NEW FACE FOR THE ARTS
Cultural Arts Council appoints woman executive director
,BY SUSAN HUNNICUTT.
Houston's two-and-a-ha/f-year-old Cultural Arts Council (CACH) is one of the
largest in the country. With a 1980
projected budget of over $1.8 million,
gleaned from the state's seven percent
hotel-motel tax, it has responsibility for
providing partial support to the city's
ten largest cultural institutions: The
Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet,
Houston Grand Opera, the Alley Theater,
Society for the Performing Arts, Theater
Under the Stars, the Museum of Fine
Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum,
the Museum of Natural Science, and the
Harris County Heritage Society. In addition, CACH supports programs at
Miller Theater and other city parks, and
through its funding cycles, numerous
small arts organizations and special
projects, many of which directly or
indirectly benefit artists working in the
The task of running CACH is "the
best job in the country for people interested in local arts agencies," says John
Blaine, former executive director. It is
also a demanding job that abounds with
opportunities for fresh thinking and
innovative approaches to old problems.
After Blaine left last spring to
become executive director of the Alaska
Council on the Arts, the CACH board
of directors appointed Blaine's assistant
director, Mary Ann Piacentini, to replace him.
A Harvard graduate with a Master's
in city planning, Piacentini came to
Texas in 1975 as a housing planner for
the Houston-Galveston Area Council of
Governments. She served three years
in the Community Development Division
of the Houston mayor's office before
leaving in 1978 to become assistant to
the director of CACH. Since that time
W —— —i
Susan Hunnicutt, graduate of Trinity University, was art critic for the Trinitonian.
she has been involved in the CETA
(U. S. Comprehensive Employment and
Training Act) Artists in Residence Program administered through the Arts
Susan Hunnicutt: When John Blaine
announced his resignation, there was
initially some talk of going "outside"
to search for a replacement. Rumor had
it that the new director might be a man,
and the issue of sexual discrimination
was mentioned. But in fact, the board
of directors of CACH actually made a
fairly quick decision to appoint you as
the new director. Do you feel your
nomination encountered strong resistance
for any reason?
Mary Ann Piacentini: In terms of sexual
discrimination, no. I do think there was
a general sense at the time of my appointment that I was extremely competent
and could deal with most of the issues,
but that I might be viewed as fairly
The other question was whether Houston needed a more national image. John
brought with him a very strong national
image. I think Houston has that image
regardless of the director. And I think
I do have a national image, but in a very
different sense. I am on the National
Advisory Board to the Department of
Labor for CETA. I have presented papers
at the Urban Symposium on the Arts to
over 25 major arts organizations.
SH: Your background is mainly in the
area of city planning, and specifically
in the development of housing programs.
When did your interest in the arts develop, and how do you think your experience in city planning has prepared
you for and influenced you in your
MP: Essentially, many of the projects
I was working on in the Community Development Division of the mayor's
office were streets, parks, public improvements. But there were a few other
projects directly related to the arts. One
was a study for the National Endowment
for the Arts that looked at five neighborhoods and came up with both conservation plans for them and development
plans that would be in keeping with the
historically and architecturally signficant
aspects of the neighborhood.
Another was the Art in Public Places
project. We devised three different ways
of acquiring art for public spaces.
One was a completely open competition for the residents of Houston,
or artists working within the city. We
received about 98 entries and chose what
I think is a very nice piece of art—Frank
McGuire's access sculpture which is out
at the West End Multi-Service Center.
The second process we determined for
acquiring the art was to ask the National
Endowment for a matching grant and
actually present an artist to them. That
was Luis Jimenez and his work The Vac-
quero, an eighteen-foot fiberglass sculpture to be installed in Moody Park in a
month or two.
The third was basically a limited Invitational. We asked the community in
Fifth Ward who they would like to see.
They definitely wanted a black artist.
They wanted a local artist. They considered people who had worked here—like
Herman Oliver. Oliver had worked here
but really wasn't identified with Houston,
he was identified with Dallas. They determined there were two people they
wanted: either Carol Simms or John
Biggers. John had worked as a juror on
one of our other projects. He really felt
that the exposure and the kind of project
that would be done would be better done
by Carol Simms.
So when I left the mayor's office, I
really wasn't sure I still wanted to be just
a planner in terms of Community Arts
development, or if I wanted something
else. I began interviewing with the Arts
Council and determined that what I really
wanted was to look at arts issues, but
with a planning background.
I am very interested in the notion of
long range planning, in helping the
community find out what the cultural
resources are and essentially how best to
SH: During the time you have already
been with CACH, what do you see as
your most significant contributions?
MP: I think I have been most effective in
the CETA Artists in Residence Program,
in providing employment for artists who
have a marketable skill, but who perhaps
have not yet learned how to market it to
the general public. I also help these artists
find institutions that can use those services. You see, the artists in the program
have to provide a public service. They are
not just doing their art. We wish we could
help them to just do their art. But they
instead provide a service, whether it is
teaching or staging free performances.
SH: What about the Art in Public Places
program? I understand it is continuing
under your direction at CACH, rather
than out of the mayor's office as it formerly was.
MP: Yes. I brought $120,000 with me
from Community Development to run an
Art in Public Places program.
Part of the money is an NEA matching
grant, similar to Luis Jimenez's but different in that we had nothing to do with the
artist who was selected. The artist—Matt
Whitney—was selected by a panel of
judges, three of whom were chosen by
NEA and three of whom were chosen by
a joint committee consisting of CACH,
the Municipal Arts Commission and our
Beyond spending that money, we now
have about $50,000 left over to run competitions in eight neighborhoods for local