From Collaboration to Active Empowerment: Fueling Houston's Flourishing Civic Art Landscape

Janice Bond

Houston is witnessing an inspiring and exciting movement towards greater heterogeneity in its public art collection across various levels. What's even more encouraging is the increasing participation of developers, organizations, and private companies in commissioning public art projects throughout different areas of the city. While there is still much progress to be made in both the public and private sectors, this heightened engagement highlights a shared dedication to nurturing a lively and inclusive artistic environment that benefits the entire community. Additionally, companies like UXD (United by Design), I/O (Input/Output) and FENRIS are playing a crucial role in supporting artists and providing the resources they need to bring their ideas to life. Even organizations such as Buffalo Bayou Partnership are looking creatively and intentionally at the intersectionality of conservation, civic art, and active community participation. These initiatives are essential for the growth and sustainability of the civic art community, especially for artists from under resourced and represented communities. Based on the 2022 City of Houston Civic Art Program Equity Review published by The City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA), a total of 269 applicants participated in the competition for commission opportunities in FY22, representing a diverse array of racial and ethnic groups. These groups encompassed Southeast Asian, Indian, and Other Pacific Islander communities, which have historically had limited representation within the Civic Art Program. Approximately 33% of the applicants identified themselves as Non-Hispanic White or Euro-American, while approximately 22% identified as Latinx or Hispanic, and roughly 14% identified as Black, Afro-Caribbean, or African American. Moreover, around 12% of the applicants identified as Multi-Racial, Multi-Ethnic, or did not fit into a single category. Regarding gender distribution, approximately 51% of the applicants identified as male, while roughly 44% identified as female. Applicants who self-identified as Gender Non-Binary or Non-Conforming, Other, or chose not to disclose their gender comprised less than 2% of the total applicant pool.

Addressing the specific challenges that artists face in civic art projects, from the initial planning stages to the public use of the artwork, is essential. Having worked on such projects in various cities worldwide, I've come across recurring patterns that highlight the difficulties these artists encounter. It's truly disheartening to witness exceptionally talented individuals struggle to bring their creative visions to life due to limited resources or a lack of support. Some artists are even compelled to collaborate reluctantly with others just to secure the funding or recognition they deserve. Moreover, there are those who underestimate the costs and intricacies of their projects because they haven't had access to the necessary knowledge and guidance.

However, I've also had the privilege of witnessing the enchantment when everything falls into place. I've seen ideas come to life and capture the hearts and minds of the community. I've seen artists' careers skyrocket because of one impactful project, and their growth as artists has been nothing short of remarkable. These success stories inspire me, and I want to see more of them not just in Houston but across the entire country.

Achieving this objective necessitates a continuous collaborative endeavor and a dedication to staying well-informed and dedicated to achieving tangible and significant advancements at a hyper-local level. Overcoming the obstacles encountered by artists from underprivileged or historically marginalized communities in civic art initiatives demands comprehensive assistance and abundant resources. By directly and empathetically addressing these barriers, we can foster an empowering atmosphere that nurtures artists, amplifies their creative endeavors, and facilitates the realization of their artistic visions. While the challenges may differ based on context and location, there are common issues that these artists often confront. To further unpack these obstacles, I would like to explore the following eleven areas impacting BIPOC artists working in civic art projects a bit more closely:

1.     Lack of Representation and Multiculturalism in Decision-Making and Project Management

Artists from under resourced or historically marginalized communities frequently encounter a lack of representation in the selection process and project management for civic art commissions. These limitations in representation and lack of multiculturalism in the selection panels and staff involved in decision-making and project management for civic art commissions pose challenges for artists from under resourced or historically marginalized communities. It's a problem when the people responsible for choosing artists or leading the projects don't understand or represent the unique contributions and challenges of these artists. This leads to a one-sided selection process that favors artists who conform to established artistic norms, making it tough for artists from under resourced or represented communities to get their art recognized and considered. This also can contribute to difficulty in completing projects.

To tackle this issue, we must actively promote pluralism and representation in decision-making roles and project management within the civic art community. By including individuals from diverse backgrounds in selection panels, we ensure a broader range of perspectives and a more equitable decision-making process. This will result in a more inclusive and diverse selection of artists for civic art commissions, giving under resourced or historically marginalized communities the representation and chance to contribute to the public art scene.

2.     Racial Biases and Prejudices in Selection Processes

Artists from under resourced/represented communities are disproportionately affected by racial biases, resulting in unequal representation, limited resources, and restricted career advancement. It's important to recognize that unconscious biases can affect the selection processes for civic art commissions, and this can have a real impact on the representation of artists from under resourced or historically marginalized communities. These biases come in different forms, like favoring artists whose work fits into the “mainstream” aesthetic preferences or overlooking the valuable contributions and unique perspectives of artists from marginalized backgrounds. Sadly, these biases end up maintaining the status quo and making it harder for diverse voices to be heard in civic art projects. The existence of these biases in selection processes is a significant factor that perpetuates the underrepresentation of artists from under resourced or represented communities.

