As the CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), Jonathan Glus oversees an organization that supports and promotes the arts in Houston through a wide array of programs, alliances and initiatives. That means helping create and foster community conversations through performances, talks, grants and more. Still, when he talks about the role of art in a public setting, Glus becomes animated and it’s easy to tell this is not just a job for him, but a passion.
The Houston Arts Alliance began in 2006 during Houston Mayor Bill White’s administration as a catalyst and advocate for the arts in Houston. It manages the city’s art collection, which boasts about 400 pieces, and commissions new public art for the city. Using city revenue from the Hotel Occupancy Tax, HAA also distributes more than 250 grants annually to individual artists and art organizations.
To Glus, it’s clear that the arts play a crucial role in the life of a city. They’re an important component of tourism and help attract a high-quality workforce, he said. The arts themselves are also a business sector, so fostering the arts by extension means creating jobs and services around that sector.
“That’s the economic reason,” Glus said about art’s importance to civic space. “But the real reason is that the arts are the soul of any community, and we all know that consciously as well as viscerally. We travel across the planet to see art in different cities, especially if you think not just of performing and visual arts, but fields like architecture and urban design…that’s what makes the heart and soul of cities, that’s why we go to cities, and it’s why we decide to stay.”
Houston stands out in the arts in a few ways, he continued. It has a huge grassroots arts community that includes many working artists who came to study and elected to stay. The city is also well known for its big institutions, from the world-renowned Houston Grand Opera to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
What many art lovers might not know, though, is how much diversity Houston’s arts represent.
“People interested in the visual arts are aware of the Menil Collection, but most people don’t know the largest collection of African American artwork in the country is at the Museum of Fine Arts, and DiverseWorks is one of the oldest alternative art spaces in the country” Glus said. “And there are extraordinary private collections here as well. It’s relatively easy to experience a broad cross section of the arts living here.”
One of HAA’s newer programs, the Folklife & Traditional Arts Program, helps highlight how global Houston’s communities are. Glus recalled being at one of that program’s presentations, on the history of clothing among three African communities. Representatives from the three countries were presenting on the topic, and they were very excited to talk not only with the audience, but with each other about their cultures through fashion. Seeing the presenters, all part of Houston’s diverse global community, connect culturally through the conversation was wonderful, he said.
Glus got an introduction to art through his parents and early environment. Free public performances were part of his childhood, and he could come and go as he wanted. Instead of being dragged to the opera, he was free to explore the performances at his own pace. Glus recalled that his mother also filled their home with artwork borrowed from the public library, so that the house was what he called an education zone through paintings. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his two lifelong loves have been cities and the arts.
“The reason I do work like this is, I realize as an adult, the way I experienced arts in a public, democratic way,” he said. “I want everyone to have that.”
HAA is helping make that goal come true, Glus continued. As HAA is the city’s agency to advance change through the arts, its agenda doesn’t really belong to the organization—it’s created by the community. HAA has the opportunity to be catalytic, but it’s based on what the community asks it to do.
Glus said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the alliances HAA has forged with such community partners as Houston’s universities. Another pleasant surprise has been that the city’s elected leadership has remained committed to supporting the arts, even during the economic downturn.
“My colleagues across the country haven’t been able to say that,” he noted.