13 Undercover tracks public art

HOUSTON When it comes to art, people can get downright nasty. Today on the hate mail front I've been called ignorant and narrow minded -- and words I can't put on TV. Like most big cities Houston sets aside millions from its buildings for public art. That's why we've been asking, 'Where's the art?'

This is not smell-ivision, but trust me, you won't have to fight throngs of tourists at the city's wastewater laboratory on Bellaire. Yes, your tourism tax money was used on art here. That's why we are exploring the color of money. But the doors to the building are always locked.

But the art exhibit is only feet away -- "aqua profunda est quieta," which means "still waters run deep." Get it? It's a wastewater plant. And the art here cost you $69,000. We asked worker if he could feel the art.

"I'm not sure I'm capable of critiquing art," said Bob Hunt with the City of Houston Wastewater Department. "I was born in northern Alabama."

You'll find the art in the hallways. It's not supposed to be behind the projector screen. And you'll see it in the employee lunchroom, near the Coke machine. We didn't see any tourists, though. Surprised?

Jonathan Glus with the Houston Arts Alliance said, "I actually think in that case we should move the piece."

Maybe if they do they'll actually turn on the TVs, so we can see the videos we made as part of the art exhibit.

"I think civic art monies need to be focused on very public spaces," Glus said.

Like the airport. In the international terminal there are colored suitcases on the baggage carousels. Some of them seem to be broken.

There's lots of art here, but most of it is old. Did you ever notice something on the side of the airport road going toward Highway 59? It's art. It's called "West of the Pecos," even though an airport email says "it has been asked if it were a piece of road equipment that someone left behind."

Where is all the new art across the city? Glus admitted that in two years, only one piece of civic art has been completed.

The Houston Arts Alliance already gets more than a million dollars in tax money, but now the mayor has more than tripled additional consulting payments -- $42,000 a month -- while an art project at Hobby is on hold because of "lack of funding."

Few people confused this with art -- the $500,000 we spent putting former Mayor Lee Brown's picture on the airport welcome sign. Times may be tough, but Mayor White wants to spend a million and a half more of your money on new artsy airport signs.

Glus said, "The city would be building a welcome sign anyway."

"It's pretty much common sense you'd want to welcome people in this city," said Roxanne Butler.

Don't we already do that?

"This is an opportunity to build a landmark piece," Glus explained.

Maybe $1.5 million isn't too much to ask in a city that's spending $200,000 in tax money for cast aluminum horses and dogs at a new police animal facility and $185,000 for lit stained glass windows at a fire station.

Michelangelo knows about quality art, but it only took him four years to finish the Sistine Chapel. The rental car facility at the big airport was supposed to have three pieces of art for $250,000. Eight years later, there isn't any art. The first art may be finished this year. Aluminum wind trees that will supposedly spin as rent-a-car buses go by. That one piece of art will now cost almost as much as three would have.

That's the color of money, even here, as one arts official put it in January, "in the backwaters of Houston."

Because debate is fun, here's a link to some of the folks who are so mad at me.

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