We all have biases, even if we're not aware of them. These unconscious biases can influence the decisions made by those responsible for selecting artists for civic art projects. These biases are often rooted in societal stereotypes, personal experiences, or cultural conditioning. They can lead decision-makers to prefer artists who conform to the mainstream aesthetic preferences or artistic traditions. Unfortunately, this unintentionally excludes artists from under resourced or represented communities whose work may challenge or diverge from these norms.

The art world tends to have a specific set of aesthetic preferences that reflect the current trends and traditions. However, when these preferences are narrow and fail to embrace diverse artistic expressions, it becomes more challenging for artists from under resourced or represented communities to have their work considered for civic art projects. This limited recognition of different cultural perspectives and art forms perpetuates a lack of representation and hinders the participation of diverse voices and experiences.

Biases in the selection process can result in the neglect or undervaluing of artists from marginalized communities. The perspectives and contributions of artists from under resourced or represented communities may be dismissed or overshadowed, further perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation. This undermines the potential for civic art projects to truly reflect the diverse experiences and cultural richness of the communities they aim to serve.

To address biases in selection processes and promote equitable opportunities, we must make a deliberate effort. This can be achieved through various strategies like implementing blind evaluation processes, ensuring the inclusion of diverse and inclusive selection panels, and providing training to raise awareness of unconscious biases. It is crucial to create opportunities for artists from under resourced or represented communities to showcase their work, challenge dominant aesthetic norms, and contribute their unique perspectives to civic art projects.

3.     Systemic Barriers

Like various sectors, the art industry has been influenced by systemic obstacles that place artists from underprivileged or underrepresented communities at a disadvantage. These barriers, impede their visibility and limit their access to opportunities.  Systemic barriers in the art world have posed significant challenges for artists from under resourced or represented communities. These barriers are deeply ingrained in historical and ongoing racial biases, discriminatory practices, and exclusionary systems that disproportionately impact marginalized artists. In the art world, just like in society, racial biases have influenced the perception of art and artists. There is often a preference for artwork that aligns with Eurocentric aesthetics or established artistic traditions. As a result, artists from under resourced or represented communities, whose work may challenge or deviate from these norms, often find it difficult to gain recognition and access opportunities.

Addressing these systemic barriers requires a multifaceted approach that challenges and dismantles discriminatory structures within the art world. It is crucial to strive for greater representation, diversity, and inclusivity. This can be achieved by advocating for equitable funding and resources, promoting diverse curatorial practices, and creating platforms that amplify the voices of under resourced or represented artists. Collaborative efforts between art institutions, community organizations, and artists' networks are also essential to create more inclusive and accessible opportunities for marginalized artists.

4.     Exclusionary Institutional Practices

Biases in selection processes, limited financial support, and inadequate representation in permanent collections contribute to the marginalization of these artists within the art ecosystem, which are all reflective of exclusionary institutional practices that canhave a profound impact on the marginalization of artists from under resourced or represented communities within an institutions programming. These practices create barriers that restrict access to opportunities, recognition, and support for artists.

The biases that exist within institutional selection processes, such as those used for exhibitions, grants, and residencies, contribute to the underrepresentation of artists from marginalized communities. This form of gate-keeping  stems from societal stereotypes, cultural norms, and the unconscious biases of decision-makers within a organization. As a result, artists from under resourced or represented backgrounds often face greater obstacles in having their work considered and chosen, which limits their exposure and opportunities for advancement.

Insufficient financial support from organizations further marginalizes artists from under resourced or represented communities within the art ecosystem. Because financial resources play a vital role in artists' ability to develop their practice, create new work, and gain visibility, the unequal distribution of funding and grants often favors artists from more privileged backgrounds, leaving those from marginalized communities at a disadvantage and perpetuating existing disparities.

The resulting lack of representation of artists from under resourced or represented communities in permanent collections held by art institutions ultimately has significant implications for their visibility and long-term recognition. When artists from these communities are underrepresented or excluded from these collections, their work is denied the opportunity for preservation and exhibition. This not only hampers the artists' careers but also reinforces existing hierarchies and power dynamics within the art world.

Artist Tay Butler reflected on the implications of these institutional exclusionary practices in this way:

Art, and Public and Civic Art particularly, is in a weird yet encouraging space. Murals and sculptures and three-dimensional forms of all kinds are popping up left and right. And the makers of these things run the gamut from National stars to some of the city’s beloved veterans to local emerging and student artists. We can’t complain about what we have seen happen lately. But there is still so much more to do. A lot of these opportunities were hard to access and poorly promoted. At times, it felt like personal relationships took precedence. Other times, political riff raff interferes with ensuring the artwork is meant to serve the PUBLIC, and not the legacies of city/state officials. You cannot please everyone and check every box. Art doesn’t work that way. But I think we can make the calls, processes, and post-project initiatives more transparent and be more specific project to project. Too often, we have bland and general calls, not knowing what to propose, only to see the committee clearly had a specific agenda.

