Luminaria 2014 Review: Hits and Misses

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An art piece lays on the ground outside of Hotel Havana at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

An art piece lays on the ground outside of Hotel Havana at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

If there’s one constant about Luminaria over the span of its existence, it’s change.

Luminaria 2014 saw the most change from all of its predecessors: new location, two nights, big-name music acts, curated artist participation rather than open-call – the list goes on and on. Every year, however, the crowds show up. Both evenings were well-attended in general but Friday got a slow start due to a light rain and crowds were heading home relatively early on Saturday.

What was the most successful aspect of this year’s event?

“The art of discovery,” said Luminaria Curator Ethel Shipton. “Both curatorially and artistically.” The event had several “zones that took on a life of their own.”

Several buildings blocked installations from view between the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the Central Library. Turn a corner and there would be yet another surprise awaiting. The murals, as expected, delighted everyone. What was unexpected – and hidden around the corner from the painted murals – was a mesmerizing video mural by Karen Mahaffy. Shapes and designs randomly ebbed and flowed in such a way that encouraged the mind to try to create order, a potentially futile brain-teaser.

Perhaps the most popular attraction of all was the room full of pinball machines by Kevin Cacy that lined the walls of a large warehouse. Although participants probably enjoyed the arcade atmosphere and playing the machines themselves, each machine represented a stunning work of pop art, spanning the ages.

Josh Segovia and Shannon Makonova enjoy a game of pinball during "Rolling Thunder Pinball" by Kevin Cacy at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.

Josh Segovia and Shannon Makonova enjoy a game of pinball during “Rolling Thunder Pinball” by Kevin Cacy at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

Other notables include the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum exhibit, which set up shop inside the El Tropicano Hotel‘s ballroom. However, both the Blue Star and Hotel Havana events were actually independent of Luminaria.

Also on hand – and especially popular with the kids – was the glassblowing exhibit set up Jake Zollie Harper and his crew. The BIP (Buró de Intervenciones Públicas) set up an installation of hammocks that was constantly crowded. While Luminaria was going on, the BIP crew was over on the near Westside, setting up hammocks for the homeless.

One mixed blessing was the performance art. These events were deliberately not placed on the schedule, in order to keep them from being overcrowded. Instead, they appeared spontaneously in the streets. People would quickly gather around to see what was going on. According to Luminaria Artistic Director Noah Khoshbin, artist Gary Garay felt “mobbed” – in a good way – when he brought out his paleta cart.

Edward Flores eats a paleta in front of artist Gary Garay's paleta covered wall at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

Edward Flores eats a paleta in front of artist Gary Garay’s paleta covered wall at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

The downside of this was that not enough people got to see the performance art. I was there for quite a while over both evenings, and never witnessed a single street performance. The stages were used exclusively for musical entertainment, an unfortunate decision. This will likely change next year to include more performance art on stage. Perhaps next year, Luminaria organizers can combine scheduled performances on stage, along with unannounced pop-ups in the streets.

Which leads us to the music, as in, way too much of it. This year’s event felt more like a music festival that happened to have some art on the fringes. Even this year’s festival poster featured the music acts in large type, the artists were listed in smaller type underneath.

Shipton herself readily acknowledges this issue.

“People were more interested in looking than listening,” she said, adding that she watched people turn away from the music acts in search of more art.

Two men take a photograph in front of Buttercups performance at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.

Two men take a photograph in front of Buttercups performance at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

The crowded stages led to musicians and DJ’s acoustically clashing with each other. Vocals, drum beats, and bass guitars bounced off all those walls in every direction. It amounted to a cacophony of sound in which people found themselves continuing the search for more art.

Part of the problem was non-committal venues, according to Khoshbin. Originally, Hotel Havana management offered up an entertainment stage that they would run. Then withdrew the offer only to reinstate it again. This led the Luminaria board to add too many stages of their own.

Khoshbin was somewhat reticent to say there was too much music. Shipton was fairly certain. The people have also spoken through social media. Numerous participant comments on a Facebook photo album posted by the Current are definitely critical of the excess music and relative paucity of art.

There were other complaints logged as well. As one commenter succinctly wrote: “cops food cops food cops food.”  There was indeed a strong police presence at the event, perhaps overly so in our post-Ferguson era. There was even a large command post truck set up nearby. People have become sensitive to this, especially at a peaceful art festival not known for having problems.

