Houston – like the rest of Texas – does a great job building stadiums and arenas, but a lousy job supporting the arts.
It has been observed that in Texas an “intellectual” is anyone who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. By the same token, in Houston a “patron of the arts” is anyone who has matching mud flaps or spells “theater” as “theatre.” Hey, what can you expect of a city whose biggest social event is the rodeo and livestock show? Our one commercial classical radio music station, KRTS, has been sold to a group specializing in urban and rap music. Actually, the arts scene in Houston hasn’t been the same since Gilley’s burned.
Much of the scenic art we have is out in public – beautiful pictures, towering sculptures, fantastic lighting. Of course, in other cities these are called “billboards.” But we are not total bumpkins. Houston is one of only four cities in the United States that has full-time professional symphony, opera, ballet and theater companies. Our theater district reputedly is second only to New York City in the number of theater seats, but this is impossible to prove since many cities have theaters and seats scattered all over the place, just not in a group. But such a claim sounds good, and who can prove it wrong?
As a city and county, we are not heavy into public support of the arts. The HOT (Hotel Occupancy Tax) is 17 percent of what is collected, the highest such tax in the nation. Of this amount, 6 percent goes to the city for several purposes including the arts, 2 percent goes to the county, 2 percent goes to the Sports Authority and 7 percent goes to the state. Houston does not just fork over cash to worthy, or Wortham, arts organizations. By statute, the city directs 19 percent of its total hotel occupancy tax receipts to the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, or CACHH, which in turn redirects the money to various artists and arts organizations.
Not to bog you down in numbers, but it’s your money, and you may want to know where it’s going, so pay attention. For the fiscal year which ended June 30, CACHH received from the city $8,087,872.12 for the arts. This amount exceeds the amount estimated for the budget a year ago by $202,872.12 – because the hotel tax rebounded – but it still breaks down to just $4.01 per person. After a 10.5 percent handling fee and other costs, CACHH distributed $6,926,471.36 to more than 150 different local organizations varying from $500 for Houston Community Services to $1.9 million for the Theater District Improvement Inc.
The county also helps out to an embarrassingly small degree. It took in $28.7 million last year from the HOT tax, most of which went to pay off the debt of Reliant Stadium. Like the city, the county also gave some of that tax take to CACHH – exactly $75,000 or about $0.02 per person per year. This cheapskate situation is traditional in the Lone Star State. Texas ranks dead last, in 50th place, in the nation in per capita state spending on state arts agencies: 23 cents a Texan. The local couth scene has been hard hit, not just by the slower economy, but by lower corporate giving, especially in the energy field. For example, the Houston Ballet contributions from oil and gas producers declined 42 percent in the 12 months ending in June compared to a year earlier. The Alley Theatre sued Enron just to get in line for whatever the theater – excuse me, theatre – could get from its promised $30,000 donation.
Of course, it has been argued that if any of the arts, from museums to opera, truly have an audience, then these organizations would support themselves and wouldn’t need taxpayer money but would sell a service and turn a buck just like any other business. I agree wholeheartedly. So does the Sports Authority. Not! The taxpayers of Houston and Harris County have doled out far more of their hard-earned dollars for pro sports facilities than has been spent on the arts. You probably don’t know this – you are not supposed to – but if the city of Houston spent as much public funds on the symphony, theater, museums, etc. as we do on Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center, we would have the finest arts on Earth. It’s all a matter of priorities.