BANF is an example of a thorough process. Multiple sessions to learn how to propose, clear info on the who, what and how throughout the entire process. Most other opportunities are post, deadline, announce and let the art begin.

We can do more.

To address exclusionary institutional practices and combat the marginalization of artists from under resourced or represented communities, these organizations need to work toincrease the representation of artists from marginalized backgrounds in their exhibitions, programs, and permanent collections. This can be achieved by actively seeking out and showcasing their work, collaborating with community organizations, and engaging in partnerships that prioritize heterogeneity and inclusion.

Institutions can create equitable selection process by implementing fair and transparent policies that prioritize diverse forms of artistic merit and potential, rather than perpetuating status quo assumptions. Blind evaluation processes, where the identity or background of the artist is concealed during the selection process, can help reduce the impact of unconscious biases and foster a more equitable evaluation of artwork.

Institutions can work harder to provide equitable access to financial support for artists.Art institutions can establish targeted funding programs and grants specifically designed to support artists from under resourced or represented communities. These programs should be accompanied by transparent application processes and criteria that consider the unique challenges faced by these artists.

Institutions should also work to building partnerships, collaborations, and networks with community organizations, artists' networks, and other institutions that prioritize cultural pluralism in order to create opportunities for artists from marginalized communities. By fostering a common goal and mission across organizations art institutions can broaden their reach and connect artists with resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities that facilitate their professional growth and success.

Dealing with exclusionary institutional practices requires collective efforts from art institutions, curators, funders, and the broader art community. By actively challenging biases, increasing representation, providing financial support, and fostering partnerships, we can create a more inclusive and equitable art ecosystem that recognizes and uplifts the diverse voices and perspectives of artists from under resourced or represented communities.

5.     Limited Networks and Connections

Networks play a crucial role in accessing opportunities in the art world. Artists from under resourced/represented communities, particularly those from underrepresented communities, may have limited access to influential networks and connections that can open doors to civic art commissions. This lack of networks can result in missed opportunities and reduced visibility within the art community. Limited networks and connections can significantly impact the opportunities available to artists from under resourced/represented communities, including their access to civic art commissions.

Networks and connections within the art world often serve as pathways to opportunities such as civic art commissions. Artists who have established relationships with curators, gallery owners, art administrators, and other influential figures are more likely to be informed about upcoming projects and considered for participation. However, artists from under resourced/represented communities, particularly those from underrepresented communities, may face challenges in developing and accessing such networks. This lack of connections can result in limited knowledge of available opportunities and hinder their ability to showcase their work in prominent public spaces.

Networks also play a significant role in increasing an artist's visibility and recognition within the art community. Artists who have strong connections may receive referrals, recommendations, and endorsements from individuals with influence, which can lead to increased exposure and opportunities. However, artists from under resourced/represented communities who lack access to influential networks may struggle to gain visibility for their work. As a result, they may face difficulties in building their artistic careers and attracting the attention of commissioning bodies for civic art projects.

Limited networks and connections can perpetuate existing disparities and underrepresentation of artists from under resourced/represented communities in the art world. When influential networks are predominantly composed of individuals from dominant cultural backgrounds, it can create barriers for artists from marginalized communities to break into the mainstream art scene. This lack of representation further reinforces the exclusionary dynamics within the industry.

This requires intentional efforts to create more inclusive spaces and opportunities for artists from under resourced/represented communities. This can involve initiatives such as mentorship programs, artist residencies, networking events, and community-based art organizations that specifically focus on supporting underrepresented artists. Building connections with like-minded individuals, participating in community arts projects, and leveraging online platforms and social media can also help expand networks and increase visibility.

By actively addressing the issue of limited networks and connections, the art community can foster a more inclusive and equitable environment. Providing resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities to artists from under resourced/represented communities can help bridge the gap, amplify their voices, and ensure their meaningful participation in civic art commissions and other art-related endeavors. Artist Preston Gaines describes why expanding networks presents a unique opportunity for outreach and mentorship for artists in the community:My vision is rooted in the belief that fostering diversity and inclusivity should be integral to all levels of the public/civic art commissioning process. The art scene in Houston is a beautiful mosaic of multicultural influences, and our commissions should be a mirror reflecting this diversity. It's essential to move beyond merely providing space for underrepresented artists; we must actively invite, nurture, and amplify their voices.

