Reimagining Public Funding to Reflect America’s Most Diverse City

Necole S. Irvin and Deidre Thomas

Setting the Stage

With a population of over 2.3 million and one-in-four residents being foreign-born, Houston is the most ethnically diverse metro area in the nation. The city’s arts programs and cultural offerings are robust in number and breadth, and its vibrancy unfolds along the numerous bayous and highways. Most years see 11 to 16 million visitors traveling to the city for arts and cultural events. Houston’s nonprofit arts and culture sector, a $1.1 billion industry, employs more than 25,000 people.

Historically the City of Houston has been committed to strong support of the arts, but structural flaws in its grants processes and community positioning resulted in years of funding marked by ambiguity and underrepresentation of BIPOC communities and emerging programs. A new era of public funding for the arts was ushered in by Houston’s adoption of the City’s Arts & Cultural Plan in 2015 and the election of Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016.

The Arts & Cultural Plan set a vision to foster an environment in which the city’s art and culture flourishes for the sharing and benefit of everyone. Key recommendations called for grants to be more inclusive, accessible, and reflective of the city’s diverse artist community. The grant program reconstruction was spearheaded by us, Necole Irvin and Deidre Thomas, two Black women united in their dedication to revamping the existing system through summoning political will and engaging stakeholders from across the community. In this case study, we detail the development of Houston’s remarkable public-private partnership that distributes $12 million annually to over 300 local artists and arts organizations, a collaboration poised to bolster the city’s vibrant art community for years to come.

Figure 1. How the arts, culture, and radical imagination enable emergence and support transformational learning.

Necole S. Irvin and Deidre Thomas, in one of Houston’s seven state-designated cultural districts, Arts District Houston. Mural by local artist Jasmine Zelaya. Photo courtesy of the authors.

City of Houston and the Arts

The City of Houston, specifically the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA), employs a number of strategies to invest in arts and culture for the benefit of the City’s residents and to attract visitors. One of these strategies is funding the work of artists and organizations through the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT). For decades city leadership has dedicated the maximum percentage of HOT allowed by Texas law (19.3%) to the arts.

In 2016, HOT dollars were contracted to four legacy partners: Theatre District, Museum District, Miller Outdoor Theater, and Houston Arts Alliance (HAA). The four contractors in turn would distribute funds to organizations vetted through diverging processes. Though the partners have for years contributed to the city’s reputation as an arts and cultural beacon and produced cutting edge works that reflect the diversity of Houston, their methods for distributing HOT funds reinforced inequities between large and small organizations. The system did not reflect Houston’s increasingly international population, the exponential growth of arts and cultural nonprofits, or the city’s culturally diverse art offerings.

A culture of confusion around the City’s funding of the arts permeated Houston’s cultural landscape, further eroding trust in its fairness and dominating the cultural planning process. In the context of Houston’s vigorous philanthropic ethos — Houston is consistently ranked as one of the country’s top cities in terms of total philanthropic assets and percentage of income given to charity — the City’s funding of the arts while more equitable than private philanthropy was cloaked in hazy information around processes and funding structures, under-recognized, and in need of reform. Houston Arts Alliance, the local arts agency, was also suffering from severe stakeholder critique.

Time for Change: The City Arts & Cultural Plan

In 2014, The City of Houston embarked on an 18-month endeavor to develop the City’s Arts & Cultural Plan, an initiative which focused on making public arts funding more accessible, transparent, and equitable. The effort involved looking at local data and listening to community residents, artists, arts and cultural groups, a community advisory committee, City staff, elected officials, civic leaders, and industry experts. Hundreds of individuals contributed to the Plan through meetings, interviews, and events, and thousands more accessed the project online. By the end of 2015, Houston’s City Council adopted the Plan, which identified community concerns, set a vision for the future, and recommended actions to achieve long-term priorities.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a long-time state legislator dedicated to the arts, with a track record of securing funding for cultural districts, took office in early 2016 and signaled his support by installing the Plan’s chief architect, Debbie McNulty, as the director of MOCA. Over the next four years with Necole as the steward, the City of Houston and HAA put the City’s Arts & Cultural Plan in motion. The process required a significant investment from both partners, as well as the involvement of an external consultant. MOCA dedicated over 5,000 hours of staff time and HAA underwent extensive organizational restructuring. Together, both organizations conducted internal and external listening sessions, community meetings, interviews, and work sessions with grantees, artists, organizational leaders, public and private funders, staff, and Board members. The sessions were designed to engage the community in a dialogue focusing on the grantmaking functions of HAA.

Internally, HAA Board members and staff took an in-depth look at the grants system — the mechanics, internal processes, external relationships, communication, outreach, support/technical assistance, and application and decision-making processes. With the goal of transparency in mind, reporting processes were clarified, communication through social media and press releases was enhanced, and details around fund distribution were widely released.

Three specific objectives were particularly important to ensure that the City’s Arts & Cultural Plan’s and HAA’s priorities were fully realized.

