San Antonio’s Big Bet on Public Art: Hemisfair Park and the San Antonio River

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Robert Rivard

After a long period of indifference and even resistance, San Antonio has come to embrace public art as an important expression of community and creativity. Building on that change, plans are now forming to make public art and sculpture gardens transformative elements in the urban fabric.

Two shared visions are taking shape, one at Hemisfair Park and the other on riverfront property owned by the San Antonio Museum of Art. Both are ambitious in scope and will require years of collaborative work, major philanthropic commitments and sustained public support.

“If we don’t dream it, no one will dream it,” said Katie Luber, SAMA’s executive director. “It’s our job to dream it,” she added in reference to the influential number of arts leaders involved in one or both projects.

Artistic rendering of a possible sculpture garden across Jones Street in front of SAMA. Image created by and courtesy of Overland Partners | Architects.

Artistic rendering of a possible sculpture garden across Jones Avenue in front of SAMA. Image created by and courtesy of Overland Partners | Architects. (Click for larger image.)

“How much would it cost? I don’t have a figure,” Luber said, “but it will be a major investment. We’re talking about an extraordinary change in the public landscape.”

‘Tres Centurias’ would like to take a meeting with you, please

A group of local museum directors and curators, arts educators and patrons have formed a new non-profit to raise $25 million or more for public art installations and a 12-acre sculpture garden in Hemisfair Park. The group calls itself Tres Centurias, a reflection of its hope to complete the project by 2018, the city’s 300th anniversary. The group has filed for non-profit status and does not yet have a website. Click here for a complete roster of trustees[PDF].

“San Antonio deserves to make its 300th birthday an unforgettable public celebration, and the rebirth of Hemisfair Park and the San Antonio River are the ideal venues to stage these celebrations,” said local Cox/Smith attorney Lewis Tarver, a longtime arts patron, museum board leader, and Tres Centurias trustee.

“Our emphasis is creating a 21st century sculpture park that would be located on public lands by the northwest corner of Hemisfair,” said Jon C. Wood, retired attorney, arts patron and Tres Centurias trustee.

A rendering of Hemisfair's possible future. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.

A rendering of Hemisfair’s possible future. Areas shaded green indicates open park space. Image courtesy of Hemisfair Park/City of San Antonio.

The group wants to locate the sculpture garden in the planned 12-acre Civic Garden that will occupy the space now taken by the original Convention Center, scheduled to be razed as part of the center’s expansion to the east.

The intersection of Market and S. Alamo Streets sees more pedestrian traffic than any other corner in the city, according to city officials, and park redevelopers hope to enhance that traffic by transforming the corner into an inviting green space entryway to Hemisfair.

Click here to see the Hemisfair Park Master Plan that shows the expanded Convention Center, new green spaces, and the many cultural and social activities that will be staged in the re-imagined 104-acre downtown space.

Mikyoung Kim: Internationally recognized arts master planner

Mikyoung Kim. Artist, architect, urban designer.

Mikyoung Kim. Artist, architect, urban designer.

Mikyoung Kim, the Boston-based artist, landscape designer and master planner, has been hired by the City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture and Creative Development and the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation to create the Hemisfair Park art master plan. Readers unfamiliar with Kim’s work might be interested in her ChonGae Canal Restoration Project in Seoul, South Korea, one example of her own imaginative and transformative work.

Kim returns to San Antonio later this month to present her work-in-progress plan to city and park officials. As part of that effort, she is in contact with Tres Centurias trustees as they begin their own outreach and fundraising efforts.

“We are delighted to have Mikyoung Kim developing the art master plan,” said Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair Park ARC.  ”She is an amazing artist, landscape architect and master planner.”

Tres Centurias has set its sights high in hopes of attracting some of the best international, regional and local talent to produce public art installations in the park. The group’s presentation materials include some of the most recognized artists in the country: Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin, Frank Stella, Juame Piensa, Janet Echelman, Ralph Helmick, Richard Long Roxy Pane and Anthony Gonzalez, among others.

