December 28, 2018

In the aftermath of Harvey, a case study in preparing artists for natural disasters

Houston is building an ‘always-ready’ model that’s prepared to jump into action to support its arts and history community.

The Houston Arts Alliance is educating artists and nonprofits on how to become resilient now—before a disaster, like 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, strikes. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey wrought $56 million in disaster-related damages to artists and arts organizations last year. After Harvey, 71 arts nonprofits reported hurricane-related impact. More than one year after the storm, many of our artists and arts organizations are still experiencing a revenue crisis due to lost ticket sales, major interruptions in donations and cancelled programs. Despite these tough lessons learned, most artists and arts and history organizations in the Houston area are still unprepared for the next disaster.

The Harvey Arts Recovery Fund, our theaters—which suffered greatly—and many others contributed critical response immediately after Harvey, bringing performing arts facilities back into the community’s life. Now, it is crucial for us to turn from recovery to resilience to address issues of sustainability, remain a part of Houston’s working economy, and rely less on disaster relief funds to sustain our work in the aftermath of future disasters.

Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) is a local arts and culture organization whose principle work is to implement the City of Houston’s vision, values, and goals for its arts grantmaking and civic art investments. HAA’s work is conducted through contracts with the City of Houston, overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. HAA also executes privately funded special projects to meet the needs of the arts community, such as disaster preparation, research on the state of the arts in Houston, and temporary public art projects that energize neighborhoods.

The work is exciting and the results are intentionally diverse, reflecting the city itself. From painters to musicians to dancers to artists of any type, evidence of these programs’ impact can be seen throughout Houston. We work with artists every day, and we know firsthand that it is imperative to protect our cultural community from the devastation they experienced during Hurricane Harvey.

We’re educating artists and nonprofits on how to become resilient now. Answering questions like: What insurance is important to carry? How do you rearrange your studio or rehearsal space to mitigate hazards?

Which is why HAA has committed to helping local artists and nonprofits fix this problem. To do this, we have developed a two-part process in partnership with local and national funders both private and public. First, we’re educating artists and nonprofits on how to become resilient now. Answering questions like: What insurance is important to carry? How do you rearrange your studio or rehearsal space to mitigate hazards? How do you digitize your music or artwork or management so your work is not subject to physical loss? How do you document a thorough inventory so you have a “before” picture in a worst case scenario?

Second, we are launching a comprehensive, 10-county planning process for a regional arts preparedness and recovery system. We know that disaster recovery will only work if we create an always-ready framework which is prepared to jump into action to support the arts and history community of Houston. With input from a comprehensive advisory committee made up of representatives across the arts and history community, we are coordinating response, connecting with the public sector’s disaster prep, learning how to navigate state and federal relief programs, and identifying and minimizing our vulnerabilities. We are helping arts and history organizations and individual artists in a 10-county region prepare for the next sudden or historic disruption. When the effort is successful, we hope our work will serve as a model for other preparedness efforts statewide and nationally.

My family and I moved to Houston last October, when I accepted the opportunity to lead the Houston Arts Alliance. Even as the daily struggle to repair and rebuild from Harvey continued, Houston and the arts community welcomed us with open arms. One year later, with our friends and neighbors still rebuilding lives and restoring property, it would be tempting to consider the arts a luxury—unnecessary when compared to other parts of the life our great city.

The arts provide comfort in hard times. They are the mark of a great city.

Offering resources to protect our local artists is a necessity, however, not a luxury.

Houston’s cultural sector drives $579.4 million in spending by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and an additional $538 million in event-related spending by their audiences. That’s a total annual economic value to our community of about $1.1 billion. Culture in Houston supports 26,000 full-time jobs, generates $801.6 million in household income locally, and delivers $119.3 million in local and state government revenue. At this scale, creating cultural resilience against future disasters is an economic imperative.

But beyond the numbers, quite simply, the arts matter. The arts are how we communicate when words fail us. They help us envision a better world. They capture the highs and lows of being human, and in so doing remind us that we are not alone. They are how we celebrate, mourn, grow, reflect, and enjoy. The arts provide comfort in hard times. They are the mark of a great city. We are proud to make sure Houstonians aren’t robbed of these opportunities by preparing for our future, with clear eyes and committed hearts.

John Abodeely and Lauren Hainley

Houston Arts Alliance

John Abodeely is President and CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance. He formerly served as the Deputy Director and Acting Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under President and Mrs. Obama.

Lauren Hainley is the Special Projects Manager overseeing the organization’s resilience services.

Current resilience support for Greater Houstonians is available at