  • Dismantling Ivory Tower Perceptions: Starting in 2018, in a departure from HAA’s traditional approach of hosting a handful of workshops at its central Houston office, Deidre led an initiative to hit the road, bringing workshops to neighborhoods across Houston’s 655 square miles. Less formal gatherings in culturally familiar settings deepened relationships with community members and increased opportunity awareness. The applicant and panelist pools have, as a result, begun to reflect the vibrant cultural patchwork of Houston. There has been a net increase in new applicants submitting and successfully receiving grant awards across five major grant categories. In the last three years, in three of those categories (which represented 72% of the funding distributed), approximately 32% of grants were awarded to first-time applicants.
  • Transforming Gatekeeper Culture: Arts funders have a long history of gatekeeping that undermines the fair and equitable assessment of perspectives from ethnic, racial, and non-Western populations. Gatekeeping has taken many forms through the years, including favoring European art forms, aesthetics, and structures; perceiving BIPOC artists and organizations as more of an investment risk; and possessing the unspoken expectation for artists of color to make work about their ethnicity, race, and heritage. Funding outcomes have often excluded local traditions, arts, and cultural activities outside the realm of traditional museums, performance halls, and programs that primarily feature white artists.

HAA’s improved evaluation process began with an intentional overhaul of the panelist process. The goal was to better integrate relevant expertise and diverse perspectives, and to confront inherent individual bias. HAA brought individual artists into the review process for organizations, inviting every artist applicant to also consider panel service and ensuring a culturally competent panel selection process.

Panelists are now increasingly reflective of Houston’s dynamic population. In the 2019 grant cycle, 78% of panelists represented BIPOC communities with a range of expertise and perspectives. In the same year, more than 50% of the recipient pool reported a primary constituency of a BIPOC community. There has been a direct correlation of who is receiving grant opportunities and who are evaluators from the field and community. There is continued education of panelists against biases and assumptions pertaining to race, culture and aesthetics.

  • Prioritizing Geographic Equity: An integral part of the City’s Arts & Cultural Plan was to disperse funds to art entities across Houston, easily accessed by residents in a variety of neighborhoods. HAA created a new mechanism to evaluate the geographic distribution of public dollars and prioritize geographic equity. Applicants report the zip codes where their proposed programs will take place. After reviewing applicant data, applications serving areas with fewer proposed arts activities are weighted. As a result, City resources are finding their way into communities that historically have not been funded. Geographic data reported by applicants has also served as a guide in expanding outreach to ensure that funding continues to flow into underrepresented areas of Houston.
  • Reducing Complexity and Perceived and Real Barriers: Over the last few years, grants processes have been made less onerous for applicants. The first step was to evaluate the language choices, word counts, work samples, grants platform, number of questions in an application, and types of questions in the applications. A review of years of unsuccessful and successful submissions, panelists’ comments, scores led to a better understanding of how to begin asking clearer questions to get more responsive answers. There was also a review of what the appropriate workflow is for an application and how much time it takes for someone to complete the application. Through these learnings, several specific steps have been taken to reduce complexity and barriers. HAA built a more comprehensive grant management system that separates application questions from collected identity and demographic data. This helped to understand outcomes from inequity perspective while shielding the information from panelists. The new applications questions were supported with examples and guiding prompts to help the applicants build a fuller narrative around their work and programming. Previous applications also created specific parameters on what an emerging vs. established artist is by defining years of practice. Through the evaluation, it became clear that time is not an absolute indicator of success and by asking artists to submit to one of these labels, it created a bias in the evaluation process. Instead, a new question gives artists space to make a statement about their work to distinguish their strengths. Deidre worked in close partnership with SMU DataArts to create greater integration with other application components. Using this system created adequate parity in the assessment of financials across organizations and provided one efficient way for an organization to communicate their financials. These are the types of small but significant adjustments that make the difference in an applicant’s trajectory.

The multi-year process of overhauling MOCA’s arts funding process through HAA to build a more equitable, inclusive, and transparent system has been difficult, yet rewarding work. With a new, more fair and equitable grants system at HAA, the next step was to make full use of it by migrating all grant seekers under a unified system. The City determined that HAA would be its principal partner and sole grantmaking arm and a new longer term contract crafted by Necole was executed in 2019.

The City of Houston is deeply invested in fostering an environment in which art and culture can flourish for the benefit of all residents and visitors. Streamlining the grants process through HAA enhances the organization’s ability to provide technical assistance and support to artists and qualified emerging, minority, and mid-sized cultural arts organizations and to expand the arts landscape through the development of new initiatives across all disciplines.

The Impact of Covid-19

Natural disasters — and on a greater scale — the current global pandemic reveal the vulnerability and possibility of depressed public funding. Throughout the months of the Covid-19 pandemic, HAA’s grant processes continued, and valuable lessons were learned about the importance of ongoing communication with stakeholders, especially those new to public funding. To support to the community, HAA offered virtual town halls and artists liaisons, and MOCA approved flexibility to redesign projects as needed. A micro-grant program was transitioned to a new rapid response grant to focus solely on virtual offerings, and raised funds for artist relief grants. The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs secured $5 million of federal CARES funding from the City of Houston allocation that was distributed in two grant relief programs of $2 million (HAA) and $3 million (Mid-America Arts Alliance).


From 2014 until 2019 a foundation for a more inclusive grants program was built without knowing we would be facing some of the most challenging years in the history of our city and country. The tangible accomplishments of the remarkable partnership between the City of Houston and HAA — a streamlined grants process through a single organization, a transparent application process adjudicated by an intentionally diverse peer review panel, and improved promotion of grantees to name a few — cannot be understated. Just as important, however, is the advancement of the partnership’s worthy priorities on a city-wide level.

The events of 2020 — the uncertainty, the civil unrest, the calls for equity, the drastic economic impact felt by the arts and cultural sector — have only affirmed the importance of the City Arts & Cultural Plan and its defining values: equity, inclusion, and transparency. In the coming months and years, we aim to strengthen our commitment to these values by co-creating enhanced processes and working to improve accountability practices alongside artists and other community members.