Some of the leading candidates for Houston mayor participated in the first candidate forum of the campaign on Monday to get a sense of where they stand on issues related to artists and arts in the city.
Project Row House’s executive director Eureka Gilkey and Rice University’s Alison Weaver, director of Moody Center for the Arts and co-president of the Museum District Association joined Houston Matters with Craig Cohen to discuss the forum.
Seven mayoral candidates answered questions about arts and culture in Houston. The seven candidates were: State Sen. John Whitmire, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, attorney Lee Kaplan, former METRO board chair Gilbert Garcia, current council member Robert Gallegos, former council member Amanda Edwards and Robin Williams.
“The interest from across the city was extraordinary,” Weaver said.
She said the next mayor should prioritize the Arts and Culture sector of Houston because it is critical to the to quality of life, mental health and attraction of new residents to the city.
“I think the arts in Houston have been underacknowledged as an issue that drive so many, both, quality of life and economic issues,” Weaver said. “It’s interesting to note that the art sector in Houston is a $1.1 billion industry.”
The arts industry supported 25,000 jobs in the city before the pandemic, according to the American Federation for the Arts.
“The fact that it’s both an economic driver and a quality of life issue need to be at the center of the plan that these mayoral candidates think about as they campaign,” Weaver said.
Gilkey said there are several issues that the upcoming mayor should address in the art world, including the hotel occupancy tax.
“The majority of the arts programing that you see are free and open to the public,” she said. And most of that is due to donations and community funding. “That’s not our municipality saying this is an investment we need.”
During the forum, Gilkey said they discussed how the arts industry was at the bottom of the priorities list in how much they spend on art per capita. She also said the arts community wants to be at the forefront of the conversation with new developments in the city, and currently they are unsure if they are.
The nonprofit arts sector is critical to the community both economically and culturally, Weaver said. But the funding that supports the city’s entertainment district isn’t the same. Austin invests $22 per capita on the arts; Houston spends about $6 per capita.
“We’re watching as our peer cities in Texas, certainly Austin and Dallas, in particular, are investing at the municipal level,” Weaver said. “Recognizing the value that the cultural district has across all manner of issues from wellness to quality of life, and economic incentives.”
Gilkey added there are plenty of opportunities for artists to be engaged, from beautifying the area to sustainability.
“We heard a lot last night about this entertainment district that’s coming to downtown,” Gilkey said. “The downtown district, they’re responsible for how Houston talks about itself and how it represents these unique cultural districts that tells the story of what Houston is, what it was, and what it can be… We’re really looking to these candidates about how we can be engaged and tell the story of who Houston is to the world.”