Councilman Joe Krier (D9) has a simple opinion about art he doesn’t like.

“I just don’t get it,” he has told colleagues during budget and bond discussions.

The most confusing piece of public art, to him, is the 30-foot-tall sculpture that was installed in the Convention Center’s new main lobby in January 2016. The City paid $1 million for the interactive piece by London-based artist Jason Bruges.

“I have yet to have a human being tell me they like the art in the Convention Center,” Krier said during a Council briefing session on Wednesday, March 1. “Every time [I walk by] I look up, waiting for it to do something.”

Liquid Crystal, by London-based artist Jason Bruges, stands tall in the Convention Center lobby.
Liquid Crystal, a sculpture by London-based artist Jason Bruges, stands tall in the Convention Center lobby. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Krier vowed to file a Council Consideration Request (CCR) that calls for a re-evaluation of how the City pays for public art and selects artists. He’d like to see less taxpayer dollars go to public art and what’s left go to local, or at least Texan, artists.

“Thank you, Councilman Cheese Grater — excuse me, Councilman Krier,” quipped Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) earlier this month. “I really do like this idea of saying, ‘Let’s look locally [for artists] first.’”

The sculpture, Liquid Crystal, is made up of 3,500 LCD panels that change color by reacting to people moving around it. Krier commonly refers to it as “the cheese grater.” The more movement, the more the sculpture reacts. But when the sculpture was unveiled during the grand opening of the Convention Center expansion – it was surrounded by people who stood still. An awkward pause preceded applause as the sculpture seemed static, unmoved.

An ordinance approved by City Council in 2011 requires that 1% of every capital improvement project budget in the city be dedicated to public art that relates to the project or site. The City’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, paid by visitors, funded the $325 million Convention Center renovation.

Each bond project category – parks, streets, facilities, drainage, and neighborhood improvements – also includes 1% for public art. This year’s $850 million bond package includes $8.5 million set aside for art.

Krier wants to remove that 1% art requirement from some, if not all bond categories. He will circulate his CCR to fellow Council members this afternoon and over the weekend, Krier said Thursday, while Council considered approving a list of pre-qualified artists that could receive public funding.

The ordinance, which will allow 104 artists – 82 Texans and 35 artists from 14 states – to apply for commission work in San Antonio, was approved. Krier abstained and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) had left the room during the vote. This doesn’t prevent the City from considering artists not on the list, but their work would have to be approved by a separate Council action.

The Department of Arts and Culture already has programming that emphasizes support of local artists, Director Debbie Racca-Sittre told the Rivard Report on Tuesday, and weaving the work of national and international artists into the city’s fabric of public art plays a large role in that support. Lists of pre-qualified local fabricators, installers, suppliers, and collaborative partners also were approved on Thursday, with which the City encourages all artists to work.

“When a San Antonian artist goes to New York and does a piece and brings that experience back – that’s something you don’t get if you close your doors to other communities,” Racca-Sittre said. In other words, if San Antonio is closed to “outside” artists, then why would other cities be open to ours?

San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre gives a presentation to City Council about the selection process for artists applying for public art projects.
San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre gives a presentation to City Council about the selection process for artists applying for public art projects. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

About 70% of the art funding in the 2007 and 2012 bonds went to art projects by local talent, Racca-Sittre said, and the department has recently modified how the process is structured to make sure that emerging, mid-career, and established artists from all over are competing against their peers.

It’s now a process that focuses on ensuring a “level playing field” for local artists, she said.

Of the 77 art projects commissioned since 2007, City Manager Sheryl Sculley told City Council, 78% were with local artists.

But even when a non-local artist is commissioned, they often work with local engineers, fabricators, and installers. Liquid Crystal‘s budget, for instance, included money for other design and engineering services. City staff provided this budget breakdown:

  • London-based artist Jason Bruges (design, fabrication, installation): $987,500
  • Local firm Zachry (foundation for sculpture): $37,188
  • Local firm Marmon Mok (additional design services): $27,766
  • Local firm CalTex (installation of base and steel frame): $21,225
  • Total: $1,073,679

So 100% of project funds aren’t necessary being “shipped to London” or other cities, Racca-Sittre said. “[That’s] not telling the whole story.”

Future art project funding breakdowns will be required so that people can see the true value of funding national and international artists’ work.

On Thursday, Krier provided several other examples of public art in his district that he just doesn’t “get” including Sotol Duet at Panther Springs Park (“That ain’t art to me.”) and El Bosque at Encino Branch Library. Both artists are from out of state.

Public art sculptures called "Sotol Duet."Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.
The public art sculpture Sotol Duet at Panther Springs Park. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

“You don’t have to sell me on the value of the arts to the community,” Krier said, “but we ought to ask staff to take a look at the [1% funding] ordinance backing this up … for example by limiting it to Texas artists.”

Arts Commission Chair Guillermo Nicolas said he respected Krier’s opinions about fiscal responsibility and his taste in art, but assured him that the money is not being misused in any way.

El Bosque at SAPL’s Encino Branch Library. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

“International and local artists are crucial to our cultures and our civilization,” Nicolas said. “Cross-pollination of artist ideas from San Antonio to New York [and elsewhere] are crucial to creativity and to the betterment of the community.”

Art is, by its very nature, subjective, Nicolas said, and “if we close our doors to outside artists, other cities will begin to close their doors to us.”

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) compared the process of selecting local versus non-local artists to that of selecting architecture, engineering, and design firms.

The Hardberger Park land bridge and the Frost Bank tower, Warrick said, were both designed by internationally renowned firms. While their fees “leave the city,” San Antonio benefits from their skill and name recognition.

Most Council members, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, were open to at least having the conversation about art funding.

“We need to have additional dialogue on this,” Taylor said. “[There is] certainly nothing wrong with us looking to improve the process and the outcome.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who routinely tangles with Krier on matters of public art, relayed several opinions about the importance of public art that he collected while visiting Josué Romero, the immigrant student recently released from ICE, at the Southwest School of Art.

“Art is life, it brings people together especially in hard times. It is a way to share and communicate, and educate the community,” stated Romero.

Other statements outlined the inspirational power that art can have on young, vulnerable lives. Those remarks can be downloaded here.

Krier will need five signatures of support from Council members before he can formally move forward on the issue.

“I think, philosophically, the City should not pay for public art with San Antonio property taxes and sales tax dollars,” Krier told the Rivard Report Thursday afternoon.

He thinks San Antonians would agree – that if the art allocations in the bond were separated out into its own category, that citizens would vote down $8.5 million for public art.

“Part of what I’m trying to do here is to get everybody to talk about it and make sure everybody is comfortable with the process and sources of the money,” he said.

Once this conversation takes place with Council and the community, said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), the conclusion will likely be the same as it was in 2011 when the “hard-fought over” funding policy was established.

“If we had the position that all of the public funds on arts should be contained within the city of San Antonio, and you imagine that cities around the world and around the country had that same position, how isolated we would feel from the arts and cultural community and the vibrancy that is so evident from having an increasingly connected world,” said Nirenberg, who is running for mayor in the May 6 election. “That’s not the world I want to live in.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com