Art of the State
Retiring director Rick Hernandez reflects on three decades with the Texas Commission on the Arts
When Ricardo Hernandez started working with the Texas Commission on the Arts, Dolph Briscoe was in the governor's office, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and Elvis was still in Graceland. At that time, the agency approached him to serve as an artist in residence for a juvenile lockup in the Gatesville State School for Boys "They'd heard about me because I had worked in this federal prison in El Paso, so they came looking for me" and he accepted, thinking it would be a one-time gig. But that job led to others, which led to a staff job, which started him up the administrative ladder at the Texas Commission on the Arts: visual-arts coordinator in 1983, director of field services in 1986, deputy director in 1988, and, finally, executive director in 2002. On Aug. 31, Hernandez retires from that position and takes his leave of the agency to which he's given three decades. But before his departure, he gave some time to the Chronicle to discuss 30 years of nurturing the art of the state in Texas.
Austin Chronicle: Do you recall any particular impressions of the TCA when you started?
Rick Hernandez: Well, yeah, it was pretty much an ivory tower. While it had a statewide mandate, it really was about a few organizations in a few cities in Texas larger cities, larger-budgeted organizations. But it had this federal money that had come out of the Department of Education, and because its intent was to help schools that were under court order to desegregate, it was the mainstay of their accessibility programs at the time. It was really quite a different organization than it is today.
AC: When did it evolve into the TCA that we know today?
RH: That started in the early Eighties with the hiring of Richard Huff [as executive director]. When I think about my leaving, it's the end of an era with three guys myself, John Paul Batiste, and Richard who were all vested in notions in serving the whole of the state and all the people of the state. Richard was very much that. He was the guy back in the early Seventies who started most of the work that TCA did with the arts councils. That was one of the few ways that TCA was working with people outside of those major cities.
AC: Was there resistance to this shift away from the major cities?
RH: Sure. Absolutely, because it was all about dollars, you know? There was a great deal of resistance, but there was also a great outcry from both minority communities and rural communities, who were wanting their part of the pie and were working together as a political force to change the agency. Rural legislators and minority legislators might not have had any other point of mutual agreement, but when it came to TCA funding, they were very much in agreement that it needed to be broadened. Throughout the Eighties, we went through a struggle a different kind of culture war, if you will.
AC: Were there certain legislators whom you counted as allies in that time?
RH: Back then there were a bunch of them. The guy who actually made it into law when it was all said and done was Frank Tejeda. He was a senator who authored the bill that became our equity mandate. And our foe at that moment, the guy who was really against this to begin with, turned around because he took it upon himself to go out and do statewide meetings and find out what TCA really did. He was a state rep named Ralph Wallace. He decided that if we were suggesting that TCA really did affect the state, he was going to go out and find out about it. And he found out that what we had been saying was true. He changed his tune in the end.
AC: Were he and Tejeda able to make converts of the rest of the legislators?
RH: I think so. In the mid-Eighties, we probably did better in the legislative process than we'd ever done. We had resources that are equal to what we have today and a little greater, to some degree. During the sesquicentennial years, we were given a pretty substantial increase in the bottom line of appropriations. All of a sudden, we weren't doing battle with rural legislators and minority legislators, because they thought we were making a genuine effort to make ourselves accessible.
AC: After that, did you lose some ground?
RH: Oh yeah, and it was absolutely related to the economy. Throughout our history, we have been affected pretty significantly in that manner, more so than because people don't believe in public funding for the arts. There's always going to be a core that doesn't believe there should be public funding for the arts, but most of what I've seen has been about other issues. And the bottom dropping out of the state economy twice or three times in the last 20 years is fairly significant.
AC: Are we ever going to escape that trap?
RH: The promise of that was in the Texas Cultural Endowment Fund, which was never realized in the way it was supposed to be. The endowment is still there. It's healthy. You know, it doesn't get the state revenue it used to get, but if we can move back in that direction, it won't take much to get to a place where the endowment really works for it. During the legislative session, when we were having the conversation about whether the TCA would be transferred into the governor's office, one of the things we talked about was if we could get the endowment to $50 million, then the agency could operate at least at status quo off the endowment.
But now, it's going to have to be a public-private partnership. So the challenge to the commission is not whether or not it can affect the Legislature exclusively; it's whether or not it can affect the Legislature and private-sector donors. TCA is not the only agency that's required to go out and raise its own money. Many are, and I think the whole idea of having to get into partnerships with the private sector is going to change the complexion of funding, because with every partnership there will be a restricted dollar. We'll still be able to affect the same kinds of things that we have in the past, but it'll be with less discretion.
