The year was 1969. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon, a gallon of gas was 35 cents and the Beatles released “Abbey Road,” their final album together. At the University of Houston, history was also being made. It was the year UH became the first university in Texas to create a public art collection.

A Dedication to Art

You know the adage: “If you build it, they will come.” The idea didn’t come from a voice in a cornfield, but rather UH’s commitment to art — it was the perfect seed to plant a field of dreams.

In the mid 1960s, the University was undergoing an unprecedented building boom. In September 1966, the UH System Board of Regents and then-president Philip Hoffman voted to establish a policy that would dedicate 1 percent of the construction cost of all future building projects for works of art. This commitment created a new state standard, and in 1969 the Texas Legislature passed the “Percent For Art” program for all public universities in the state.

From left to right: “Landscape With Blue Trees” by Jim Love, “Origin” by Brian Tolle, “A, Comma, A” by Jim Sanborn, “A Moment in Time” by Alyson Shotz, “Tower of the Cheyenne” by Peter Forakis and “Flow” Kendall Buster

Today, the presence of world-class works of art inject color and creativity at all of the UH System universities. And now more than ever, groups of both novices and aficionados are still coming – embarking on tours of these campus treasures.

“Our Public Art Collection has been a hidden gem in Houston for too long, and it’s time our community and city understand what we have here,” said Mike Guidry, curator of Public Art of the University of Houston System.

Last fall, the UH System embarked on a series of outdoor public art tours. The lunch-hour art walks are scheduled for the first Friday of each month and visitors can learn the unique story of each piece and the artist who created it. From Carlos Cruz-Diez’s sculpture “Double Physichromie” to Luis Jimenez’s “Fiesta Dancers,” there is plenty to see.

Orbit I

Feeling inspired by Houston’s role in the space race, the first works in the collection were “Orbit I,” in the lobby of the Science & Research Building 1 and “Orbit II,” at Krost Hall in the UH Law Center. The renowned artist, Masaru Takiguchi, taught art at UH from 1969-1970. As the University grew over the decades to support the students and community, so did the public art collection. With nearly 600 works, the UH System has one of the most impressive university art collections in the country.

Frank Stella 20TH Anniversary Celebration of “Euphonia”

Detail of “Euphonia” by Frank Stella covers the ceiling of the Moores Opera House lobby.

“Euphonia”, the largest installation of this collection, is marking its 20th anniversary this year. The massive Frank Stella mural spans the 100-foot-long barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Moores Opera House lobby, a large-scale triptych on the mezzanine level and the catwalk inside the opera house.

Frank Stella
Frank Stella

Stella recently returned to UH to celebrate the milestone. He reconnected with members of Houston’s art community and some of the artists who worked on the mural. They reminisced about the creation of textures and color mixing, a process he likened to an orchestration.

“I’d like to think I just wrote the score, and I think there were communal conductors. It was nice because everybody helped each other out in a way and were able to function quite well from one part of the studio to the other,” Stella said.

Susana Monteverde, owner of Houston-based SuMo Art, specializing in art education, was among the crew of those young, up and coming artists- eager to work on a project of this scale. She says Stella would stop in every so often to see their progress.

Monteverde recalled, “When he would check in, there was excitement because he was present, because he's a rock star in the art world. But he was so unassuming. He would say, ‘okay, okay, let's keep moving, let's keep working,’ or ‘I'm just doing what I do’, so that was lovely.”

Caring for the Collection

"Physichromie" by Carlos Cruz-Diez

Managing an art collection of this size and caliber is an onerous endeavor.

UH System Chancellor Renu Khator has charged the UHS Public Art Committee with putting the “public” back into public art, and an effort is underway to make the UH System a top arts destination.

Making decisions about commissions, conservation, stewardship and policy, programming and promotion of the collection is a committee made up of UH System faculty, staff and regents, local museum curators, a collection artist, and community representatives.

Cleaning and restoration of “Physichromie” by Carlos Cruz-Diez is an intricate process.
Cleaning and restoration of “Physichromie” by Carlos Cruz-Diez is an intricate process.

"The most important role of the committee is to ensure collection artworks are woven into the fabric of the physical spaces of the UHS and they represent each university's characteristics and aspirations,” said Beth Madison, member of the UH System Board of Regents and public art committee.

Because of the financial commitment and the significance of the collection, the process of commissioning works can take years to complete. From selection of an artist to completion of the project, there is much for the committee to consider. But for the artist, the opportunity to be commissioned by a major university can be life changing.

“It’s an amazing honor to be in this collection,” said Margo Sawyer, a Texas artist who is in the process of creating a hanging glass sculpture that will be installed at the University of Houston-Victoria. “In terms of UH’s leadership in public art within America and the universities, it’s sort of like the Holy Grail.”