Works by Texan artists with national reputations, including Margot Sawyer, Bob Wade, Katherine Lee, James Shals and Melissa Miller also are the Tres Centurias radar. Trustees haven’t named local artists they intend to approach, but it’s an active subject of discussion.

Luber, a Tres Centurias trustee, has similar ambitions for the seven-acre Arden Grove parcel across Jones Avenue from the San Antonio Art Museum, which would include converting the museum’s current parking lot to a green space on the south side of Jones Avenue that would extend down to the river.  Such a park probably would cost as much as the Hemisfair sculpture garden.

SAMA Director Katie Luber. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

SAMA Director Katie Luber. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Public art brings the streetscape to life,” Luber said. “The combination of nature, the outdoors, and works of art changing through the day and evening in different light conditions is a special experience. Public art gets people out of their cars and on their feet, and the experience makes them slow day in life, even come to a stop. With all the development we are experiencing there soon will be no green space between Brackenridge Park and Hemisfair Park, so a sculpture garden outside the museum on the river is really important.

“I’m in favor of changing exhibitions,” she said. “There are some good sculpture gardens created in the ’70s and ’80s, but when they don’t change they turn into snapshots of what was happening in art only at that moment.”

For locals, the value of introducing a temporary exhibit into a changing landscape with was best illustrated when sculptor Tom Otterness’ “Makin’ Hay” life forms came alive on the lower reaches of the Mission Reach amid major construction work. Cyclists like myself passed the larger-than-life, extraterrestrial-like agrarian forms  daily. Coming within site of them kindled childlike feelings of glee, no matter how many times I passed by. When the exhibit was removed, passing the newly vacated fields conveyed a sense of loss.

 San Antonio’s current public art profile

San Antonio’s Westside murals are the most indigenous examples of public art here, but the quality and condition of the murals vary greatly. Most of the city’s population, unfortunately, have no appreciation of the murals because they never enter the barrio. For those who do, the murals convey a strong sense of cultural and ethnic self-esteem. They communicate universal family and neighborhood values, and history, struggle, and Latino pride.

Participants of the San Anto Cultural Arts Bike It! Mural Tour gaze at The Center for Health Care Services building. The mural, “Brighter Days,” was painted in 2007 by Adriana Maria Garcia. Photo by Tom Trevino.

Participants of the San Anto Cultural Arts Bike It! Mural Tour gaze at The Center for Health Care Services building. The mural, “Brighter Days,” was painted in 2007 by Adriana Maria Garcia. Photo by Tom Trevino.

German artists have turned the longest remnant of the Berlin Wall into an arresting testimony to repression, the undying human spirit and the fight for freedom. It’s hard to visit Berlin and miss the Wall.

The Mission District Murals in San Francisco are equally celebrated. Both works could serve as inspirations for the right kind of commission in Hemisfair Park, where San Antonio muralists would then find a more national audience.

"San Antonio artist Stuart Allen’s installations under the twin underpasses at McCullough and Brooklyn Avenue. Allen’s minimalist suspended panels appear to shift and morph with changing patterns of color and texture as visitors walk past or float by." Photo courtesy of the San Antonio River Foundation.

“San Antonio artist Stuart Allen’s installations under the twin underpasses at McCullough and Brooklyn Avenue. Allen’s minimalist suspended panels appear to shift and morph with changing patterns of color and texture as visitors walk past or float by.” Photo courtesy of the San Antonio River Foundation.

Local artists have enhanced the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River with various installations, and new works are planned for the Mission Reach, all of which will be the subject of a coming article about public art on the river.

The celebrated Mexican sculptor Sebastian’s Torch of Friendship is the city’s most prominently displayed work, a 2001 gift from the  Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos, but it is sequestered on a traffic island and unapproachable by pedestrians.

