Deep in the 'Art' of Downtown's Avenida Houston

Houston’s public art push brings even more flair to its Technicolor cityscape, from downtown to the outdoors and beyond.

In the newer Avenida district that links the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green park, a three-level center atrium features Ed Wilson’s “Soaring in the Clouds,” a 67-foot-tall mobile of clouds and birds made of perforated stainless steel. The metal birds and clouds move about with the airflow of the spacious building, and a spectacularly lit ceiling above them constantly draws visitors’ camera clicks.

Both “Soaring in the Clouds” and “Cloud Room Field,” an alluring work by Christian Eckart that features 600 double panes of glass at William P. Hobby Airport, serve as beacons to Houston visitors that indicate they’ve entered a city that’s rife with public art—from the interiors of the Brown Convention Center to the sprawling green spaces that are prevalent throughout the Bayou City.

Its status as a city that makes public art a priority has been a long time coming for Houston. Some of the city’s public artworks, such as the famed historic statue in Hermann Park that pays ode to the city’s namesake, Gen. Sam Houston, have been around awhile; that statue was unveiled at the 445-acre public park in 1925.

Borne out of an innovative, gourmet restaurant scene and a thriving arts community, Houston’s unofficial title as the “Culinary and Cultural Capital of the South” solidifies the city’s identity as a multicultural melting pot.

“Houston earned this recognition, in part, thanks to the diversity of the city,” says Leah Shah, public relations manager for the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “As one of—and, arguably, the most—ethnically diverse cities in the country, our diversity sprouts an immense array of culinary options and artistic expression.” 

Houston’s status as a city that truly cares about and admires art, perhaps as much as any other city in the country, gained much steam in 1999, when the city adopted an ordinance specifying that 1.75 percent of capital-improvement project funds be set aside for civic art. In 2017, as a result of that “percent-for-art” program, the Houston Arts Alliance was expected to dole out roughly $15.4 million to local agencies that support and promote the arts.

"Synchronicity of Color" is one of Discovery Green's most recognized public art pieces.

Another big push came in 2008 with the opening of Discovery Green across from downtown’s convention center. The 12-acre park—one of some 650 urban green spaces across the city—replaced two large parking lots that had become asphalt-and-concrete eyesores. Discovery Green became a catalyst for improvements to the convention center area, including the 2016 opening of the Avenida Houston district, to which the park is linked.

As the director of the Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees public art projects in conjunction with the arts alliance, Deborah McNulty says that, in addition to the city’s “percent-for-art” program, the efforts of other groups (including the University of Houston, Rice University and the Discovery Green Conservancy) have also contributed to the city’s vast array of art by way of donations and fundraising efforts. “Houston is full of arts enthusiasts,” says McNulty, “and many groups want an art component as part of their mission or project, so the activity is wide and diffuse.”

What to See 

One of the artistic expressions that grabs a good deal of Houston visitors’ attention is Discovery Green’s “Synchronicity of Color,” by Margo Sawyer. Added as a fixture of the downtown park when it opened in 2008, the Texas artist’s installment of some 1,400 red- and blue-themed aluminum boxes actually serves a twofold purpose: It also conceals concrete stairwells that lead into the Convention District parking garage beneath the park.

Jaume Plensa's “Tolerance,” a family of sculptures located at Montrose Boulevard and Allen Parkway along Buffalo Bayou, is another one of the city’s most well-known public artworks. What appear to be seven giant Buddha priests in meditation actually are 10-foot-tall, aluminum-framed human figures representing Earth’s seven continents. The Spanish sculptor’s shapes are meant to celebrate diversity and are composed of stainless-steel alphabet letters from many languages. They’re lovely in the daytime—but even more spectacular when they’re lit up at night.

Donald Lipski’s “Down Periscope,” located within the Waterworks at Buffalo Bayou Park, lies beneath the bayou in an abandoned city cistern that’s larger than a football field. Can’t see through the ground? No problem: Grab the artist’s digital-scope creation, which allows viewers to scan throughout the cavernous cistern. Visitors will hear sounds that echo off its walls and 25-foot-tall concrete columns—as if one is physically surfing the Acropolis back in its heyday.

Buffalo Bayou Cistern

“Personage and Birds,” by Joan Miró, at JP Morgan Chase Tower has also become a colorful fixture of downtown. This Spanish master, who became known as “the most surreal of all the surrealists,” cast his influence on the Bayou City by creating the largest Miró sculpture ever commissioned. The 35-foot steel and cast-bronze “Personage” portrays a woman with a crown of birds circling her head; the sculpture has remained a familiar downtown work since 1970.

Several tourism services offer in-depth tours of Houston’s public art, such as those offered by The Houston Wave, which transports visitors across the city aboard smaller buses known as jitneys. Lauren Barrash, owner of The Wave, says the tours often include sculptures that line Buffalo Bayou Park. Among the various points of interest is Henry Moore’s “Large Spindle Piece,” a 12-foot bronze sculpture inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting in which God’s hand reaches toward Adam’s finger. Wave tour groups also frequently stop at Smither Park, which is home to permanent folk-art installations for which Houston also is known, including The Orange Show and the legendary Beer Can House.

Discovery Green Houston Art

“There are so many amazing public art pieces in Houston now,” says Barrash, adding that Wave tours also highlight newer forms of artistic expression, such as street art, which “is growing and somewhat controversial still.” Some tourists are hesitant to recognize street art and graffiti as a true art form, she says, but “it’s becoming more widely accepted.”

“These artists have a culture of their own,” says Barrash, noting that Houston now hosts an annual global festival that pays tribute to street art and also has a new downtown museum that’s dedicated to the art form. The Graffiti and Street Art Museum of Texas is a project founded by Houston native and street artist GONZO247, whose colorful murals are among the most recognizable in the city.

Jay Bemis
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