Many commenters were critical of the number of food trucks, as well. This criticism speaks to the perceived commercialization (Fiesta-ization, perhaps?) of something that previously seemed more of a grass-roots happening.

A man walks down the sidewalk while looking at a food truck at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.

A man walks down the sidewalk while looking at a food truck at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

It seems the vox populi wants to keep this event all about the art. San Antonio already has enough Fiesta-like events. In the past, Luminaria was something unique, and is veering in the wrong direction if it keeps emphasizing music over art.

Khoshbin himself said it best. He said that we can successfully “bring multiple artists in from high-end events, and the San Antonio public can fully participate and enjoy,” adding that some of the artists invited to Luminaria have previously participated in top-tier events such as the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial.

What he says rings true. Institutions like Blue Star, San Antonio Museum of ArtMcNay Art Musuem, and Artpace have worked hard to create popular events to introduce more and more people into the world of art. Perhaps more important is that San Antonio has developed a very sophisticated local art community.

At the same time, many in this art community are upset about one of the key changes at Luminaria: the transition from an open-call process to a curated one. Although many are reticent to publicly say anything, the feeling they have been left out of the process has been expressed in Facebook comments, not to mention the op-ed pieces in local media.

Shipton sees curation as the key to a well-organized event.

“Curated is a good idea … it seemed to create some consistency,” she said. This also gives curators a chance to express themselves – just as the artists do.

The plan is for Luminaria to select a different curator every year. If they’re wondering whom to select for next year, perhaps they should look no further than former SAMA Contemporary Art Curator David Rubin. With his knowledge and connections, he could help Luminaria become the top-tier event the board wants it to become.

The bottom line is that it’s difficult to put on an event as large and complex as Luminaria. Board members volunteer a lot of time and talent, not to mention money in some cases, in order to put it all together. They deserve some credit because at the end of the day, Luminaria 2014 brought people downtown to discover art. After all, that is the “big picture goal after all. Let’s just hope organizers remember: people came for the art. The music was good – but secondary.

 *Featured/top image: An art piece lays on the ground outside of Hotel Havana at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Luminaria: Saturday Night Alright for Lighting

Luminaria Lights Up for First Friday

Luminaria 2014 Changes More Than the Date

Luminaria 2014: New Footprint, New Month, Two Nights

Luminaria 2014 Expanding, Moving to River North

23 thoughts on “Luminaria 2014 Review: Hits and Misses

  1. I attended both nights and found this to be an inspiring and highly enjoyable event for our family. Sure, I could have done without the funnel cakes, junk beer and oppressively loud music, but appreciated the chance to seek out and connect with peoples artwork. Big thanks and appreciation to the organizers and artists!

  2. All reports I received from Luminaria were not favorable. Including this one. Having been a participant before as an artist, but also an anthropologist in general, I can draw a couple of conclusions from this past years Luminaria.

    -San Antonio is used to having a strata of visual arts that represent community art all the way to fine art at Luminaria. The curator failed to recognize this. Not just by the art presented, but by the curation process, an open call should be part of this event. Period.

    -Spreading the event over two days watered down the “large” feel of the event.

    -I feel a lot of artists do not speak up for fear of being “black balled” by the curators and “rich elite art scene” here in San Antonio that seem to control a lot of the bigger events. The art scene here is very tiny once you meet everyone one. If you piss off someone, it gets around quickly. (I should take a second here, to make something clear, a lot of people who are rich here in SA, do not realize they are “rich”, I am not talking about %1’ers who make 100 million dollars a month (yes there are people who do make that much!) I am talking about middle class 75K and above single/dual income families with benefits, if you do not think that is rich, look at our towns demogrpahics)

    For someone like me, who has a full time job with benefits I recognize my own privilege and why I can stand up and say this curation process is BS. But for those new artists just trying to make ends meet, I can understand them being timid to speak up and potentially lose chances for future installations and exhibits that could help build their career.

    I challenge the San Antonio curators and large art production groups to actually pay their artists, not promise that they can promote their work, or pay for materials, but actually pay the artists, as in give them actual money for the work performed.

    -Luminaria in no way alludes to music, lets just get that out there and move on.

    -Stop the navel gazing, look back at the community and take the feedback and adjust a bit, remember the privilege you have and the ability to take a community on a journey, both the artists and the patrons of San Antonio.

  3. It was too disorganized, disjointed, spread out in too many directions, all dissected by traffic jams. We couldn’t find anything other than a few murals, crowded sidewalks, and bad sound systems.