The park’s master plan calls for one lane of Market Street to be closed, which will create the city’s only pedestrian and bike lane connecting the downtown with the Eastside, and will allow the extension of a pedestrian plaza to include the Torch.

The Torch of Friendship, guarded by pavement and heavy traffic.

Sculptor Sebastián’s “Torch of Friendship,” guarded by pavement and heavy traffic. Photo courtesy of Public Art San Antonio (PASA).

Virtually every major Mexican city and many European cities are home to works by Sebastian. It was an extraordinary gift to the city by our resident Mexican nationals, a group often overlooked for their cultural and economic contributions.

It made me wonder what ever happened to the Paloma statue, the chubby dove by sculptor Cuauhtemoc Zamudio and gifted by our sister city Monterey. It roosted outside the Instituto Cultural Mexicano. It hasn’t been seen for years, and honestly, it has not been missed.

Other public art is visible on the lush grounds of the McNay Art Museum, and a number of pieces installed two decades ago can be found on the UTSA main campus, but San Antonio’s urban core remains a canvass waiting to be painted.

Sculptor Alexander Liberman's "Ascent" (1970). One of five of Liberman’s large metal sculptures that incorporate a crushed element. Painted steel, 16 x 20 x 25 ft. Collection of the McNay Art Museum purchase with the Russell Hill Rogers Fund for the Arts 2005.1 © Liberman Art Partners 2011. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Sculptor Alexander Liberman‘s “Ascent” (1970). One of five of Liberman’s large metal sculptures that incorporate a crushed element. Painted steel, 16 x 20 x 25 ft. Collection of the McNay Art Museum purchase with the Russell Hill Rogers Fund for the Arts 2005.1 © Liberman Art Partners 2011. Photo courtesy of the McNay.

Public art that helps redefine a city

San Antonio has nothing yet that alters the urban experience the way Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate or Spanish artist Jaume Piensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park on Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront, which attract millions of locals and visitors each year.

Cloud Gate’s mirrored curves seem both liquid and  weightless, although the seamless steel structure weighs 110 tons. It’s underbelly has become Chicago’s most popular space to pose for a photograph.

Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millenium Park, Chicago. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millennium Park, Chicago. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Crown Fountain, by contrast, is a work for generations born to video and digital entertainment. Its tall screen and walls are bathed in gently  cascading water, and video images of the faces of ordinary Chicago residents appear larger than life on-screen. The faces are both ordinary and passive, yet extraordinary due to their commanding size. They remain motionless on-screen until suddenly their mouths purse open and a fountain of water comes gushing out, taking first-time onlookers completely by surprise.

There is something about moving water and public art that has captivated people for centuries. Crown Fountain is new, but as a little boy my family traveled from Michigan to Chicago to experience firsthand the wonders of Buckingham Fountain, which would spring to life at sunset, its circular geysers of water flashing in different color schemes, a miracle of technology back then.

Munich's most famous statue depicts a young boy grasping the penis of an unhappy satyr who spews water in anger. Photo by Robert Rivard

Munich’s most famous statue depicts a young boy grasping the penis of an unhappy satyr who spews water in anger. Photo by Robert Rivard

One statue that draws millions of visitors every year to Brussels, Belgium is the 17th century Manneken Pis, a bronze pissing boy fountain. On certain important holidays, Brussels officials dress the statue in elegantly tailored suits that leave just enough room for the boy to do his business.

A recent trip to Germany took me to Munich’s historic old town gates and that city’s most famous statue, Brunnenbuberl, or Fountain Boy, an attention-getting work by sculptor Matthias Gasteiger completed in 1895. The work depicts a young naked boy, artfully ducking, as he grips the penis of an ugly satyr who spews water out of his mouth in surprise and anger. The artist was pressured to place a fig leaf over the satyr’s private parts, which he refused to do.

Imagine the outcry in San Antonio were a local artist to attempt a similar feat.

