2018-02-07 / News

Harvey damage brings funding for Texas cultural landmarks

By CINDY GEORGE
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) - In a serendipitous twist of fortune caused by Harvey, Houston cultural institutions have landed preservation grants unavailable before the hurricane while the plight of a celebrated local painting has inspired a new federal funding opportunity.

The John Biggers mural at the Blue Triangle community center in Third Ward long-imperiled by the lack of funds to fix a leaky roof and now peppered with mold prompted the National Endowment for the Humanities to announce last month a new infrastructure grant program to support building upgrades at the nation's cultural institutions.

``Absolutely, the Biggers mural played a decisive role in creating this new category at the agency,'' said Jon Parrish Peede, who leads NEH. ``It's such an uncommon work for its time.''

Biggers is considered one of the foremost artists to capture the black experience of the 20th century. When Harvey swept through southeast Texas in August, rains seeped through the already compromised roof and left mold on his 1953 painting depicting the strength of black women.

``Without the impact of Hurricane Harvey, we would not have had the infrastructure grants created at the agency so quickly and so comprehensively,'' Peede told the Houston Chronicle . ``If we stabilize these artifacts but do not protect the physical structure, then we are not fully securing them for the future.''

The application deadline for this money is March 15 and eligible institutions, such as the Blue Triangle, could receive grants of up to $750,000.

In another recent development, the Texas Historical Commission released the first grants in the Texas Preservation Trust Fund's history allocated solely to places affected by natural disaster.

Under this program, the Biggers mural received a $30,000 preservation grant and three archaeological collections owned by The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park received $15,000.

A third grant program, also from NEH, has provided $30,000 grants to cultural institutions impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria under an emergency funding program that will add up to about $2 million and will not require recipients to have matching funds, Peede said.

The Biggers mural also received one of those grants. With the state money, that's $60,000.

``Both are earmarked for conservators for the mural,'' said Charlotte Kelly Bryant, the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association's executive director and the group's founding president. Leaders have received mural restoration estimates in the $100,000 range.

As for the roof and other critical building repairs, there are ``nothing but promises,'' Bryant said, but the group members are in talks with FEMA and the city of Houston for funding.

After Harvey, the cost of a new roof alone will be at least $300,000, said Lucy Bremond, who chairs the Blue Triangle Friends organization.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency founded in 1965, has become one of the nation's largest funders of humanities programs. Grants are usually awarded to museums, libraries, archives, universities, public broadcasting outlets and individual scholars.

For most of its first five decades, NEH offered some sort of funding for facility upkeep, but that ended in recent years, Peede said.

The endowment's new Infrastructure and Capacity-Building Challenge grants of up to $750,000 can be used for construction and renovation, but must be matched with private or other non-federal funds.

``These are going to, in general, be larger grants, and we do think it's important to have local buy-in ... to make sure it's a sustainable vision,'' Peede said. ``We look at NEH's funding as catalytic ... We can be the first money in, and that can be so important.''

The program gives special encouragement to historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities and two-year colleges.

On Wednesday, the Texas Historical

Commission announced preservation funding of $165,000 for six Harvey-affected projects.

Four other sites each received a $30,000 emergency preservation grant: the Mary Christian Burleson Homestead in Elgin; the Recreation Hall at Goose Island State Park in Rockport; the Lee County Courthouse in Giddings; and the Refugio County Courthouse in Refugio.

This emergency funding does not have to be matched, commission spokeswoman Leah Brown said.

``It's a reimbursement grant once they complete their project,'' she said.

Of the three storm-impacted archaeological collections owned by The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, one set dates back to the Civil War and another is possibly old enough to coincide with Houston's founding in 1836.

The storm-drenched cardboard boxes were stored at a historic home in Sam Houston Park. The house had been raised 14 feet after 2001's Hurricane Allison to avoid future flooding and still took on nine inches of water in Harvey, according to Ginger Bernie, the society's curator of collections.

Caretakers of the Biggers painting have pleaded publicly for two years to secure contributions for a patch job on the roof or a complete restoration, which was estimated at $200,000 before the storm. That help didn't come in time to avoid water damage to the mural.

The painting, called ``Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education,'' now has hundreds of bursts of black mold growing amid its vibrant colors. The work featuring Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley was created when the building operated as the Blue Triangle YWCA.

Biggers, who died in 2001 at 76, founded the art department at Texas Southern University and mentored several generations of Houston artists.

Also this week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse in Houston's Midtown a National Treasure. The designation came with a $140,000 disaster recovery grant _ another financial windfall and preservation accelerator for a local cultural institution.

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