  4. I was very disappointed that there were less than half the number of artists as previous years, a small fraction of the number of local artists, a fraction Of the different types of art, and what felt like very disingenuous talk from organizers about still including locals, but then not doing so. But we all want Luminaria to be a success so I hope people enjoyed and it continues to evolve.

    PS Pinball room sounds amazing!

  5. good article. if it is to be curated, david rubin would be an excellent choice. i would love to see more art, especially local art. though i loved the “big” art that was brought in, supporting local artists is what has made the art scene grow, lets help that scene grow some more.

  6. THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN! Hope next year is better and doesn’t get kidnapped by the music, beer and food trucks again.

  7. The magic of the first years: taking art to the streets, spontaneity and diversity. Beer, food and credentials were minimized.

  8. “The art of discovery,” said Luminaria Curator Ethel Shipton. “Both curatorially and artistically.” The event had several “zones that took on a life of their own.”….where was this, we walked in circles for 90 minutes looking for a zone, art…anything. What happened to their social media presence? In this era, not having staff on FB/Twitter/Instagram full time, answering questions, doing RT updates is inexcusable. Marketing 101. This was a huge misstep for this event.

  9. I have to admit it was well organized and IN THEORY it worked, but not showcasing SA artists was a major mistake. The SA artists had the best art of the night, while most of the other art was… mediocre to bad. My biggest complaint is that the original intent of Luminaria (to showcase SA artists) was disregarded. I think the organizers had their hands full just putting the logistics together and with such a short time frame (which was ultimately the fault of city arts organizers), the Luminaria crew had no time for the selection process and just did the best they could to threw a show together. The space could have been lit up POW with all kinds of light INCLUDING the art that was showcased, as in previous years, but it became a scavenger hunt…. and me doing all the work to find the art and artists was not as “participatory” as I was wanting the event to be. Choice of music was good and turned out to be a highlight (for me), although I heard a lot of complaints about the sound systems and stages. SA City arts leaders need to give the organizers more time and they also need to showcase mostly SA artists. Luminaria has become one of the best things about living in San Antonio, so keep progressing, and city fathers, get it together and quit all your selfies! SA artists have come into their own and are one of the best things about this beautiful River City. Please give them the respect they deserve.

  10. , It is what it is…an Art party. A fun one, with talent, but an art party none the less. If we are serious about taking this to the next level, i.e. like San Antonio’s SXSW of Art. Art politics in this town, have to be set aside, and careful modeling and planning must be researched. I think the world of David S Ruben. Joseph Bravo would be a better choice as Chief curator. If we started right now, it could really take 2 years to look at successful business models. I would suggest looking at events such as the Venice Biennial as opposed to corporate models such as Art Basel. With the right leadership, careful planning, target marketing, international press, and curatorial stewardship, it could be a real win. But it will take transparency, tough questions, and a lot of work. 🙂

  11. Marketing 101 was previously mentioned. But marketing to whom? Honestly, I don’t believe this was about the quality or lack of marketing done to bring the people of SA out to “view art” (local or otherwise). What’s really going on here is putting on a cool sounding event in order to help sell the San Antonio “brandname.” Luminaria is just another selling tool for the City to put in its portfolio and then market it to potential businesses in an attempt to vie for their business/money. Which is fine, but the people in this city end up simply being pawns in the long picture. So is it really about art?? Or is it about parading proof to help woo corporations by showing off how San Antonio is such a cool, “world-class” city (“Look, we put on a yearly art festival!”). So while people may be disappointed in the event itself, it still looks great on the paper that’s being handed out by local dignitaries going out on junkets to other cities to promote the city. THAT’S the real marketing.

  12. I left after about 1 1/2 hours. Too much video art that took forever to see any change in image. Too narrow a range of entertainment on stages. Nothing much to “discover”–meaning nothing that really put a thrill into the experience. Nothing in the performance categories such as dance, orchestras, improvisational theater, formal theater, etc. Small and very scattered footprint. Nothing really experimental (such as some of the wonderful exhibits at the Women’s Building in the past). Etc., Etc., Etc.

    I don’t know why I went, since the advance publicity and photos looked boring (and the event proved to be very little more than what I had seen in the newspapers). Next year’s ANNOUNCED program is going to have to have information that wows me to get me to make the effort to attend after what I saw this year.

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