Briscoe Western Art Museum Revives Historic Downtown Cultural Landmark

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The large John Coleman bronze sculpture in lobby depicts a traditional cowboy and native American with respective cascades of cattle and bison. “It tells a story, it doesn’t tell the (whole) story,” Karr said. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The large John Coleman bronze sculpture in lobby depicts a traditional cowboy and native American with respective cascades of cattle and bison. “It tells a story, it doesn’t tell the (whole) story,” Karr said. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

When locals and visitors fill the newly opened Briscoe Western Art Museum Saturday and Sunday mornings, they will be reviving a tradition of community, culture and learning, one that began in 1903 with the opening of the city’s first public library. The Carnegie Library, funded by a $50,000 gift from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was the first of 32 public libraries in Texas he helped establish.

The Carnegie in San Antonio was a racially exclusive library, and private libraries serving the city’s African-American population on the Eastside eventually led to the building of the Carver Community Center in 1930 as the “Negro Library.”

A post card image of the Carnegie Library dated 1900-1924. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

A post card image of the Carnegie Library dated 1900-1924. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, public domain.

The historic flood of 1921 compromised the Carnegie Library’s building foundation and led to extensive loss of life and property damage throughout the city. Afterwards, the first significant flood control projects were undertaken in the city.

The original Carnegie was demolished in 1929, and the current building, an art deco design by San Antonio architect Herbert S. Green, was built in 1929 at a cost of $300,000. It served as Main Library until 1968.

San Antonio lawyer Harry Hertzberg had amassed one of the nation’s largest collections of circus memorabilia and artifacts and donated the Hertzberg Circus Collection to the new public library. Even after Main Library moved to a new building on South St. Mary’s Street in 1968, the renamed Hertzberg Circus Museum, which included the Tom Thumb collection, stayed in the building at the corner of Presa and Market streets. until it was closed in 2001. The collection was donated to the Witte Museum in 2003.

The building itself sat in a state of disrepair for a decade until the Briscoe Western Art Museum was born as an idea that grew out of an unsuccessful effort to move The Museum of Western Art from its home in Kerrville to San Antonio.

The Briscoe Western Art Museum's main entrance off of West Market. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Briscoe Western Art Museum’s main entrance on West Market Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Saturday marks the start of a new chapter in a storied downtown building brought back to life by Lake/Flato Architects and Zachry Corp.

“(The art museum) is part of this renaissance of the historic urban core and the conversation about culture in San Antonio,” said Briscoe Museum Executive Director Steven Karr during a media preview of the museum on Wednesday. “We’re not a history museum, we’re an art museum … (while) history clearly plays a role in what we do, we want the viewer to (interpret the exhibits) on their own.”

About 90% of the lobby was restored to replicate the original Main Library lobby. Hunter green walls, historic light fixtures, a beautiful gold and silver molded ceiling, wall carvings, leather staircases and other embellishments greet visitors entering from West Market Street for an immediate introduction to historic context for the art within.

The large John Coleman bronze sculpture in lobby depicts a traditional cowboy and native American with respective cascades of cattle and bison. “It tells a story, it doesn’t tell the (whole) story,” Karr said. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The large John Coleman bronze sculpture in lobby depicts a cowboy and American Indian with respective cascades of cattle and bison. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The magnificently refurbished building is now connected to the newly constructed Jack Guenther Pavilion and the McNutt Courtyard and Sculpture Garden, all of which opens to the River Walk where a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a Texas longhorn will greet visitors approaching from the river.

Revenues from events held at the Jack Guenther Pavilion will help fund museum operations and keep admission fees among the lowest of any cultural destination in the state – $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, students and military. Children 12 and under enter for free. Opening weekend events are free for the whole family.

A busy afternoon on the River Walk between the newly-opened Briscoe Western Art Museum (left) and La Villita (right). Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A bustling afternoon on the River Walk between the newly opened Briscoe Western Art Museum (left) and La Villita (right). Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The new Briscoe Museum is named for former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe and his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe. Briscoe served as governor from 1972-78 and was a Uvalde-based rancher and banker well-known as the state’s largest landholder and one of its most generous philanthropists.

Former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe. Courtesy photo.

Former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe. Courtesy photo.

Briscoe’s donation of $4 million was the museum’s lead gift, and a replica of his Uvalde home office forms part of the collection.

Gov. Briscoe, who was preceded in death by Janie, died in 2010. Briscoe was able to play a role in the museum’s first conceptual meetings which started about 10 years ago.

A who’s who of San Antonio donors followed Briscoe’s lead, and many elements within the museum bear the names of individual and family donors.

A limestone wall visible from the ground floor or a glass-enclosed walkway contains the chiseled names of the museum founders, those who gave $100,000 or more to its establishment.

