Mural in Houston’s 3rd Ward at Risk

 

This mural, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”, finished by John Biggers in 1953 is at risk.

Natural disasters pose many risks to works of art, but one of the saddest is the damage done to works of art at cultural organizations that may go unnoticed. In Houston’s Third Ward, the Blue Triangle YWCA has served black women and girls for decades. The building includes a gym, kitchen, meeting rooms, and an indoor pool. Unfortunately the building itself has needed repairs for many years. In 2016 the Houston Chronicle reported that the organization was raising funds to repair the roof. But the torrential rainfall of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017 finally caused serious damage to an important mural.

The Blue Triangle building, a state historic landmark.

That mural created by John Biggers, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”. The mural, completed in 1953, was commissioned by a local Pastor and was one of Biggers most important early murals. Biggers was an important figure in Houston’s arts community. He was recruited to what was then known as the Texas State University (now Texas Southern) for Negroes in 1949 as the first director of its Art department. Ileana Najarro reported for the Houston Chronicle that:

 

The mural, which served as Biggers’ doctoral dissertation and features images of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, was an opportunity to recognize these women’s work.

“He told me that he wanted to give [it] as a tribute to the Negro women,” Bryant said.

To Robert Proctor, co-director and chief painting conservator for Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, the mural exemplifies Biggers’ “compositional ability to work across large space.”

Proctor, who has restored other Biggers’ paintings, noted that the artist’s unique brushstrokes and his attention to work surfaces make them some of the most difficult pieces of art to restore.

Unfortunately the leak in the roof has imperiled the mural, damaging the mural itself and causing black mold to set in.

A section of the mural that was damaged by mold.

The work has been treated to prevent further mold, but further work cannot be undertaken until the roof of the building is repaired. The Houston Endowment has offered an initial $258,000 to repair the roof, but more funds are needed.

Repairs to historic John Biggers mural on hold, roof repair funds needed – HoustonChronicle.com (Nov. 10, 2018), https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Repairs-to-historic-John-Biggers-mural-on-hold-13406397.php.
Biggers mural now subject of online fundraiser – HoustonChronicle.com (Jan. 2016), https://www.chron.com/about/article/Biggers-mural-now-subject-of-GoFundMe-online-6784605.php.
Interested donors reach out to save endangered Biggers mural – HoustonChronicle.com (Jan., 2016), https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Interested-donors-reach-out-to-save-endangered-6777606.php.
Holland Cotter, John Biggers, 76, Painter Who Explored African Life, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/30/arts/john-biggers-76-painter-who-explored-african-life.html.

Tree painting, moral right or an environmental message?

In 2013 the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) commissioned artist Konstantin Dimopoulos to create an installation called “Painted Trees” in Houston. The installation used a series of crepe myrtles embedded in one of Houston’s traffic cloverleafs at Waugh and Memorial. Dimopoulos has undertaken similar blue tree projects internationally, hoping to raise awareness for deforestation and draw attention to trees we might otherwise ignore. Here’s a short video of the artist describing the art advocacy project:

Well the artist has been surprised to discover that the work has been reprised/plagiarized/re-celebrated/repeated. Many like me had likely assumed that the artist was repeating the project. Not so, this project was an initiative of the Houston Parks and Recreation department. They painted the same grove of trees, and another grouping, blue and green.

Here’s my own photo of one of the groups I took a few weeks ago:

The Houston Parks and Recreation department painted these crepe myrtles, image from March, 2018.

The art project was a popular surprise to most five years ago. Though It always struck me as odd that the artist and City invited selfie hunters to an area without sidewalks, where you had to dodge unfriendly cars to get a close look.

According to the City, the new project was meant to draw attention to wildflower and prairie plantings that have been done in the area.  The city plants wildflowers in the area most years, and this summer red phlox should bloom amid the green and blue trunks when the crepe myrtles are also blooming. A great thing to look at, and an improvement certainly over a sad strip of roadside mown grass. But has the city of Houston managed to violate the moral rights of Dimopoulos? Or will most of the attraction be owed to the work of mother nature? Texas arts blog Glasstire noted that Dimopoulos’ wife noted in a facebook comment that:

It’s Adele Dimopoulos here, Kon’s wife and business manager. We most certainly do know about the blue trees being copied by city Parks and we are in the process of addressing this through various channels.