Chef Damien Watel, also an artist, provoked an outcry in Stone Oak with his installation of a large Fork sculture. He was forced to cover it with an ugly wall. Photo courtesy of StoneOakInfo.com.

Chef Damien Watel, also an artist, provoked an outcry in Stone Oak with his installation of a large Fork sculture. He was forced to cover it with an ugly wall. Photo courtesy of StoneOakInfo.com.

French chef and restaurateur Damien Watel was vilified in Stone Oak when he installed a tall standing fork outside his short-lived Ciel restaurant. He was forced by the neighborhood association to build a wall around it. Ever since then, the venue, which Watel sold,  has been the site of one restaurant failure after another.

Public sculpture gardens, as San Antonians hopefully will learn, offer a very different experience than can be had at a single venue. A great sculpture garden is almost hypnotic.

I tripped by accident across the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in April 1996 on my first visit to the Walker Art Center, itself a celebration of the full spectrum of artistic expression. The sculpture garden, then the largest in the United States, opened in 1988. Even after more than an hour I didn’t want to leave, and I quickly returned the next day when I was less hurried.

Nothing in Hemisfair Park causes me to linger so today, but if Tres Centurias is successful, that will change.

“We want Hemisfair to be a series of courtyards and quiet spaces, giving the visitor an experience that unfolds slowly and evolves as one moves through the park, or series of parks,” Andujar said. “People won’t want to leave once they get here.”

A collection of great works of public art can seize one’s imagination and not let go, requiring many return visits, one viewing never the same as the others.

Individual sculptors also can work the same magic. I first experienced the work of noted Boston sculptor Ralph Helmick while attending Northwestern University in Evanston, outside Chicago. The centerpiece of the Evanston Public Library is his multi-storied work, “Ghostwriter,” a three-dimensional abstract head inside a spiral made up of thousands of metal forms on 900 descending cables.  The transparent head is made with 1,500 individually suspended metal letters, some of which spell words. The work looks different from every perspective and at every distance. It is one of the greatest tricks of the eye I’ve ever experienced.

Another perspective-bending sculpture by Ralph Helmick: "Signal," at the Biomedical Engineering Building, Rutgers University, NJ.

Another perspective-bending sculpture by Ralph Helmick: “Signal,” at the Biomedical Engineering Building, Rutgers University, NJ. Photos courtesy of Ralph Helmick.

The Tres Centurias initiative is likely to ignite a spirited debate about how artists will be selected, and the dollar value of individual commissions, but trustee Kent Rush, a professor of art and printmaking at UTSA and an officer of PASA, Public Art San Antonio, said, “local artists will be essential to the project, or else I wouldn’t be interested. It has to be a mix of artists.”

Hemisfair ’68 included the installation of 116 works of public art produced by artists throughout the Americas. Sadly, almost all of the works were reclaimed after the world’s fair closed when San Antonio did not raise funds to acquire the works permanently.

“The tragedy of Hemisfair is that everyone who went to the fair saw all this terrific art and then we lost it all,” Tarver said. “No one under 40 years old ever saw any of it. We let it all get away, or most of it, anyway. Now we’d like to put art back in the park and this time keep it there for future generations to enjoy as much as we will enjoy it.”

Want to take a virtual tour of some sculpture gardens? Try these:

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Tomás Saraceno on the Roof:Cloud City

Yorkshire, England Sculpture Park

Storm King Art Center, Hudson Valley, NY

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Laumeier Patch, St. Louis

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?

Beyond Field Trips: SAMA Invests in Children and School Curriculums

Contemporary Art Month: A Love Affair with the Misunderstood

X Marks the Art: Because No One Likes to Look at Ugly Buildings

The Arts and Art: How to Inspire Young Students

Pop-Up San Antonio: The Art of the Moment

Legitimizing an Underground Gallery




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  1. David Lopez

    I was there in Chicago during the development of “Cloud Gate”. I didn’t know exactly what it was but it was cool and I walked by there everyday I could.


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