Achieving this vision calls for tangible measures such as organizing outreach programs and workshops in underprivileged areas and educating artists about the process of applying for public/civic art commissions. In parallel, it's crucial for commissioning bodies to reduce bias in their selection processes, whether through blind reviews or by ensuring diversity within selection committees.

Additionally, extending mentorship opportunities, resources, and financial assistance can dismantle some of the barriers faced by these artists. Our goal should be to craft an ecosystem that not only appreciates and values diverse art but also steadfastly supports and sustains the artists behind it.

6.     Lack of Mentorship and Guidance

Mentorship is vital for artists' professional development and career advancement. Artists from under resourced/represented communities may face challenges in finding mentors who understand their unique experiences and can provide guidance specific to their needs. Mentorship is incredibly valuable for artists' professional development and career advancement. However, artists from under resourced or represented communities may encounter difficulties in finding mentors who understand their unique experiences and can offer guidance tailored to their specific needs. This lack of mentorship opportunities can limit their access to valuable advice, resources, and support, which are essential for securing civic art commissions and achieving success in their careers.

Mentorship plays a crucial role in an artist's professional journey. A mentor, drawing from their own experiences in the art world, can provide guidance, support, and valuable insights. They can offer advice on navigating the industry, honing artistic skills, building networks, and identifying opportunities. Through mentorship, artists can gain confidence, expand their knowledge, and make informed decisions about their artistic practice.

Artists from under resourced or represented communities often face distinctive challenges influenced by their cultural background, identity, and social context. It is crucial for artists to have mentors who understand and appreciate these unique perspectives. Mentors from similar backgrounds can offer cultural insights, share strategies for overcoming systemic barriers, and provide guidance tailored to the specific challenges faced by artists from under resourced or represented communities. However, the limited availability of mentors with diverse backgrounds and experiences can pose a challenge for artists seeking mentorship.

Mentors can open doors to resources and opportunities that might otherwise be difficult for artists to access independently. They can introduce mentees to influential individuals in the art community, recommend them for exhibitions or projects, and provide access to workshops, residencies, and grants. The absence of mentorship and guidance can restrict the exposure and access that artists from under resourced or represented communities have to these resources, making it harder for them to compete for civic art commissions.

Efforts to address the lack of mentorship for artists from under resourced or represented communities involve establishing mentorship programs tailored to their specific needs. These programs can connect emerging artists from these communities with established professionals who can guide and support them. Additionally, fostering a sense of community among artists from diverse backgrounds can facilitate peer mentorship and knowledge-sharing. Art organizations and institutions can play a vital role in creating mentorship initiatives, providing resources, and facilitating networking opportunities to bridge the mentorship gap.

By recognizing the importance of mentorship and taking steps to address the lack of mentorship for artists from under resourced or represented communities, the art community can empower and support their professional growth. Civic art focused mentorship programs that prioritize fairness and access, inclusivity, and cultural understanding can provide the necessary guidance and support for artists to navigate the art world and increase their chances of securing commissions.

“I believe cultivating the vitality of underrepresented communities through temporary and mobile art installations is a transformative endeavor. Artworks that can easily travel to different neighborhoods increase visibility and accessibility to arts and culture. Layered with interactive programming, these dynamic experiences can introduce and inspire community members to seek out and explore their own expression – individually and collaboratively.” - Anthony Rose, Artist, Curator and Founder UXD (United by Design)


7. Tokesnism and Diversity Quotas

While efforts to promote divergence are essential, they can sometimes lead to tokenism or a superficial focus on diversity quotas. While it is important to promote inclusive practices, sometimes the efforts can unintentionally lead to tokenism or a surface-level focus on meeting diversity quotas. This approach may overlook the artistic merits and contributions of artists from under resourced or represented communities, reducing their chances of being selected based on their talent and vision rather than their identity. To address limited representation, systemic changes are needed to foster empowerment and representation, equity, and inclusion. This includes creating more inclusive selection processes, diversifying decision-making panels, and actively seeking out and promoting the work of talented artists from under resourced or represented communities. Providing tailored mentorship, networking opportunities, and resources can also help bridge the representation gap and ensure equal access to civic art commissions.

Artists from under resourced or represented communities may encounter stereotyping when their work is expected to conform to preconceived notions or expectations associated with their culture or ethnicity. This limits their artistic freedom and expression, as their work may be simplified or confined to fit certain stereotypes. It fails to recognize the diversity and complexity of their artistic practice and disregards their unique perspectives and individuality.

Artists from under resourced or represented communities may feel pressured to create art that aligns with dominant cultural expectations or narratives related to their heritage. This can restrict their artistic exploration and prevent them from exploring new themes, techniques, or conceptual frameworks that deviate from these expectations. It reinforces the notion that artists from under resourced or represented communities should only create art that fits within predefined cultural categories.

