Houston City Council has delayed voting on several improvement projects in the last month as council members rethink requirements laid out in the city's civic art ordinance.

Some context

Since 1999, Houston's Civic Art Ordinance has required that 1.75% of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects be spent to integrate artwork and artists' ideas in public spaces.

According to the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, the civic art program has commissioned hundreds of art projects in shared locations in the last two decades, including in airports, libraries, parks, police stations, recreation centers, streetscapes and health clinics.
  • The city's civic art collection holds 677 unique works of art.
  • Around 390 individual artists are represented in the program.
  • Artwork includes paintings, murals, drawings, photographs, sculptures and monuments.
However, city officials are beginning to discuss the idea of changing the ordinance as the city struggles financially to build new projects and cut costs.

Zooming in

Council member Fred Flickinger said Houston needs to focus on "the necessities" right now.

At the June 26 council session, Flickinger—along with council members Twila Carter and Willie Davis—tagged a $3.9 million project that would renovate the West End Health Center in the Washington Avenue Corridor. The center is a full-service health department that offers medical services to low-income households and minority populations.

According to the agenda item, the project would include refurbishing the roof; replacing HVAC units; and upgrading electrical systems, restrooms and doors.

The total estimated cost for the construction contract is approximately $3.8 million. The remaining $62,000 is for civic art, which is 1.75% of the total renovation project.

"I understood on the new projects that this was done," Flickinger said. "I had no idea this was done for repairs and renovations. I really think we've got to spend our money on needs versus wants, and I don't see how this is appropriate. I wanted to tag that item because of it."

The item came before council for another vote July 2 and passed unanimously.

More details

In a separate June 26 agenda item, Vice Mayor Pro Tem Amy Peck proposed removing some sources of funding from the city's contract with the Houston Arts Alliance, an item that first appeared on the June 12 council agenda.

According to the agenda packet, the city of Houston is anticipated to sign a $25 million, three-year contract with the Houston Arts Alliance to provide professional civic art and conservation administration services for various departments.

The Houston Arts Alliance is a local arts and culture nonprofit agency that is overseen by the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs. The HAA helps the city meet the requirements laid out in the civic art program.

The $25 million budget is funded from city department construction funds, including public health, general improvement, parks, solid waste, and water and sewer. Peck's amendment to the contract sought to remove three funding sources from the contract:
  • $537,138 from the fire consolidated construction fund
  • $719,843 from the emergency alerting system fund
  • $199,569 from the police consolidated construction fund
Peck withdrew the amendment at the June 26 meeting after hearing that the mayor's office will be looking at the entire contract more closely.

"Public safety, as we all know, is very important," she said. "There are needs at the fire department. There are needs at the emergency center and the police department. I'm going to look for any opportunities to move money around to put into public safety, even if that means withdrawing money from other things that are also important, because it is my top priority."

Breaking it down

According to the civic art annual report, by the end of 2023, approximately $7.8 million was spent in funds for the civic art program, which was used to:
  • Initiate 22 new civic art projects
  • Continue work on 36 ongoing projects from previous years
  • Complete 15 projects
The fiscal year 2022-23 budget was part of the city's last contract with the HAA, which was a five-year, $18 million contract. The new three-year, $25 million contract is an approximately 30% increase from previous years.

Council members voted June 26 to send the contract back to the mayor's administration for further review and possible amendment.

What they're saying

HAA CEO John Abodeely said he would advise against the city reducing the percentage of the civic art ordinance.

"It's my understanding that the only suggestion from the horseshoe at this point is a reduction of the 1.75% for public safety divisions only, but I don't think it will bring the level of budget relief that these divisions seek," he said. "I also think, especially for our first responders in particular, that having artwork in those facilities can really speak to the way that we value them as a community."

Abodeely said having works of art in a fire station or police station can show the community's appreciation for its first responders.

"If there's a beautiful, affordable and stunning work of art in an otherwise empty fire department, for example, I feel like that shows that the community appreciates them enough that they didn't just put in basic gray floors and lockers," he said. "I don't think it takes very much money to make that experience for them either."

What's next

Despite initially being tagged, the contract for the West End Health Center passed unanimously during a July 2 meeting, including with the funding for civic art.

Mayor John Whitmire's office is reviewing the city's contract with the HAA but has not yet indicated if any changes will be made. The contract will return to Houston City Council at a future meeting.