Artists dispute election
at arts council meeting
By Diane Brown
About 30 artists walked out of a Cultural
Arts Council meeting December 6, angered over what some called the "highhanded and arrogant" handling of the
The Cultural Arts Council of Houston
(CACH) is the entity set up in 1977 to
disburse public funds for the arts. The
money is generated by the city's new one
percent hotel/motel tax and will amount
to $1.8 million for 1980.
The problem arose when three art
groups, Artists Equity Association, Houston Area Artists, and the Women's Caucus
for Art, called into question the organization's method of nominating new board
members. (The CACH board is made up
of 15 members; each year, five members
are elected to serve three-year terms.)
The artists say the board is dominated
by blue bloods, most of whom have no
real involvement in the grass roots art
community in Houston. The board was
originally appointed by the Cultural Committee of the Chamber of Commerce.
Back in September, the CACH board
of directors sent out notices asking for
nominations for the five board positions
up for election. Many artist/members of
CACH jumped at the chance to unseat
some of the incumbents, and hoped to
gain representation of working artists on
They met and submitted the names of
artist Gertrude Barnstone and Twiss Butler, a feminist activist who worked to get
the city to adopt the tax for art back in
1977. (Two other names were also submitted by individual CACH members.)
But when absentee ballots were mailed
to members November 14, none of the
four names appeared on the slate. The
board's nominating committee chose instead to renominate four incumbents
(one, artist Trudy Sween, resigned) and
they added a new candidate, Martha
Angered by what they saw as the
board's flouting its public charter, the artist groups issued a joint statement prior
to the December 6 meeting.
"The artists organizations collectively
nominated several people in the manner
prescribed by the arts council," the statement read. "These names were not included in the slate selected by the nominating committee of the CACH . . . The
artists groups feel that this represents an
undemocratic procedure and that an
organization whose existence depends on
public money should be accountable to
the public it serves."
After some behind-the-scenes negotiations failed to bring about a compromise,
the artists nominated their candidates
from the floor at the meeting, as provided
for in CACH by-laws. But the weight of
the absentee ballots carried the election
and the board's slate was elected by a
During the intense debate that followed, Lewis Hoffacker, CACH board
member and chair of the nominating
committee, reportedly told the group,
that the election procedure may not be
fair but it was legal.
A motion to throw out the absentee
ballots was denied. The artists walked out
in frustration when Hoffacker announced
that the election matter was ended and
proceeded to introduce the guest speaker
for the evening.
"The artists in this community acted
within the prescribed methods to gain
two positions on the CACH board, not to
dominate that board, but to have substantial input. The CACH represents an important part of the future of culture in
Houston. This is an issue for which artists
are not irrelevant," said Lynn Randolph,
president of the Women's Caucus for Art,
expressing a viewpoint held by many of
the dissenting artists.
people's hope and hostility: hope for an
increase if you're receiving funding, hostility if you're not."
Of the election night controversy he
says, "I'm not very interested in talking
about the legalistic aspects. I think that's
bullshit, actually. I think the people who
are expressing concern about the method
of electing board members are really expressing unhappiness about their share of
tions. The same thing happened a year
"Our candidates lost by only about a
dozen votes last year," recalls Randolph.
The artists were promised that the procedures for nominating would be revised,
but one year later, the loopholes remain,
leaving many people feeling disenfranchised.
The second point on which the artists
take issue with Blaine is his equating artist
"I feel really crummy about what happened. It was a
nightmare in my mind." —John Blaine
Sculptor James Surls, a board member
of the Contemporary Arts Museum and
one of the artists to leave the election
meeting early, sees a division between
CACH board members and the artist/
members—"I think the board is scared of
the artists," yet he calls the election debate "a very healthy experience."
Randolph agrees. "If they hadn't
counted the absentee ballots," she said,
"we would have won. As it was, we felt
we had a victory, because we pointed up
the problems on the board."
The issue of artist representation on
the board is now a matter of public
"These (board seats) are literally social
positions. "They (board members)
honestly love the arts, but they think that
giving all the money to the ballet is going
to solve the problems. The way to help
art honestly eludes them," Surls believes.
The CACH budget is split this way:
75 percent goes to large cultural organizations like the Alley Theatre, the ballet,
opera, symphony and museums; 15 percent is designated for grants to the smaller cultural organizations ; and 10 percent
goes to special projects.
Surls feels the problem is that the
money doesn't go to making the system
flourish. "So little filters down to the primary root system that no growth is possible. It is filtered out and siphoned off
into other places."
John Blaine, executive director of the
arts council sees CACH as "a focus for
Blaine does admit the board "made a
very significant error" in using absentee
ballots at all. 'The board and all the
members agree, and we've made a commitment to revise the by-laws. But to
throw those ballots out would have disenfranchised the people who cast their ballots in good faith."
Blaine calls the charge by some artists
that the board is operating as a dictatorship "absolutely, sinfully, ridiculous. I
think the artists are expressing either
deep frustration or deep naivite over
something relatively minor.
Gertrude Barnstone with community volunteer Martha Armstrong, a difference
that seems to put the entire controversy
"John Blaine's comment actually tells
us very little about the substantial differences [between] Martha Armstrong and
Gertrude Barnstone. But it does tell us,
however, a great deal about John Blaine
and why he's been ineffective in assessing
and creatively responding to this situation," says Randolph.
In her view Armstrong was not supported by the majority of artists because
"The board seats are literally social
positions. The board members honestly
love the arts, but they think that giving
all the money to the ballet is going to
solve the problems. The way to help art
honestly eludes them." — James Surls
"There's not a nickel's worth of difference between Martha Armstrong and Gertrude Barnstone. We're talking about an
elite accusing an elite of being an elite."
The artists take issue with Blaine. First,
they argue, why not include more than
five names on the ballot? As it is, the
board lays itself open to the criticism that
it stacks the deck: five slots, five nomina-
she is not a working artist in the true
sense, nor does she have a "proven record"
like that of Barnstone.
"In the present system which dominates the exhibition and sales of artwork,
the artist sits at the bottom of an inverted
pyramid," says Randolph. "On top are
the dealers, curators, museum directors,
critics and collectors. Many artists are
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