Tokenism occurs when artists from under resourced or represented communities are included in projects solely to create an appearance of intersectionality or inclusivity, without genuine recognition of their artistic merit and unique contributions. Tokenism diminishes the value and recognition of their work, as they may be seen as symbolic additions to fulfill diversity quotas rather than as genuine contributors to the project.

Stereotyping and tokenism result in limited opportunities for artists from under resourced or represented communities to showcase their full range of skills and capabilities. They may be confined to specific themes or subjects deemed more marketable or acceptable within certain narratives, restricting their artistic growth and potential for innovation.

Confronting stereotyping and tokenism requires a shift in attitudes and perceptions within the art community and society. It involves recognizing the individuality and diverse perspectives of artists from under resourced or represented communities, appreciating their unique artistic visions, and providing opportunities for them to express themselves authentically. By emphasizing artistic merit, valuing diverse perspectives, and fostering inclusive and equitable practices, we can break down stereotypes and eliminate tokenism.

“We are individuals, and our individual voices are powerful and need to be heard and seen in the work we create for the betterment and benefit for social justice. I find it very strange when people come to me and tell me to make my work more Indian, there is a deep misconception in the art-world that an artist of a certain cultural background needs to be derivative in nature in a direct manner. If they look deeper, they will realize that through the vivacious nature of my palette, colors you see Indian culture and my Bollywood maximalism self comes through the installation work I create. Ironically my work couldn’t be more Indian if one is ready to spend the time to pay attention and receive it. To understand how I grew up on the shores of Mumbai, felt drawn to the ocean every day and decided to finally dive into that world and finally do something to save what we have in our waters. As I do believe in the scientific concept of One Ocean. It is very powerful, and we are all truly connected through water. 

I believe in change, and I am happy to make that change happen as I refuse to change my work and what I love to fit the norm. I am a marine conservation artist and I love what I do. My goal is to help our planet through my art and inspire women and others and be a role model to my global and local community through what I do and love as an Indian women and entrepreneur.” – Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee

8. Lack of Resources and Support

Artists from under resourced/represented communities may have limited access to resources, networks, and funding necessary for large-scale public art projects. Artists from under resourced or represented communities often face significant obstacles when it comes to accessing the necessary resources, networks, and funding for large-scale public art projects. This lack of support can put them at a disadvantage when competing with more established or well-supported artists.

Adequate funding is crucial for executing large-scale public art projects. However, artists from under resourced or represented communities may struggle to secure financial support due to limited access to grants, sponsorships, or philanthropic funding. These financial constraints can hinder their ability to bring their ambitious artistic visions to life and invest in the necessary materials, equipment, and professional services.

Access to quality education and professional development opportunities is vital for artists to enhance their skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, artists from under resourced or represented communities often face disparities in educational opportunities. They may have limited access to art schools, workshops, residencies, and specialized training programs. This lack of access can result in a lack of technical expertise or understanding of the administrative and logistical aspects of public art projects.

The underrepresentation of artists from under resourced or represented communities in the art world can be a major barrier to accessing resources and opportunities. Mainstream art institutions and galleries often fail to provide adequate representation and visibility for diverse voices. As a result, artists from these communities have limited exposure to potential commissioners and collaborators, diminishing their chances of being considered for public art projects.

Addressing the lack of resources and support for artists from under resourced or represented communities requires systemic changes that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, and access in the arts. This includes implementing dedicated funding programs, offering mentorship opportunities, providing educational support, and increasing the representation of these artists in decision-making processes. Building stronger networks and collaborations that bridge gaps between artists, institutions, and funding sources is crucial for empowering and supporting artists from under resourced or represented communities in their pursuit of public art projects.

“Re: public art and accessibility, I believe in the power and importance of emphasizing the intentional efforts of communities to amplify underrepresented voices.  Ear marking funding, identifying spaces that are “arts deserts”, and community engagement are all key in this model.  It all has to work in tandem between the intended audiences and the municipalities that control the finding and a lot of the opportunities for artists of color to create forwarding facing work AND for the communities that they represent to have work live in their spaces and neighborhoods.”

- Anthony Suber

 9. Cultural Appropriation

Artists from under resourced/represented communities may face challenges related to cultural appropriation, where their art and cultural heritage are co-opted without proper understanding or respect. In the world of civic art, artists from under resourced or represented communities often grapple with a significant challenge known as cultural appropriation. This occurs when aspects of their cultural heritage and art are adopted or borrowed without a genuine understanding, respect, or acknowledgment of their true significance.

Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of a minority culture are adopted without an understanding of their significance. This can lead to misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the cultural context, symbols, or traditions incorporated in the artwork. The original meaning and intent behind these elements may be distorted, resulting in a shallow or inaccurate portrayal of the culture.

Artists from under resourced or represented communities may find their cultural heritage exploited for commercial or aesthetic purposes without their consent or involvement. This devalues the cultural significance and integrity of their art, reducing it to mere trends or commodities. When cultural symbols or practices are appropriated without proper context or permission, it perpetuates stereotypes and undermines the authenticity of the original culture.

