HAA’S COMMITMENT TO CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife + Civic Engagement
Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) is the local arts and culture agency for our city. In arts lingo, a local arts agency or an “LAA” (the commonly-used acronym) is a particular kind of entity and designation. The term recognizes that such organizations work broadly across municipal sectors and artistic genres to provide a kind of central resource for the arts in their community. As the National Endowment for the Arts puts it, “LAAs are intermediaries, serving artists and arts organizations, local residents, visitors and other partners.” For as fuzzy as that may sound, the notion of intermediary, convener, liaison, actually describes the work of LAAs well because it does not focus on specific activities that all LAAs undertake, so much as the role they play.
Activity-wise, there is no rule of thumb. Some LAAs have grants programs; others do all the arts programming themselves; some rely on tax dollars; others raise funds through a variety of mechanisms; some are a part of city government; others are freestanding non-profits. These are the many ways in which LAAs pursue their role as intermediary. All, however, must strive to meet their civic responsibility to arts access and equability. And while such an effort is ALWAYS a work in progress, it is a universally shared goal.
Even in its short history, HAA has developed an ambitious approach to this role as intermediary. It is the sole publicly-funded arts granter in Houston. HAA oversees all commissioning and conservation of public art in the City of Houston Art Collection. It undertakes research and assessments regarding the arts, audiences and the creative economy. It works alongside arts and culture organizations to build their capacity for producing strong work, developing imaginative leadership and establishing effective management systems. Finally, it hosts a program that explores, documents and celebrates the largely overlooked folk arts and cultural traditions of grassroots communities throughout the city.
This last is a rare endeavor for an LAA but a forward-looking one. As an intermediary, HAA acknowledges the importance of reaching beyond mainstream arts programming to recognize and honor the homegrown and grassroots arts forms that are fostered outside official institutions and classrooms. To accomplish this, however, is no small feat. Folklife programming involves working in communities, driving through neighborhoods, having long talks, attending community meetings, finding the community-based cultural experts and listening to the tradition bearers and practitioners share the stories of their communities. It is a labor intensive activity but fruit is born through rich new relationships and heightened awareness.
It follows, then, that the success of the HAA Folklife program is very much based in bringing new relationships and resources into the broader life of the agency while simultaneously bringing the agency into closer contact and sharing those expanded resources with the community at large. This kind of exchange takes many shapes. When we are curating Voices of the Spirit, Folklife staff forges relationships with all kinds of communities and institutions; when we are organizing a SLAB Festival, we are making friends with everyone from hip hop celebrity Paul Wall to Precinct Constable May Walker; when we are documenting workers on the Houston Ship Channel, we find ourselves talking to dock workers and terminal CEOs. In essence, our work is ethnographic, so everyone is some sort of expert and we strive to respect that and highlight their contribution to the cultural life of our community.
This summer, HAA changed its bylaws to institutionalize the Folklife program and to adopt its new name. Now known as Folklife and Civic Engagement, this new moniker sounds like an expanded portfolio but is really more a reflection of the ground we cover. Since 2012, two Our Town projects have grown out of the Folklife program, as a natural extension of the relationships we have stewarded on behalf of HAA. And in response to the new City of Houston Arts and Cultural Plan, this role will grow, with an increased emphasis on heightened neighborhood involvement in the artistic life of the community. The program will expand HAA’s partnerships among a wide range of both private and public venues and stakeholders, including parks, community centers and culturally-specific communities. As our Mayor has stressed repeatedly, attention to both diversity and inclusivity is the only way to ensure equity and access.