Sugar Land’s initiative to raise the city’s artistic profile is gaining steam with the Cultural Arts Strategic Plan and Implementation Guide. With new feedback from a Public Art Plan survey collected from October to January, city leadership will use the community’s perspective to help enhance local cultural offerings.
“It was really motivated out of an effort to enhance our local economy ... but recognizing arts contribute to growth,” Sugar Land City Manager Allen Bogard said.
The city’s new cultural arts manager Lindsay Davis collected close to 650 survey responses from residents. Members of the arts community said they think more can be done in terms of exhibition space, public installations, financial support and marketing.
“I think that Sugar Land needs to show the artists they care about art,” local artist Sally Stevenson said. “They have golden eggs sitting around that they’re not collecting.”
Sugar Land’s art offerings include art galleries, public art, dance schools and a theater company with a multimillion-dollar performing arts center set to open this fall. The city intends to establish its own reputation as a cultural destination outside Houston, according to the Cultural Arts Strategic Plan and Implementation Guide.
Crafting a plan
In 2014, the city created the 10-year guide. Its primary goals are designating leadership for cultural development, improving conditions under which art can thrive in the city, strengthening the existing artistic community and promoting Sugar Land’s cultural identity, according to city documents.
The city also wants to increase participation in the arts scene. Budget estimates have not been finalized for every stage of the strategic plan, but Davis said the city is in year one of the implementation guide.
“There’s a lot of things that are contingent upon what we’re doing right now,” she said.
Her office’s public art survey asked residents where they were most likely to bring visitors in Sugar Land, people’s awareness of local art and what they felt the impact of art should be on the city . Common suggestions from respondents included more art worked into trail systems, a variety of public art and interactive art.
“Sugar Land’s community is very good at giving feedback,” Davis said. “People indicated they like the idea of ‘place-making’ or central gathering spaces.”
Survey responders also wanted public art that both served an educational purpose and beautified their city. Davis will take the survey results to the City Council and the city manager, after which she will write a creative plan. Once that document is 90 percent complete, it can receive public feedback and be finalized, she said.
Local artists’ wish list
Davis also held a roundtable Nov. 10-11 with local artists to get their input on what kind of art would benefit the city. Among them were Anita Nelson, a Missouri City painter, and Stevenson, a Sugar Land figurative artist.
Speaking about the roundtable, both said they were glad to see the city was interested in promoting art but disagreed with putting an emphasis on installations.
Public sculptures are worthy ideas, Stevenson said, but not if the sculpture is outsourced because no local artists are ill-equipped to make them.
“I think we should use our artists,” she said. “We should use our resources.”
The women also mentioned that galleries are rare in the city. The Sugar Land Art Center & Gallery on Industrial Boulevard and Center Stage Gallery on Hwy. 6 are the only two art galleries in the city, although some venues will hold exhibitions. Nelson said this should factor into decisions about public art.
“It should not just be a public venue but a venue for artists to show their art,” she said.
Nelson rents a studio and exhibits her work at the Art Center & Gallery while Stevenson has displayed her doll figurines there in the past.
The 10,000-square-foot space includes 17 artist studios for rent and classrooms with a gift shop coming soon. Nelson and Stevenson said although the member-run organization is expanding, the general Sugar Land community is unaware of it.
Mandy Seymore, artistic director and founder of Inspiration Stage, sees a demand in Sugar Land for performance art venues as her group is the city’s only theater company. The company presents eight children’s shows and four adult shows each season, and Seymore offers about 26 summer camps.
“Families here are very proud of their kids,” she said. “They look for things that are of high caliber and quality.”
Although she has not given her formal input to the city, Seymore said she thought Sugar Land could help boost Inspiration Stage’s visibility. She collaborates with organizations for performance space like the Sugar Land Auditorium, which is operated by the Sugar Land Cultural Arts Foundation.
Performing arts center
This fall, Seymore should see her hopes partially realized with a new 200,000-square-foot indoor performing arts venue. Sugar Land broke ground on the Smart Financial Centre performing arts venue in 2014 and expects the facility will open later this year.
“[The center would bring] a significant advantage for quality of life for our residents,” Bogard said.
He said he expects visitors would also spend money at nearby shops and restaurants when they attend the center’s events.
The $100 million building is located on a portion of 38.5 acres southeast of Hwy. 59 and University Boulevard and will have a flexible capacity of up to 6,300 seats. Music, dance, theater and visual arts have all been discussed as possibilities for the center.
While the city owns the venue, it has partnered with ACE Theatrical Group to operate it. ACE made a $10 million equity contribution to the project, while sales tax revenue and hotel occupancy tax funds are also part of the project budget, Bogard said.
In addition, rent revenue generated by the facility and paid by ACE will also support the self-sustaining venue. General fund tax dollars will not be spent on the project, which Doug Adolph, Sugar Land assistant communications director, said would provide a $26.1 million benefit to the city’s economy each year for 30 years.[polldaddy poll=9331755]
Funding the arts
As the city moves forward with its plans, sustainability of the arts remains a challenge for area groups.
“Getting the word out about the [Inspiration Stage] company has always been a struggle,” Seymore said. “Parents and social media have been really great.”
She said she collaborated with the city of Deer Park when she previously ran a theater there.
“I’ve always had with theater companies an educational element, so tuition funding is what keeps the doors open,” Seymore said. “You have to rely on donations, grants, endowments [and] tuition-based education programs.”
Nevertheless, she said cities’ financial support of the arts is important because it gives those involved public recognition. The Art Center & Gallery’s members publicize exhibitions and events on their own dime and time, Nelson and Stevenson said.
It is a full-time commitment, but Nelson and Stevenson said cooperation from businesses could help raise the profiles of arts organizations.
“What we need are companies to start sponsoring the arts,” Nelson said. “Why can’t we have [an] ‘NRG Gallery’?”
Public arts funding is not something Adrienne Barker, director of the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land, thinks arts groups should rely on due to its rarity. Private support and marketing one’s own work and events are crucial, she said.
“You have to be very careful and very deliberate in what you do,” Barker said. “We have a brand, but that doesn’t mean people are going to show up.”
One tactic recommended in the city’s strategic guide is creating cultural districts in Sugar Land. Davis said these designations must come from the Texas Commission on the Arts and can help with marketing. Cultural districts are also eligible for special grant funding.
The only cultural district in Fort Bend County is in Rosenberg as Sugar Land’s previous attempts to establish a district in 2013 fell though.
“It became very apparent that we have more work to do before making that pitch [to the commission],” Davis said.