News and Press Releases
Art Ordinance Enhances Houston's Public Image
December 16, 2009 -- Houston’s percent for art ordinance was established 10 years ago, on Dec. 21, 1999, and is recognized as one of the great civic steps toward transforming Houston into a vibrant metropolis, where public art is an intrinsic part of the urban fabric. By designating a small amount, 1.75 percent, to be set aside from certain city buildings’ construction budgets to commission and maintain public art, Houston has within the past decade added compelling and beautiful pieces of public art to its collection to be enjoyed by Houstonians and visitors in our neighborhood parks and libraries, as well as at our airports and major public facilities.
Houston is home to artworks by some of the country’s most important artists of the 20th century. However, many of the most visible artworks are by Houston’s own artists, including the timeless flora and fauna mosaic by Dixie Friend Gay and The Art Guys’ glowing suitcase installation, both at Bush Intercontinental Airport; and Mel Chin’s Seven Wonders, adjacent to the Wortham Theater Center, on which more than 1,000 Houston schoolchildren collaborated. We can be particularly proud of Bert Long Jr.’s epic mural at Looscan Library that celebrates 17 masterpieces from world history — artworks he studied at Houston libraries in his early days as a self-taught artist.
Each of these artworks is wholly unique to our city and mirrors our diverse cultures, histories and principles. However, because art is subjective, each piece will not appeal to everyone and can be initially at the center of civic debate.
One of America’s greatest public artworks comes to mind. Chicago’s monumental Untitled, the 50-foot-tall sculpture on Daley Plaza, was at first so disliked when it was unveiled in 1967 that the artist Picasso was reportedly booed while riding down State Street in the dedication parade.
Today the piece is an iconic image of the city. Travelers from across the world journey to see this important piece of that city’s famed art in public spaces. And perhaps more importantly, families from throughout the region make a pilgrimage to “the Picasso” when it’s dressed to celebrate and commemorate the ups and downs of the Cubs and White Sox, Halloween and the like.
Often artworks are highly integrated into infrastructure. In cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, public art was part of the cities’ growth process. Today, bridge supports, walkways, signage, street lighting and even lifeguard shelters along the California coast have been designed by artists. These projects elevate the aesthetic experience of the community, enliven otherwise mundane public thoroughfares, engage our curiosity and communicate our collective histories. Every community in Houston deserves art that is unique to that neighborhood, and integrated art is one way to deliver that.
Importantly, art in public space enhances a city’s image and its economy. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 2005 The Gates in New York’s Central Park brought worldwide attention to a great public space. Tourist dollars spiked and the purchase value of the world media coverage was extraordinary.
Congratulations to those who were part of establishing the civic art program and the percent for art legislation, and to those who have supported it along the way. Ten years later, our city’s treasures are being maintained and conserved for all of us to enjoy, and gradually we are together building a collection of public art that reflects from where we have come, who we are as a community and our aspirations for the future.
-- Houston Chronicle Op-Ed by Jonathon Glus, CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance