Our Questions for Houston’s 2023 Mayoral Candidates

As a grassroots collective of artists and cultural workers advocating for public funding for the arts, we at Arts Accountability Houston would like the Mayoral candidates to consider the following: 

We want Houston to increase its quality of life equitably and inclusively. By creating the conditions for its young population of diverse artists and cultural workers to thrive1, the city can create huge benefits, improve civic engagement, harmony, and goodwill, support mental health, and even promote childhood development. Funding has and continues to flow to large organizations with operating budgets over $1M. Community-oriented, BIPOC-led arts organizations, those with boots on the ground, and those who employ the most BIPOC cultural workers2 are the organizations that genuinely and authentically serve those in the greatest need of access to the arts. They are less likely to be 501 (c) 3 organizations, have the least access to private foundation funds, and are in dire need of stabilizing funds. Consider what could happen if Houston became a cultural leader by investing in these organizations and creating significant opportunities for young talented artists and cultural workers to stay

Make no mistake, the last few years have been tough on the arts in Houston, with a loss of $16 million in public investments in the arts in 2020 alone, with untold income losses to the arts sector. The arts were the first to close and the last to re-open in response to Covid-19. Houston’s primary source of public funding for the arts, Hotel Occupancy Taxes, plummeted by 48%, severely affecting grant payouts, as the amounts awarded were based on projected income. In total, $5 million was distributed from CARES Act funding in 2020, and $5 million more will be distributed from American Rescue Plan funding this year. However, this is not enough, as the estimated losses in public investment for the arts climbed to an estimated $20 million at the end of 2021. While AAH successfully advocated for grants to be funded from cash-in-hand, the pool of funds for artists diminished greatly despite our calls to support artists. Artists who already held multiple day jobs and side hustles stopped creating art simply to survive. Smaller organizations without endowments, led mainly by diverse communities, barely scraped by. We urge the next Mayor of Houston to show their support for the arts by creating a bulwark against disaster-prone funding and diversifying revenue streams for the arts.

As of 2017, Dallas spent $17 per capita on the arts, while Austin spent $22.90 per capita on the arts compared to Houston’s $6.70 per capita. We doubt those numbers have changed much, judging by the fact that no new revenue sources have been secured to invest in the arts. In the same year, New York City spent $17.10, while Chicago spent $12. If we are planning for the city of the future, we need to think about how we attract and retain residents. 

2023 Mayoral Candidates of Houston,

Given these conditions, how do you ensure that Houston is a cultural leader, not just a follower? What do you see as an opportunity for the Mayor to do to support the arts in Houston? What can be the one small improvement that will effect the greatest change for a healthy arts economy that reflects the beauty and diversity of the city?

If we want great art, we need to care for the city’s artists.

Support our Artists:

Can we bring up the issue of retaining artists – people as cultural assets? What is Houston doing to retain cultural workers, the engine of our arts economy? We have the same issues as others – living wage, affordable housing, transportation, etc. Still, those are compounded by the fact that many artists are gig workers engaging in contract work (educators, art handlers, grant writers, etc.). Because the arts are not valued in Texas, artists have less access to workplace protections, health insurance, jobs, and financial security. We have no cultural economy if artists can’t make it in Houston. There is no art without artists!

How do you maintain a sustained quality of life for artists that isn’t feast or famine. How can we do more art? Many artists get a grant once every few years, and yet how are we fostering a sustainable living environment, given that grants are project-based while food and housing are often not allowable costs? 

Support our children:

How can the Mayor’s office work to ensure that all kids have access to the arts regardless of the ability to pay for them, with the HISD takeover, book bans, and school districts opting out of field trips?

Affordable spaces and sustainability for small organizations:

The City is looking to cultural districts as our saviors. Still, gentrification is a huge issue with the cultural districts, pushing artists and small arts organizations out (along with many others). This is a problem for Arts District Houston where some of us work and it will spread. How can we ensure that small arts organizations have continued access to affordable space? What can we do as a city to retain talented working artists and the diverse small organizations that support them? There must be a model for subsidizing this.


What will the candidates do to promote the recommendations of the latest MoCA equity review? What are their priorities? How will they define success?


Will the City honor its dedication to inclusion by committing to language accessibility in its grantmaking processes, from organizing information sessions to allowing applicants to apply in their own language? Can the city’s grantmaking vehicle, Houston Arts Alliance make its applications available in Spanish and Vietnamese and find qualified panel reviewers?

Diverse arts experiences for all communities are essential.

We propose an expansive Arts Advisory Council that includes artist representation.

There are many art forms today in the City of Houston. To date, only a Music Advisory Board exists. To reflect the fact that there are many art forms in the city, can the next Mayor of Houston appoint an Arts Advisory Council based on the diversity of art forms that significantly includes artists’ voices? Diverse arts experiences for all communities are essential. This advisory board will liaise with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and advise the Mayor on building a vibrant, equitable arts ecology in Houston. In addition to the usual categories, we suggest Social Practice Art, Performance Art, Sound Art, Moving Image Art, among others. 

Houston Public Library needs to support its local writers. 

Houston Public Library’s collection does not include books published by local Houston poets. This is a situation that can be easily remedied. Can Houston support local poets and writers through an HPL system-wide purchasing program?

Safeguarding Houston’s arts vitality:

How will you push back against what the state tries to do to us? Given Houston’s revenue cap, where do you imagine the arts can obtain more resources?

Policy Suggestions. 

  • We/AAH would like to see COH arts funding contingent upon funded orgs/institutions proving that they pay a living wage to all workers. As you know, many of these workers are also artists.
  • We call on the city to commission a policy study about peer cities’ efforts to retain artists/culture workers and create a successful and sustainable model in Houston. 

  1. According to a study released by SMU Data Arts, “the general profile of the arts and culture workforce and audience does not currently match the racial and ethnic diversity of greater Houston. However, younger workforce members tend to be more diverse, indicating that the ecosystem will become more representative of people of color as younger individuals enter and move up in the workforce and engage as audience members.”
  2. In the same study released by SMU Data Arts, “smaller organizations have a more racially and ethnically diverse staff than larger organizations. In addition, general staff members are more diverse (33% people of color) than senior staff, board members or volunteers.”