Cultural appropriation often occurs within a context of power dynamics, where dominant cultures appropriate elements of marginalized cultures. Artists from under resourced or represented communities face challenges navigating these power imbalances, as they may be pressured to conform to the expectations or preferences of the dominant culture, resulting in the erasure or suppression of their own artistic expressions.

Appropriation often leads to a lack of recognition and credit given to the original creators or communities. This further marginalizes artists from under resourced or represented communities, reinforcing the perception that their contributions are secondary or disposable. It also limits their opportunities to benefit financially or professionally from their cultural heritage and artistic practices.

Addressing cultural appropriation requires fostering cultural understanding, respect, and ethical practices within the art community. It involves engaging in dialogue, seeking informed consent and collaboration with communities whose cultural elements are being incorporated, and ensuring proper attribution and acknowledgment. By emphasizing cultural exchange rather than appropriation, we can create more equitable and respectful spaces for artists from under resourced or represented communities to share their art and cultural heritage. This approach fosters a richer and more inclusive artistic landscape, where diverse voices and perspectives can be celebrated and appreciated.

10.   Perceived Risk Aversion

Some commissioning bodies may be hesitant to take risks with artists from under resourced/represented communities, opting for more conventional or familiar choices.Some commissioning bodies may be hesitant to take risks with artists from under resourced/represented communities, opting for more conventional or familiar choices. This can limit opportunities for innovative and diverse artistic expressions in public spaces. Perceived risk aversion is a challenge that artists from under resourced/represented communities may encounter when it comes to civic art commissions.

Commissioning bodies may hesitate to take risks with artists from under resourced or represented communities. They may prefer familiar and conventional choices over exploring unfamiliar or innovative artistic expressions. This preference restricts opportunities for these artists to showcase their unique perspectives and creative approaches.

Artists from under resourced or represented communities bring fresh and diverse perspectives to their artwork. However, their underrepresentation in mainstream narratives and art histories leads to a perception that their work is riskier or less marketable. This perception discourages commissioning bodies from taking chances on artists who challenge the status quo.

Public art projects require significant financial investments. Commissioning bodies may prioritize financial stability and cost-effectiveness, favoring established artists over emerging ones from under resourced or represented communities. This unintentionally excludes artists with innovative ideas but limited resources or institutional support.

Commissioning bodies are influenced by public opinion and community expectations. Fear of backlash or controversy contributes to risk aversion. Artists from under resourced or represented communities who address sensitive social or political issues may be perceived as more likely to face criticism. This reluctance results in a lack of range and limited representation in public art projects.

Addressing perceived risk aversion involves promoting inclusivity, diversity, and innovation in civic art commissions. Commissioning bodies should adopt open-minded approaches, actively seeking out artists from diverse backgrounds and supporting their creative visions. Creating platforms for dialogue and understanding can dispel misconceptions and foster greater appreciation for the value and potential of diverse artistic expressions in public spaces.

“We have diversity requirements now but more importantly we need better outreach and education. We need workshops in underrepresented communities and best practices for artists interested in public art projects. The next equally important factor is mentorship programs. This kind of program ensures the message can spread and connected professionals can prepare the next generation about opportunities and navigational techniques to create on a substantial level.” – Robert Hodge

11. Inadequate Community Engagement

Public art projects often involve engaging with local communities. Artists from under resourced/represented communities may face challenges in effectively connecting with communities that have different cultural backgrounds or experiences, leading to potential communication barriers and a lack of meaningful engagement.

When artists from under resourced or represented communities work on public art projects, they often face a significant challenge: inadequate community engagement. This includes the following:

Artists may face difficulties connecting with communities that have different cultural backgrounds or speak different languages. This creates communication barriers that hinder meaningful interactions. To address this, promoting cultural understanding and utilizing translation services can bridge the gaps and foster inclusivity.

Communities may have limited experiences with artists from under resourced or represented communities in the public art realm, leading to skepticism or resistance. Building trust and representation involves proactive outreach, relationship-building with community leaders, and involving community members in decision-making processes.

Some community members may have limited knowledge of minority cultures or artistic practices, making it challenging for artists to communicate the significance of their work. Educational initiatives, workshops, and public discussions can help increase cultural awareness and understanding.

Inadequate community engagement may stem from power imbalances, where decision-making is controlled by dominant groups. Artists may struggle to have their voices heard and perspectives valued. Inclusive decision-making processes that empower community members are essential for addressing this issue.

Addressing inadequate community engagement requires proactive efforts such as cultural sensitivity training, community outreach programs, participatory workshops, and ongoing dialogue. By fostering open and inclusive spaces for community engagement, artists from under resourced or represented communities can better connect with diverse audiences and create art that reflects the collective experiences and aspirations of the community. 

