Bad signs in the Museum District?

November 14, 2008 12:29:50 PM PST
The museum has received millions of your tax dollars to bring in tourists. So why are the museum signs covered with graffiti?The millions we collect in hotel taxes are required to go to tourism, stadiums, conventions and art. Some of the art money goes to museums and it should because they bring in tourists. But as the song goes, it's in the way that you use it.

Art comes in many colors, but we've been focusing on the color green, the color of money.

And that's what brings 13 Undercover to the city's museum district.

"We have 18 museums in a nine square mile area," said Susan Young of the Museum District Association.

Three years ago a $125,000 federal grant was spent to draw a master plan to make the Museum District more visitor friendly.

"That could be signage, that could be lampposts, that could be benches," said city of Houston Controller Annise Parker.

But look at the signs leading to Houston's Museum District. They are small brown signs paid for by the city, not the museums and they are sometimes bent and usually covered with graffiti, an eyesore.

"And the banners that are tattered," Parker added.

You want to see what's been done in three years with all that money spent on The Museum District master plan? Just a model of what it could look like. One bench. One lampost. One garbage can near the corner of Berthea and Montrose. It's right near the potholes and broken drain. Some of the crosswalks outside some of the city's biggest tourist draws look worn. Some of the curbs are missing big chunks of concrete.

"We have a lot of work to do there and what you're focusing on is well worth it," said Peter Marzio of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

I asked Susan Young how many new signs have been put up in three years.

"None for that program," she replied.

"Have we put up any more benches, garbage cans or light posts?"

"No we haven't."

It's pretty obvious.

"It's hard when people that you like and respect are not doing the kind of job you think they ought to do," Parker said.

So where's all the city money going?

Houston mandates 18 percent of all hotel tax money the city gets be set aside for art tourism. And it all goes to the Houston Arts Alliance. Then it is divvied up. In one year that meant $1.9 million for the Museum District.

"We have a responsibility to get information out 24/7, 365 days a year about what is playing now," Young said.

Some of it goes to help pay Susan Young's $145,000 a year salary as head of the Museum District Association.

And the rest of the money is divvied up directly to the museums based on how many tourists they bring here.

"Houston is competing with Denver, Dallas, Chicago, for conventions, for tourists," Young said.

The biggest recipient of your tax money is the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. But do they really need taxpayers help?

Look at the MFAH tax return. It is $1.2 billion in the museum kitty.

"I'm certainly within the top 10 or 15 percent of the museum directors in this country," Marzio said.

Peter Marzio's compensation last year was $475,000 a year, but with bonuses it came to $888,173. And the museum loaned to Marzio another $518,400 for a Memorial condo. You know what the interest rate was - 3.5 percent.

Yes, the color of money is green.

In a small building on Washington Street, artist Bert Long works on a $75,000 painting that is now a year behind schedule. It will soon hang above the children's section in a River Oaks area library.

"My reputation has been built on doing quality work and it takes a long time to do it," Long told us.

It will be only the second city art project completed in the city in years, even though there is millions to create art and the art bureaucracy has swelled. Thus the color of money is green.

There is an irony here to all of the artists who have complained this week that somehow my investigation questions their freedom of expression. Their right is to make whatever art they want even if the rest of us think it is stupid and a waste of tax money. Funny, they didn't mind criticizing my freedom of expression, my art. Oh well.

Just days after 13 Undercover began asking questions the Museum District board agreed to spend some of its hotel tax money on new signs. A couple may actually be up in the next few days.

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