The artist team of RDG Dahlquist Art Studio collaborated with local poet Carmen Tafolla to incorporate text from her poems into the rippling water pattern of the art piece Aguas Onduladas. Credit: Courtesy / Michael Cirlos III

Recent debates on public art question whether large-scale, permanent artworks can maintain meaningful community engagement over time, or whether the flexibility of temporary works is preferred. But even public artworks intended to be permanent can face risks.

Within one week of the June 28 dedication of a new public sculpture near Elmendorf Lake Park, a vehicle evidently jumped the curb and damaged its installation site.
The site of a new public sculpture near Elmendorf Lake Park was damaged shortly after its installation. Credit: Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

Within one week of the June 28 dedication of a new public sculpture near Elmendorf Lake Park, a vehicle evidently jumped the curb and damaged its installation site.

On the small, triangular traffic island at the intersection of busy Buena Vista and SW 21st streets, the errant vehicle appears to have knocked over and destroyed a light pole, damaged the curb, overturned paving stones, and ran over metal plaques describing the sculpture. The San Antonio Police Department did not confirm details of the incident.

The artwork itself, titled Aguas Onduladas (Rippling Waters) by RDG Dahlquist Art Studio in collaboration with poet Carmen Tafolla, sustained no damage. But the incident shows that without being wisely sited, reflective of their communities, and budgeted with an eye toward future maintenance, works of public art can fail at their primary task: connecting to the public.

“Twenty-first-century public art is going to be different than the 20th-century public art,” said Jimmy LeFlore, public art manager for Public Art San Antonio (PASA) and the City’s Department of Arts and Culture.

To ensure that new public art is well-placed within and responsive to its communities, LeFlore has initiated the ¿que pasa, PASA? program, a series of six community meetings designed to engage San Antonio residents in the public art process.

“Having an engaging conversation, and meeting eye-to-eye with people, is really what public art needs in order to be maturing, and making sure that it’s not just a niche, but that its actually affecting Northside, Southside, Eastside, and Westside residents,” he said.

The first meeting was Monday evening at the Westside Cuellar Community Center, and the remaining five public meetings will take place throughout July at various San Antonio community centers, including Wednesday, July 11, from 6-8 p.m. at the Guadalupe Theater.

Leila Hernández attended the Cuellar Community Center meeting with her 11-year-old daughter Juliana and their service dog, Riley. The Hernández family makes regular trips from their home in the Rio Grande Valley to visit San Antonio, in part for its cultural offerings, Hernández said.

“I think it’s really awesome that San Antonio has a program for [public art], and actually has art and understands the importance of it in the community,” she said. Though a gallery artist herself, she said, “Art is not just something in a gallery, it’s something outside where a lot of people can actually go see and experience it.”

City representatives at the meeting surveyed the sparse crowd and wondered if rainy weather had kept more attendees away.

The first public informational ¿que pasa, PASA? meeting took place July 9 at the Cuellar Community Center’s athletic gym, with City representatives showing examples of public art in San Antonio.
A small crowd gathers for the first public ¿que pasa, PASA? meeting took place July 9 at the Cuellar Community Center’s gym. Credit: Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

LeFlore opened the meeting by briefly detailing statistics on how many artists are eligible to make public art in San Antonio, how many are local and how all are chosen, as well as how much municipal bond money goes toward public art, compared to money for improvements to streets, drainage, parks, City facilities, and public safety.

Generally, funding for public art projects is derived from the five-year bond process, and constitutes 1 percent of the budget for each municipal bond improvement project.

After the introduction, audience members were asked to visit six information stations positioned around the Cuellar Community Center gym and parking lot. The interactive stations probed current knowledge about existing public art  in San Antonio, and invited feedback on public art projects in general.

One of the stations detailed existing PASA projects in District 4 and identified upcoming “art opportunities” aligned with bond projects in the district. Locations for those opportunities, all near Lackland Air Force Base, include a project at Stablewood Farms Park in Valley High North, at the Heritage Community Center in Adams Hill, and a pedestrian mobility and streets project along Fischer Road.

Future “¿que pasa, PASA?” meetings will detail such opportunities in districts throughout the city, LeFlore said, and community input will become an essential part of the process.

“We want to take a step back and learn about the communities, to learn what’s going to hold the community’s interest,” he said.

LeFlore said the first “¿que pasa, PASA?” program of 2010 was an initial attempt at community engagement, but with the City’s new Cul-Tú-Art cultural planning process, he hopes that community outreach efforts will create more awareness of PASA projects throughout the city.

Whether people want public art in San Antonio is not in doubt. A November 2017 Department of Arts and Culture survey of more than 3,000 San Antonio residents, visitors, and arts patrons found that 91 percent of respondents would like to see more public art in San Antonio, according to Director Debbie Racca-Sittre.

Sculpture and environmental art were the most popular forms of public art among respondents, and downtown, parks, and greenways were the most popular locations.

The ¿que pasa, PASA? meetings are, in part, an extension of that survey, intended to gauge public knowledge of and feedback on public art projects.

David Sutton attended the Monday meeting because he drove the truck containing the “Reaction Lab,” one of the six information stations specifically designed for feedback. The truck contained imaging technology designed to photographically record people’s emotional responses to examples of public art, through facial expressions they make when viewing examples of public art such as Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Though Sutton said he doesn’t see much public art himself, he often took his kids when they were smaller, in part to activate their creativity.

“Basically, it’s good for the kids because it helps them use their imagination,” Sutton said. “And it beautifies the city. It makes the city more interesting.”

Allison Hu of Participation Studio helped implement the Reaction Lab. “It’s really hard to collect data about something as subjective as your emotional response to art,” Hu said, “yet its such an important question to answer, especially when public money is involved.”

Hu agreed that public art in San Antonio is important. “We have this opportunity to make an impression, and tell a story of now and who we are for future generations,” she said. “Public art oftentimes is quite permanent,” she said, “and we need to do it right, to make sure we’re capturing the right stories.”

The ¿que pasa, PASA? project will offer the public five more chances to share their ideas and reactions to public art. Information on citywide meeting locations and times is available here. All are free and open to the public, and offer snacks, activities, prizes, and the music of DJ Originel.

Prospects for the Aguas Onduladas sculpture site appear good. The project was managed by the San Antonio River Authority, which had already purchased an extra street lamp, said Steven Schauer, River Authority director of government and public affairs.

Cleanup and minor repairs at the site is in the hands of the Parks and Recreation Department, and has already begun. In a February presentation to the City Council Arts and Culture Committee, Racca-Sittre also noted that the new Cul-Tú-Art five-year strategic plan would include, for the first time, maintenance funds for public art.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...