“When we are discussing Houston public art in underrepresented communities, I believe that it is important to really really include the input of the community we are engaging in. We need to answer the questions like: “Who is making the art?” “What does the community want to see?”, etc. It is the responsibility of the institution to do the work with tapping into these communities to do the research, talk to a someone local, read the room, feel the vibes, and support public art that doesn’t feel alien to the place.” – Matt Manalo, Alief Art House

To expand and uplift a diverse range of artists, collectives, and associated service providers in the realm of civic art, while advancing a fair and inclusive environment, we require flexible and adaptable strategies that respond to the evolving needs of the community. This approach actively involves stakeholders and acknowledges that community needs may change over time, placing emphasis on collaboration, trust, and ongoing dialogue to address these dynamic aspirations. To effectively address the existing challenges, it is essential to uphold principles of equality, representation, and cultural competence throughout the selection and commissioning processes. By fostering equal opportunities, providing support for underrepresented artists, fostering genuine community collaborations, and promoting cultural sensitivity, we can dismantle systemic barriers and nurture an art world that thrives on a multitude of perspectives and artistic expressions.

Together, we possess the collective ability to cultivate an inclusive and equitable art ecosystem that embraces the wealth of diverse viewpoints, enriches the artistic landscape, and empowers every artist within our “world class, home grown” public art domain. The artist Lovie Olivia describes the impact overcoming these challenges in this way:

Over the past several years I have noticed the city's increase opportunities for BIPOC individuals as the arts community continues to grow and diversify. Artist living and working in the extremely ethnically diverse city of Houston, benefit from a long legacy of philanthropy, grant making, and fellowships combined with supportive non-profit and grass-roots initiatives that has created a historically unique art economy for Local underrepresented artists to thrive comfortably in lieu of having gallery representation or performance contracts.



The following artists I would like to highlight at the conclusion of this essay have made remarkable contributions to the civic and public art scene, leaving a lasting impact on Houston and beyond. Their practices have garnered recognition and acclaim, but the notion of "popularity" is subjective and can evolve over time. Within the vast field of civic and public art, numerous talented artists from underrepresented communities in Houston actively create impactful artworks. Emerging from under resourced backgrounds, these artists have overcome challenges and limited resources to create powerful, authentic, and resilient works. Their talent showcases the transformative power of art, breaking barriers and amplifying underrepresented voices. Recognizing and supporting these artists is essential as they bring fresh perspectives, enrich the cultural landscape, and share their unique narratives and creative visions.


