Houston is Inspired” as a slogan. Wouldn’t something like “So many Houstons, so little time” both better evoke what we like about the city and be conducive to one of GHCVB’s (it IS a real clunker of an acronym) main goals: to encourage repeat/longer visits? I also agree that the website is way too Sell!
        Sell! Sell! to be taken seriously.

        That said, having clicked through to and looked over their 2011 Houston visitor profile and strategies, they don’t seem all that crazy. It sounds like they’re mostly aiming to get more visitors from the big Texas cities within driving distance to come here and to start doing more advertising in medium-size markets like Waco and border-state cities like New Orleans, Shreveport and Oklahoma City. So while some of the ad buys in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (and the conveniently timed travel pieces that soon followed — what, did you think there was still a firewall between advertising and editorial?) may give the impression that they’re dreaming of hordes of smitten New Yorkers and Berliners, my guess is that they’re simply taking advantage of those publications’ national reach and reputation. They want to convert day-trippers into weekenders and weekenders into long weekenders, and there are enough legitimately worthwhile things to make that doable if you know where to look for them and how to get the word out about them. I have to say that I do NOT feel this way about Austin; spending more than a night there feels excessive in a way that it need not here. (Admittedly this is because as a cultural tourist it’s the visual arts, not the music scene, that lure me.)

        With THAT said, like Harbeer, I’m not entirely confident in GHCVB’s ability to execute this strategy given the reasons cited, nor, at the end of the day, should that really be our problem — “our” being defined as those of us primarily concerned with making Houston art (and the art we bring to Houston) and Houston as a city better for Houstonians. And I also believe that, both here and elsewhere, the use of economic impact to justify art — and its nasty littermate, the commodification of art by the world’s largest unregulated market — has had incredibly corrosive effects on how art gets made, discussed and experienced today. And I think those effects have been even more corrosive here than elsewhere largely because of the MFAH’s very late start in building collections, hiring curators (the MFAH took forever to get any and still has shockingly few for a museum its size) and endowing acquisition funds.

        That, along with the always-sorry state of journalism in this city (entrenched long before the newspaper industry’s woes began) have cultivated a culture of mediocrity that makes tearing down the Astrodome for a parking lot at least as likely, and every bit as Houstonian, an outcome as the innovative plans to strip it down to its bones and use it as a public space. It’s why, as Ben Koush argues in his insightful response to the Alley Theatre’s renovation scheme, the board is now raising money for renovations that deliver presumably deliver needed technical upgrades/amenities while “neither preserving the architectural aspects of the building that make it special nor proposing equally visionary substitutions. Rather, it seeks to remake the theater, one of only a dozen Houston buildings honored with a national award from the American Institute of Architects, in a smooth, corporate image” — even though the Alley building actually is something unique, being the last surviving regional theater built in the 1960s that still serves its original purpose and hasn’t been fundamentally altered. That is, here we have Houston boosters, who understandably want to get as many cultural tourists’ butts in Alley seats as possible, poised to undermine what can legitimately be billed as an only-in-Houston experience.

        We’ve seen this movie too many times to count, and frankly I’m glad more of us are booing and throwing popcorn at the screen. And when we do, somebody (I don’t mean you, Jenni, though I think sometimes you leap ahead a little too quickly to the silver linings in a way that inadvertently gives “permission” to the hypers to keep believing their hype) is always standing by to shush us. Case in point: when my exposé on the MFAH’s years of wildly inflated attendance reports went online (http://artsandculturehouston.com/loose-ends-3/), one of the first commenters asked what the point of the story was, since it wasn’t like they’d cheated, stolen or embezzled money. While hopefully they haven’t stolen or embezzled, it seems pretty clear to anyone not out to rationalize anything the MFAH (or any Houston institution) does that lying about visitor tallies IS cheating and has very real implications the commenter would prefer not to contemplate.

        And while I’m all for constructive dialogue, too often the calls to be “constructive” are aimed at the people pointing out the gaping holes in the foundation rather than at the people who put them there and don’t want that pointed out. We have a surplus of “constructive” voices and a shortage of curmudgeons — all the more so since Robert Hughes died. I recommend finding his “The Mona Lisa Curse” on YouTube and watching the whole thing.

        Reply
  14. manuel

    I want to ask a question which is slightly divergent from the above article and following comments.

    To any artists out there reading who have applied to HAA, Do you feel awkward or slightly dirty utilizing your practice to promotie tourism in Houston? Has HAA put the cart before the horse? Does anyone else feel disrespected by such expectations? If the board members and administrators of HAA cares an iota about art, shouldn’t they discontinue this inquiry.
    It is probably banal of me to state this, but I cannot help it. We are not here to serve tourism nor to aggrandize Houston. We will continue to do what we do.

    Reply
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