They say it’s lucky when a bird poops on you.
But what about when you poop on birds? Sculptures thereof, that is. In yesterday’s Houston Chronicle:
A request to fund a 60-foot artwork commissioned for the George R. Brown Convention Center sparked an existential debate over Houston’s identity Wednesday, when some City Council members expressed concern that public art depicting migratory birds does not accurately reflect the city’s brand.
The mobile of perforated steel birds and clouds due to be completed by next month already has been the subject of controversy.
The Houston Arts Alliance commissioned the sculpture from Houston artist Ed Wilson in late 2014, before rescinding and re-awarding the artist’s contract amid concerns about the selection process.
Asked to approve the transfer of more than $1 million to pay for the project authorized last year, however, several council members on Wednesday questioned whether the city should be promoting artwork depicting birds.
“Bird migration. Why?” Councilman Robert Gallegos asked during an 18-minute debate alternately tense and jesting. “How are we promoting the city with global trade, space exploration? That’s what Houston is. I don’t have a problem that you want to promote the birds, but promote global trade.”
Councilwoman Brenda Stardig joined Gallegos in critiquing the avian migration and flight theme.
“I’ve expressed my concern to Houston First about our branding and trying to make us something that we’re not,” Stardig said, referring to the agency that runs the city’s convention and entertainment facilities. “We need to embrace our space. We’re known for NASA. People come here, they don’t talk about the migration of birds.”
Wilson’s 60-foot mobile, his first major public commission, is set to be installed in the downtown convention center’s central atrium.
I’ve got a lot of problems with this nonsense.
First, when government officials dictate the content of art, it ceases to be art. We did not elect them to be our aesthetic conscience.
Second, art is sometimes representational, but often has a deeper meaning. What would a sculpture designed to “promote global trade” look like?
It could look like container ships in a diorama, sure, but an artist could take a symbolic approach to it. Goods come from all over into the Port of Houston, passing through on their way elsewhere. If I had to come up with a symbol, a beautiful, elegant symbol for a bunch of stuff that lifts up our economy while passing through, I just might decide that a flock of birds would do the trick nicely. I’m just spit-balling here, CM Gallegos.
Third, Council Member Stardig, I’m sorry that you are not as familiar with the local tourist economy. Or, perhaps you heard someone use the phrase “for the birds” when talking about tourism, and you thought they were being dismissive, when they were actually describing a reason thousands of people come to Houston as the gateway to some of the richest, most accessible, and least expensive to access bird viewing territory around.
I mean, all I have to do to see a bald eagle, osprey, or hawk is keep my eyes open when I’m getting on and off I-10 at I-45 these days. I don’t even have to leave the freaking Heights. But if I did, I’d find incredible biodiversity along the Texas Gulf Coast that attracts millions of migratory birds and the tourists who obsessively stalk them.
I’m busy, so don’t have time to do extensive research right at this moment ,but found this quick reference thanks to the Googles. A 2011 study of the Rio Grande Valley, which I realize is not Houston, but I’m using as an example of the value of birding tourism in Texas, found:
This direct economic contribution from RGV nature tourism led to a total county-level economic output of $344.4 million and 4,407 full- and part-time jobs annually. This total contribution includes a $179.4 million contribution to gross regional product and a $110.1 million contribution to labor income across the region. Local taxes generated from direct nature tourist expenditures for 2011 was $2,595,600 for sales tax and $7,262,700 for hotel tax.
I mean, if you want to call hundreds of millions of dollars something that’s for the birds, go ahead, and have fun with the city budget mess you’ve got coming up.
And that’s just birding tourism. I don’t know what happens if you factor in dove and duck hunting. And all of the rest of the coastal tourism for which Houston is a gateway.
Fourth, Houston, a city that likes to brag about being the third coast of the art world, has treated artist Ed Wilson like bird poop for several years now. ¡Y basta! Give this man a break, pay for the work, and let’s start enjoying it as soon as possible.
Finally, five. If this is a proxy fight over who controls the funding, or what the power dynamic is among the City, Houston First, and the Houston Arts Alliance, grow up and discuss it like adult elected officials. Don’t take it out on a piece of sculpture that is going to look gorgeous in the new, soaring, open space of the renovated George R. Brown.