Former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe's home office, donated by the Briscoes. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe’s home office on display at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, donated by the Briscoe family. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Texas history is taught to fourth and seventh graders, so students from those two grade levels will be regular visitors on Tuesday and Thursday field trips held in the Gloria Clingman Education Gallery. Gloria’s husband, Fully Clingman, was the longtime time president and COO of H-E-B.

While there is plenty of educational and contextual signage throughout the museum, it’s purposefully kept at a minimum to allow for the artwork – both contemporary and historic – to be appreciated more as art than artifacts.

Instead of hanging them flatly on a wall display, exhibit designers chose to display contemporary and historic spurs in a more artful and interesting way. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Instead of hanging them flatly on a wall display, exhibit designers chose to display contemporary and historic spurs in a more artful and interesting way. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

So why another museum? What makes this one special?

“San Antonio is arguably the most iconic Western city … seen as a gateway to the West,” Karr said. The Briscoe Western Art Museum represents that culture and heritage and “to create that sense of identity as Westerners.”

There is little chronology used in the organization of exhibits. The work has been organized by theme to emphasis artistic value and context: movement, work, opportunity, and conflict.

Exhibit Designer Kevin Sayama and his team found the facilities and goals of the museum unique.

“It’s an interesting mix of modern and historic architecture,” Sayama said. “They created lots of ways to look through the space – to get little glimpses of other rooms … we want (visitors) to wander around.”

There are sitting areas with iPads complete with informational and interactive programming.

While the exhibits have been accessible to novice art and history patrons, there is plenty of material for aficionados to admire.

Karr pointed to General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s sword, Pancho Villa’s saddle, and a “major Remington” painting as a sampling of the most historically significant pieces of the Briscoe’s collection. Karr’s personal favorites change every day, he said. “Going to a museum once is the biggest mistake you can make … because the second or fifth time, you’ll see something you missed.”

Briscoe Western Art Museum Executive Director Steven Karr address media during a museum preview event on Wednesday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Briscoe Western Art Museum Executive Director Steven Karr addresses media during a museum preview event on Wednesday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Inscriptions that mirror the building exterior’s historic inscriptions at each compass point are found in many of the Briscoe’s public rooms, including its new digital reference library.

“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”  –Lady Bird Johnson

The State Coach Gallery, with its replica coach of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, leads to a gallery of Edward Curtis photographs of great American Indian leaders.

One of Exhibit Designer Kevin Sayama’s favorite pieces in the museum, the iconic Battle at the Alamo. The intricate attention to detail and scale of the model allows the viewer to really “see the odds” that the defenders were up against, Sayama said.

One of Exhibit Designer Kevin Sayama’s favorite pieces in the museum is the iconic Battle at the Alamo display. The intricate attention to detail and scale of the model allows the viewer to really “see the odds” that the Defenders were up against, Sayama said.

A Willa Cather quote from 1925 adorns a gallery wall:

“When I pulled out on top of the mesa, the rays of sunlight  fell slantingly on the little twisted piñons – the light was all in between them, as red as the daylight   fire, they  fairly swam in it … It was like breathing the sun, breathing the color of the sky.”

Nearby, in a sunken gallery, a Comanche teepee hand-painted by modern Comanche artists underscores the museum’s effort to tell the story of the West as much through the history of American Indians as the later-day pioneers who emigrated here, warred with indigenous tribes, and ultimately claimed the land.

Contemporary Comanche art expressed on a traditional medium. Artists and brothers Calvert and Tim Tate Nevaquaya from the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma spent four days in July 2013 painting this teepee. “San Antonio was Comanche country,” said Karr. “Native people are part of our present as much as our past.”

Contemporary Comanche art expressed on a traditional medium. Artists and brothers Calvert and Tim Tate Nevaquaya from the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma spent four days in July 2013 painting this teepee. “San Antonio was Comanche country,” said Karr. “Native cultures are part of our present as much as our past.”

For more information on Saturday and Sunday’s free grand opening activities at The Briscoe Western Art Museum, visit www.briscoemuseum.org. Throughout the weekend, visual and performance folk artists will be demonstrating their crafts and Southwestern-themed food will be available.

“The Briscoe Museum will have something for everyone, from the beautiful art and artifacts, to family activities and, of course, a chuck wagon cookout,” stated Briscoe Museum Board Member and Grand Opening Co-Chair Tracy Wolff in a press release. “We are looking forward to welcoming visitors from all over.”

 

One thought on “Briscoe Western Art Museum Revives Historic Downtown Cultural Landmark

  1. Cool, cool, cool cool. I’m waiting on a Hispanic museum. That is unless there is one and I’m not as informed as I thought. Which is usually the case.

    I would like to see something dedicated to the people of Mexican descent, Spanish descent, canary islanders and others who worked to make San Antonio what it is today. San Antonio, as far as I know, is one of few cities in the United States with a Hispanic majority.

    http://www.usnews.com/news/slideshows/11-cities-with-the-most-hispanics/4

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