San Antonio's Centro de Artes, a Latino arts education and exhibition space in the heart of the Zona Cultural, has been a "lifeless, non-cohesive space" for much of its existence, and many of its leaders have failed to fulfill its core mission: to be the center of local and regional Latino art and tell the story of the Latino experience with a focus on San Antonio and South Texas.
This is the belief of the more than 80 artists, designers, writers, community leaders, and leading figures in the city's local arts scene who convened at the Centro de Artes Tuesday afternoon to discuss the obstacles plaguing the structure from realizing its true potential.
The community meeting, which was organized by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) in conjunction with the City's Department of Arts & Culture, was meant to facilitate a discussion where participants could share their visions for Centro de Artes' future. In particular, the community discussed what the space should embody and what kind of programming should be hung, projected, or performed inside its walls.
"This (meeting) is meant to break these ideas into some kind of a work plan," Treviño said. "This isn’t just about a conversation without any kind of action, this is a conversation about how we create the Centro de Artes that we all want, the Centro de Artes that we feel (can set the) example not just for the city of San Antonio but the entire country."
The center has had somewhat of an unstable existence, with leadership that has come and gone throughout the years and a lack of consistent and engaging Latino arts programming to draw visitors and residents alike.
Texas A&M University–San Antonio was the last entity in charge of the Centro de Artes and allocating funds for an active calendar of Latino arts exhibitions. Earlier this summer, there was talk of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas using the space to house their extensive library of historic documents and artifacts from the Alamo, but the idea was shot down after many claimed such a use of the building would go against its fundamental mission.
A&M-San Antonio has since relinquished that responsibility back to the City, which owns the structure. Now, it seems Centro de Artes is in a sort of limbo state. Meanwhile plans for the Zona Cultural's revitalization continue and the city's Tricentennial nears.
"Es como una maldición ... que las exhibiciones no las hacen," said Jorge Cortez of La Familia Cortez Restaurants. "It's like a curse ... that exhibits don't take place."
Michael Cortez, Jorge's nephew who works primarily for Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery, said the community input meeting Tuesday was a long time coming.
“This is what really needed to happen to get the community involved, to really envision something great for the Zona Cultural ... because we need to keep the Centro de Artes alive," he said. "This area needs to be activated and especially after seeing what we saw last Thursday (at Market Square), I think our community is hungry for the Latino arts showcase.”
Michael was referring to the 75th celebration of La Familia Cortez Restaurants that the family held in Market Square last Thursday. The event drew thousands of people who enjoyed food, live music, and El Grito de Dolores given by Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio Héctor Velasco Monroy. The celebration activated the mercado in a special way and seamlessly connected it to Centro de Artes, allowing attendees to see the building's potential as a premier cultural arts center.
Community meeting attendees were instructed by facilitator Linda Ximenes of Ximenes and Associates to work in groups and come up with main ideas for future programming at the space.
Each table agreed on three major things they would like to see in Centro de Artes, as well as the issues/obstacles in place that could deter the "visions" from happening.
All the written ideas from each table were then gathered and placed on the wall in the middle of the room for further discussion and agreement.
City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture Interim Director Debbie Racca-Sittre explained that there are no allocated funds in the 2017 fiscal year budget to renovate the space, which was a main complaint from many attendees.
“We are (focusing on) programming because we have funding that came from the budget that was set for Texas A&M to do programming here and we continue to have those dollars, (which are) $150,000 for the year,” Racca-Sittre said. "We are looking at what the community wants in this space beyond that time (and focusing) on the overall vision for the coming years."
A number of participants wrote that the main obstacles for Centro de Artes include limited accessibility and the lack of a long-term sustainability plan, a clear governance structure, and an advisory board.
In addition, many individuals, such as Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez, echoed the claim that "permanency" was a main issue. They called for a more enduring vision and leadership of Centro de Artes, one that doesn't change with every City administration cycle.
As for future goals and programming, attendees agreed on maintaining a shared vision with a local focus, increasing funding for LGBTQIA artists, creating a multi-disciplinary arts program, maintaining an educational component, and a long-term strategic plan to fulfill Centro de Artes' core mission.
Rebel Mariposa, chef and co-owner of La Botánica, said that the leadership of Centro de Artes is pivotal for its success. When choosing a new leader for the center, the city should try to avoid outsourcing individuals from places like California or New York who don't understand the uniqueness of "being in the Third Coast."
"How about someone Tejano, or someone who speaks Spanglish or someone from the border?" Mariposa said. "Not that we can’t work with other artists from the other coasts, but making sure that they don’t take over, and if they do, we need to make sure it’s a mutual exchange of energy, ideas, and culture. Every different area has its own cultura, even the other states that have predominately Latino populations."
Several artists in the crowd recalled a time when Centro de Artes was one of the few facilities anyone in the city could rent for a low price. Many remember attending events at the building.
“There are so few facilities in this city that are accessible to any one of you – everything is being privatized or given away," community member Becky told participants. "I think this is one of the last facilities in the entire city that could potentially be accessible to the community, so think about that. It has to be something that is living, that is integrated."
Participant Malena Gonzalez reminded everyone not to forget who spearheaded the creation of Centro de Artes and why it opened in the first place.
“The Cortezes, and all the artists (who helped create) this space like Jessie Treviño, (Rosemary) Kowalski ... there's a history there," Gonzalez said. "We have to build on it and we are not going to forget why this space started. It started because there was a lack of venues for the largest population in this city, which happens to be two-thirds Latino. We don’t have enough spaces for us to create and refine our work.”
Gonzalez said Centro de Artes should become a center that receives the same value as other arts organizations and venues, such as the San Antonio Symphony, the Witte Museum, the DoSeum, and so on.
"(Let's) build upon what many people in the community have started," she added. "¡Adelante!"
Treviño told the Rivard Report that the Tuesday meeting is "the first of many steps" to reaffirm the mission of Centro de Artes and build on its future.
The next community session, where participants will discuss the overarching themes from the first meeting and draft a plan to go forward, will take place at the beginning of October at the Plaza de Armas Building, located behind City Hall and next to the Spanish Governor's Palace.
Top image: Centro de Artes at 101 South Santa Rosa Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.