AC: What kind of progress have you seen Texas make in terms of diversity of culture?
RH: The cultural development that's happened in this state during my tenure at TCA and not just as director but the whole of my tenure has been phenomenal. It doesn't matter where you go in the state; you're going to find, if not full complements of cultural activities, some healthy cultural activities, a lot of capital development, and programmatic development in a way that I don't think we could have even imagined 30 years ago. Whether you're in San Angelo or Dumas, it doesn't matter. There's something going on. And things of consequence, you know? Before all this development, the conversation used to be, "Well, we just need 'em to come to Dallas, Houston, and the like or send some of our programs out to them." But people are doing very high-quality programs all over this state that are pretty important to those communities, to some degree because they're being done locally and they really reflect the values of particular communities but [also because] they're putting artists to work and building cultural facilities and building audiences and doing all the right stuff.
AC: Do you have a favorite success story?
RH: [Laughs] God, I have so many of them. Because they can be big or small. I love to tell people about sitting in the newly renovated quartermaster's building at old Fort Concho with a woman named Katie Johnson, and she's telling me that now that they've renovated this building, they're ready to hire their first director, and I needed to visit with her and help write this grant. And then they hired Howard Taylor, who changed the face of San Angelo from a cultural perspective. Built the most expensive museum in the state of Texas until the new Modern [Art Museum of Fort Worth] was built. Got a double-page feature in The New York Times the day the museum was opened. Raised most of the money from out of state. To me, that's a pretty big success story, you know?
But there are tons of them. We do a whole lot more than give money away. We do a lot of hand-holding, technical assistance, and a lot of cultural development. And whether it's us doing it firsthand, or we visit with somebody and help them get a consultant, or we turn them on to the right consultant or right resources, it's pretty amazing. I have journals full of stories of little things that became big things for people, in the context of their lives and their communities. When people ask me what I'm going to miss the most, it's those letters and phone calls saying thank you. "This little investment was of great consequence. It changed my life."
AC: What are the big challenges you see facing the state in terms of the arts right now?
RH: They're basically the same. It's about resource development and all of the competing sectors. I'll liken it to that assumption that as soon as the budget gets low, the first thing to go is the arts, especially in education. There are reasons for that that are not necessarily about money. They're about issues of priority and what people determine will be their priority based on what discretion they have. I use the school example because, on the one hand, we as a state create a great number of curriculum directives, things you must do and teach for students in schools, and then, on the other, we embrace the notion of testing and create an environment in which the only thing you can do is study for the tests. And in the same moment we're passing those kinds of rules and regulations, we have local discretion: "We want you to do this, but you can really spend the money any way you want." I think it creates a conundrum that allows people to make priority decisions that aren't necessarily in the best interest of everyone. I came into this thing working with kids that were incarcerated, and one of the things that I learned right off the bat that I didn't learn anywhere else was that the kids that we had sitting in those lockups were for the most part associative learners, people who don't function well in a cognitive environment, and every time we take away the opportunity to go to shop or art class, we take away part of their learning opportunity, so they'll never succeed. They're destined to fail because we've created education systems that are predicated on cognitive thinking and cognitive learning. It's a problem. That's a long, convoluted answer to your question, but I think until we understand the ramifications of one action to another and to the population as a whole, we're never going to develop policies that are holistic and effective for everyone.
AC: Was it a difficult decision to step away at this point?
RH: No, it really wasn't. I started to believe that in this political environment I wasn't the right guy for the job. I love the agency and will advocate for it from now on, and I truly believe in the notion of public [support] for the arts, and I truly believe that the arts have a role to play in every aspect of society, and I'll always be engaged in it, but I think in this political environment the agency really needs somebody different, somebody who is more about the politics than the service. One of the things that has concerned me a lot is that I see government moving away from notions of service.
AC: What lies ahead for you?
RH: I'm definitely going to get back in the studio. That's one of the things I'm really looking forward to, but I have a bunch of business ventures ahead of me. I've always been an entrepreneur at heart. I have a bunch of good partners, and I've met a lot of good people over the years that are interested in doing work with me. And, of course, I'm on a lot of boards, so I'm having to figure out how I'm going to deal with that [laughs].
AC: Any words of wisdom for whomever follows in your footsteps?
RH: Raise money; raise money; raise money. I would be remiss if I didn't say that that was among the most important priorities, if not the most important.