Downtown Houston’s Wings Over Water sculpture will remain broken

The sprawling, $1.34 million “Wings Over Water” sculpture outside the city’s convention center was designed to be a draw to a newly renovated downtown plaza, unveiled shortly before Houston welcomed an estimated 150,000 visitors to Super Bowl LI in 2017.

It was billed as the largest kinetic outdoor sculpture in the world, with 70-feet wide wings flapping over streaming jets of water. It also was the most expensive piece of art ever commissioned by the city, paid for with revenues from Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The artist, Joe O’Connell of Tuscon, said the wings were meant to “beat continuously, creating a sense of progress and movement, which truly reflects Houston’s cultural and spiritual associations with hope.”

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One problem: The wings don’t beat at all these days, let alone continuously. And now, city officials have decided, they will stop trying to fix them.

Michael Heckman, the CEO of Houston First Corp., told City Council this month the board decided to quit trying to repair the sprawling sculpture. It will no longer be kinetic.

“There have been numerous mechanical issues with it. Our board looked very closely as to what is the best solution for that,” Heckman said. “The best long-term plan was to fix it in place and keep it lit, and get the water jets going again. That work is nearly complete… It won’t move in the future, unfortunately. It’ll be fixed in place, but that was the best solution so we don’t have continuing issues.”

Among those mechanical issues: A snag involving the helm joints disrupted the movements in its first year. The city later had to call in oil rig engineers to help perform maintenance on the engine. There were issues with the security system — a laser-powered perimeter — that stopped the movement when someone tried to touch the statue. And just before the COVID-19 pandemic turned downtown into a ghost town, one of the metal welds connecting the statue’s rotating spine to its base snapped.

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Earlier this year, Houston First consulted the Houston Arts Alliance, the artist, and a local hydraulics company, all of whom endorsed going static. “Wings Over Water” has received $157,414 in maintenance and repairs since 2017, according to Houston First, with another $350,000 needed to fix the fountain jets and lighting, according to a staff presentation earlier this year. That would bring the total cost of the piece to about $1.8 million. Houston First’s primary sources of revenue include money from the city-owned Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, which it manages, and other venues, along with hotel occupancy taxes.

City officials say the piece — selected via national competition — was immensely complicated and its design marked a mechanical marvel. John Abodeely, the CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance, said something that ambitious, though, requires complicated maintenance.

Abodeely and Heckman say they believe the statue will remain a draw even in its newly permanent static state. It is still common to see selfie-taking residents and tourists posing in front of it, and it is one of the convention area’s most popular Instagram sites.

In fact, city officials said, many people who visit it today have no idea it is supposed to move.

“I do think it’s fair to say what we wanted out of the piece was bigger than what we got. I do think it’s balanced out by the fact that we went for something really big, we dreamed big and went for it,” Abodeely said . “It may not have lived up to our expectations, but I do think there is beauty in it. I do think it’s added value, and I think you can see that today. People take pictures of it static and lit up, quite happily. “

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For those who saw the piece in all its kinetic glory, though, it will be missing something essential. At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, whose questions prompted Heckman’s initial response, said she had to ask about “the bird in front of the convention center,” which she called “the front door” to the George R. Brown.

“It was so great when it was first installed, and anyway, it’s too bad,” Alcorn said.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox told Heckman it has worked maybe twice in his seven-plus years at City Hall, and was “remarkable when it is moving.”

Former Chronicle art critic Molly Glentzer wrote that was the case even in its first year: It functioned properly just once in her half-dozen visits.

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