An unlikely alliance in Houston: art and oil

Photo by Randall Pugh

In Houston, the oil and gas industry seeps into nearly every aspect of life. And though it may make for strange bedfellows, the city’s vibrant arts scene is no exception.

Take last spring’s CounterCurrent Festival. The high-profile citywide event exposed Houstonians to new forms of experimental art. It also highlighted the often unspoken relationship between art, arts funding and energy companies in Houston.

The festival’s host institution, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, was created with a gift from George Mitchell, the Texas businessman known for developing modern hydraulic fracturing.

The Mitchell Center, however, is just one of many Houston arts institutions established with energy dollars. The Menil Collection, for example, was founded by Dominique de Menil, the philanthropist who was also a Schlumberger oil heiress. Donor recognition boards across the city cite energy companies like ExxonMobil and Shell as hefty contributors. In fact, about 40 percent of the corporations in Houston that support performing arts are oil and gas companies.

In other words, energy companies have long been essential supporters of the arts in our city. But spurred by the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and concerns over its environmental impacts, this unorthodox alliance between art and oil has recently raised an important question in our community: Should artists refuse dollars from oil and gas companies because of perceived ethical conflicts? 

Joining environmental activists and organizations across the nation that have sounded the alarm over fracking, groups like Artists Against Fracking — founded by Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon to protest drilling in New York state — have also formed in recent years.

In Houston, artists who participated in this year’s CounterCurrent Festival said — across the board — that the relationship between arts funding and energy companies was complicated. And this attitude is pervasive throughout the city. Although Houstonians have benefited economically from new advances in oil and gas technology, there is still an understanding that these advancements will have significant impacts on people around the world.

These concerns are legitimate. Because a consensus on fracking’s environmental impact has yet to be established, it’s not surprising that water consumers in shale play regions, for instance, are concerned about drilling. Moreover, media coverage of fracking has been more sensational than scientific, leaving the public more afraid and less educated.

But here’s the reality: While findings remain inconclusive or caught up in regulatory agencies or courts, the arts community in the country’s fourth-largest city cannot simply cut ties to a major source of funding while awaiting results that will continue to evolve in the future.

Festivals like CounterCurrent show us why. As Abinadi Meza, a University of Houston art professor and a winner of the 2014 Rome Prize, said, “Artists are not obliged to non-criticism if they accept money from a source that is ‘in question.’ That should ultimately be an understanding to be negotiated between the patron, the artist and the public.” I agree.

Houston has a booming and diverse economy. For those of us who live here and are impacted by the energy industry, fracking — and the uncertainty and controversy surrounding it — will remain on our minds as more information about the practice becomes available in the future. However, oil and gas dollars will continue to make art possible in Houston, and I, for one, am thankful.

With those financial resources, our artists are able to impact the world. Through their work, they have the opportunity to be advocates and demand the highest levels of environmental stewardship from community and industry leaders. And they can do it using whatever dollars they choose.

Disclosure: The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

J.J. Harris

Houston artist and writer