Doing it for themselves
Texans have always been an independent bunch, and private individuals are funding a cultural boom
By Erica Grieder. Focus, Issue 251, November 2013
Published online: 14 November 2013
The arts in Texas are better than you might expect. Assuming, of course, you weren’t expecting much. The state’s cultural scene has developed later than in other major American centres but Texas and its neighbours, Oklahoma and Arkansas, have experienced tremendous growth, and mainly within the past 50 years. No other part of the country has experienced an equivalent cultural boom, especially one largely funded and led by private individuals.
Texas is home to some of the best museums in America and to some of the country’s wealthiest patrons, who tend to exert an inordinate influence on the culture around them. This is in keeping with the politics of the state. Texans are as wary of big government as they are receptive to big business, and this is reflected in the arts, where a scrawny public sector is buoyed by a robust private one. Individuals determine how to spend their money, not the government.
This long-standing streak of independence borders on libertarianism and is the result of a history of conflict with various governments. The first European settlers in Texas were the Spanish conquistadores, who arrived in the early 16th century. Only after the French announced a colony in the 1680s did the Spanish feel moved to assert control by establishing a series of missions. After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the land became part of its northern frontier, but Mexico scarcely had more control of the remote and rugged territory than anyone else.
The Mexican authorities encouraged immigration from the US, and soon more settlers lived in the area than Mexicans. In 1836, they declared their independence and, within two months, had won a revolution to that effect. Ten years later, the US grudgingly agreed to annex Texas, which had been scraping by as a republic. Then, in 1861, when the North and South divided over the issue of slavery, Texas seceded from the Union and signed up with the Confederacy. It was readmitted to the Union in 1870, after the Civil War, but suffered penalties for bad behaviour. Politicians who had held office during the Civil War were thrown out and replaced with those more sympathetic to the Union, who quickly passed a new Texas constitution that established a strong state government with far-reaching powers.
In 1876, conservatives had won back enough seats to adopt a state constitution designed to limit the power of the state government forever. By the beginning of the 20th century, Texas had become what it roughly remains today: a place where people are used to doing what they want. Distrust of the federal government has persisted: Texans don’t expect much help, and the government is only likely to rouse itself on behalf of the business community, since business creates jobs.
This has served the art world well. If you want to create culture, the state won’t really help—but it won’t stop you, either. Private citizens have built much of the arts infrastructure in Texas, or at least led the fundraising efforts to do. The French couple John and Dominique de Menil, for example, moved to Houston for the same reason that most people arrive in Texas—to work. Their philanthropy came later. The couple realised that if they wanted to see art, they would have to stage it. This hands-on approach has shaped the state’s cultural hubs, including Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, and continues to do so today.
Officially, the arts are not a high priority. The state sees arts and culture in broad terms, covering everything from zoos and historical sites to drive-in movie theatres and museums. The Texas Commission on the Arts, a state agency that awards grants, had an operating budget of around $3.5m in 2012, two-thirds of which came from the state (the rest comes from the federal government, via the National Endowment for the Arts, and private donors). This was a steep drop from its 2011 budget of more than $8.2m: the state’s governor, Rick Perry, slashed funding to plug a $27bn state budget shortfall. Perry is due to step down next year, but the frontrunners to replace him are no more likely to funnel money into the arts.
Typically of Texas, most supporters of the arts make the case for business benefits: Texas should fund the arts because it would see a good return on investment. In the Austin Chronicle in 2011, Robert Faires wrote: “Newsflash, governor: the arts and other creative industries provide real jobs for Texans—almost 700,000 as of 2009—and they’ve been adding jobs at a rate of more than 20% for seven years now.” Beyond that, he continued, recent economic-impact studies had found that the arts generate around $4.5bn a year in economic activity in Texas. Such money-minded mentality is common and it serves this state, where work is an aspirational ideal, well enough.
The writer is a senior editor at the Texas Monthly and the author of Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas
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