  1. Robert Hodge: Robert Hodge is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice spans painting, collage, and installation. His works explore themes of identity, history, and social justice, often incorporating found materials and layering various visual elements to create complex narratives.
  2. Rick Lowe: Rick Lowe is a renowned artist and community organizer. He is best known for his work on Project Row Houses, a community-based art project in Houston's Third Ward. Lowe's approach combines art, education, and social activism to address issues of social and economic inequality.
  3. Trenton Doyle Hancock: Trenton Doyle Hancock is a multidisciplinary artist known for his vibrant and imaginative creations. His work often incorporates elements of comic book aesthetics, mythology, and personal narratives. Hancock explores themes of race, identity, and the battle between good and evil in his artworks.
  4. Jesse Lott: Jesse Lott is a sculptor and visual artist known for his assemblage artworks. He often incorporates found objects and recycled materials in his creations, transforming them into thought-provoking and visually compelling sculptures.
  5. Kaneem Smith: Kaneem Smith is a multidisciplinary artist whose works span painting, sculpture, and installation. Her art explores themes of identity, memory, and spirituality, often drawing inspiration from her African American heritage and the natural world.
  6. Floyd Newsum: Floyd Newsum is a painter and mixed-media artist whose works explore the complexities of African American experiences. His colorful and textured artworks combine various materials and techniques to create visually dynamic compositions.
  7. Jamal Cyrus: Jamal Cyrus is a Houston-based multidisciplinary artist whose practice encompasses various mediums, including sculpture, installation, photography, and sound. He explores themes of African American history, culture, and identity, often drawing inspiration from music, literature, and visual culture. Cyrus's works often challenge and disrupt established narratives, inviting viewers to engage in critical conversations about race, politics, and social justice.
  8. Lovie Olivia: Lovie Olivia is a visual artist specializing in painting and mixed media. Her artworks are characterized by vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and expressive brushwork. Olivia's work often explores themes of femininity, spirituality, and African American identity. She incorporates cultural symbols and references to create visually captivating and emotionally resonant artworks.
  9. Anthony Suber: Anthony Suber is an artist known for his captivating and thought-provoking sculptures. His work often explores themes of identity, spirituality, and cultural heritage. Through his artistic practice, Suber aims to challenge societal norms and spark conversations about race, history, and social justice. He has exhibited his sculptures in various galleries and art spaces, earning recognition for his unique artistic voice.
  10. Charisse Pearlina Weston: Charisse Pearlina Weston explores the delicate intimacies and reticent poetics of Black life through a deep material investigation of poetics and the autobiographical. With degrees from the University of North Texas, the University of Edinburgh's College of Art, and the University of Irvine, Weston's work has been exhibited at renowned venues like the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Bard College, Abrons Art Center, Project Row Houses, Recess, the Moody Center of the Arts at Rice University, and the upcoming Queens Museum. She has received awards from institutions such as the Artadia Fund for the Arts, the Dallas Museum of Art's Arch and Anne Giles Kimbrough Award, and the Graham Foundation. Weston has also been a fellow at the Dedalus Foundation and a Museum of Art and Design (MAD) Artist Fellow, as well as the recipient of MAD's 2021 Burke Prize.
  11. UXD/United By Design (Anthony Rose and Frank Nathan): UXD/United by Design is a collaborative artistic duo consisting of Anthony Rose and Frank Nathan. Together, they create visually striking and conceptually rich artworks that bridge the gap between art and design. Their collaborative practice explores themes of urban culture, identity, and social commentary. Through their combined talents and shared vision, United by Design produces compelling works that challenge conventional artistic boundaries.
  12. Kill Joy: Kill Joy is an artist whose work encompasses a variety of mediums, including graffiti, street art, and illustration. Known for their bold and vibrant style, Kill Joy's artworks often incorporate elements of pop culture, humor, and social critique. Their art can be found on walls, murals, and public spaces, bringing color and creativity to urban landscapes.
  13. Alief Art House (Matt Manolo): Matt Manolo is the founder and creative force behind Alief Art House, a community art space located in Houston, Texas. Alief Art House serves as a platform for emerging and established artists, providing a supportive environment for artistic expression and cultural exchange. Through exhibitions, workshops, and events, Alief Art House fosters creativity, collaboration, and community engagement.
  14. Israel McCloud: Israel McCloud is an artist whose practice spans various mediums, including painting, drawing, and sculpture. Their artworks often explore themes of identity, memory, and spirituality. McCloud's works are characterized by a distinctive blend of figurative and abstract elements, creating visually captivating compositions that invite viewers to contemplate deeper meanings.
  15. Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee: Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee is an artist whose work revolves around themes of nature, ecology, and sustainability. She creates intricate and detailed artworks using a combination of traditional and contemporary techniques. Folmsbee's art often incorporates elements of botanical illustration, scientific observation, and ecological narratives, reflecting her deep connection to the natural world.
  16. Regina Agu: Regina Agu is an interdisciplinary artist whose work encompasses photography, video, installation, and performance. Her art explores issues of place, memory, and collective histories. Agu often incorporates found objects and archival materials into her installations, creating immersive environments that evoke a sense of contemplation and reflection. Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally, contributing to ongoing conversations about social and cultural landscapes.
  17. Input/Output: Input/Output is an artistic collective or project that focuses on interactive and participatory art experiences. Their works often involve technology, audience engagement, and innovative use of multimedia. By incorporating elements of interactivity and collaboration, Input/Output seeks to blur the boundaries between the artist and the audience, creating immersive and engaging art encounters.
  18. Colby Deal: Colby Deal is a Houston-born photographic artist known for his exploration of the psychological and physical elements of his environment. With a focus on family, community, and individuality, he combines street photography and portraiture to capture vibrant communities. In recent years, Deal has expanded his practice to include sculpture and public art, aiming to preserve cultural characteristics at risk of being erased and positively impact his community. His passion for photography was inspired by his family's photographs, primarily taken by his father, which taught him to appreciate the present moment and embrace analog photography.
  19. Bennie Flores Ansell: Bennie Flores Ansell is an artist whose practice spans various mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation. Her works often delve into personal narratives, memory, and cultural identity. Ansell's art incorporates elements of storytelling, symbolism, and vibrant colors to create visually compelling and emotionally resonant artworks. She explores themes related to her Mexican-American heritage, feminism, and the complexities of belonging. Ansell's artworks have been exhibited in galleries and museums, and she is recognized for her contributions to the contemporary art scene.
  20. Nathaniel Donnett: Nathaniel Donnett is a multidisciplinary artist known for his powerful and socially engaged works. His practice encompasses various mediums, including sculpture, drawing, painting, and installation. Donnett's art explores themes of racial identity, social justice, and the African American experience. He often incorporates found objects, images, and text into his works, creating layered narratives that challenge dominant narratives and shed light on marginalized histories. Donnett's artworks have been exhibited in numerous galleries, museums, and art spaces, earning him critical acclaim for his poignant and thought-provoking contributions to contemporary art. His work addresses issues of systemic oppression, community empowerment, and the power of art as a catalyst for change.