We are aware that there is a much bigger issue of copyright and IP for all artists at stake here. So sit tight and let’s see what shakes down.

The artist claims to own rights in the special paint formula that he developed, which is temporary, harmless to the trees, and bright blue. In response Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management is quoted in the Houston Chronicle this morning that: “We thought we did our homework”, noting he cleared the paint project with parks department planners. And the formula was a new creation of a city employee, combining lime wash and pigment. The artist Dimopolous is quoted in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, and is not a fan:

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here”.

It seems mainly what Dimopoulos wants is an apology from the city, perhaps even removal of the pigment. ON the one hand I can certainly appreciate his position, but if his art was intended to bring attention to deforestation, the amount of water and harm to the trees perhaps shows he wasn’t all that interested in the environmental aspects of his projects. He really wanted individual attention as an artist. Nothing wrong with that of course, but when you have a relatively straightforward idea, that many other artists have likely had, perhaps you should be a little magnanimous when others attempt to carry forward your vision. Am I wrong, is the artist wrong? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

A Polke Painting Discovered in Thrift Shop?

A detail from a painting which may be by Sigmar Polke, via ABC News
A detail from a painting which may be by Sigmar Polke, via ABC News

A thrift store called The Guild Shop in Houston may have sold an original work by Sigmar Polke in May. It had been sitting in the shop for 100 days until Ray Riley bought the work for $90.

Continue reading “A Polke Painting Discovered in Thrift Shop?”

My Piece on the Cultural Heritage Movement and Environmental Justice

A typical row house in Houston’s 4th Ward, from 1984. Via FPH.

I’ve just received the final proof of an article I’ve written where I try to trace the connections between material culture and the environment: Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

In the piece I look to some of the writing being done on environmental justice and I think about what lessons we can take as cultural heritage advocates. I examine disputes ranging from looting of antiquities sites to the lack of preservation of certain areas here in Houston like Freedmen’s town.

Here’s a short video segment interviewing an advocate for Houston’s Fourth Ward:

It’s a theoretical piece. One which I’ll freely admit is partly aspirational. But one that I’m proud of. As always I’d welcome any feedback. Here’s the abstract:

What does justice require? This paper aims to spark a conversation about the role of justice in art and antiquities disputes by introducing the concept of cultural justice. Borrowing from a principle known as environmental justice, cultural justice allows the application of critical scrutiny to the law and norms that govern cultural heritage. The history of environmental justice—including both its successes and failures—offers important lessons for the cultural heritage movement. Environmental and cultural injustice plagues the same nations and groups: Africa, Central and South America, and indigenous groups are denied the same environmental and cultural benefits. The cultural heritage movement has been subject to the same criticisms as the environmental justice movement, but has not had the benefit of an animating theoretical framework. The law strains to resolve art and antiquities disputes. Examining disputes through the lens of cultural justice allows us to move beyond thinking about art in terms of keeping it in museums (or the art trade) or returning it to its nation of origin. This paper applies Rawls’s theory of justice to cultural heritage and presents a taxonomy of cultural justice, examining in detail its distributive, procedural, corrective, and social aspects. Thinking about cultural justice allows a deeper understanding of the reasons why cultural heritage disputes are so difficult to resolve. By considering cultural justice, we can also begin to define the limits of what law and policy can do to remedy historical and contemporary art taking. These limits have eluded cultural heritage advocates, subjecting the cultural heritage movement to broad criticisms.

As always, I am very happy to post any link or abstract to anyone’s writing in the cultural heritage field, whether it’s a work in progress or has been published. Just drop me a comment below, or email me at derek.fincham ‘at’ gmail.com.

Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting and Cultural Destruction Happens in Big Prosperous Cities Too

The environmental justice movement got its start here in Houston when communities saw the unjust impact of hazardous siting decisions. Today this same neighborhood is at risk of gentrification, historical destruction, and architectural looting. I made a case and talked about the idea of cultural justice for areas like this in a forthcoming piece.

But I suspect Lenwood Johnson, in this terrific video report by Houston’s alt-weekly, the Free Press, makes a more compelling case than I ever could:

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com