San Antonians and guests to our city are getting a whole new opportunity to experience the growing collection of public art along the San Antonio River. This October, the San Antonio River Foundation celebrated the completion of two of the four planned public art portals on the Mission Reach. Most people are familiar with the iconic, oversized school of fish hanging above the river from the I-35 overpass and other art installations along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River. These latest installations at the Mission Concepción and Mission San Juan portals mirror how the city itself is evolving and growing.
As San Antonio grows, not only in size, but in international recognition, it is fitting that our public art expands and grows with the city. But, we also need to make sure that we still have a strong connection to our past. As part of the $384 million San Antonio River Improvement Project, “portals” were developed creating a physical link between the missions and the river. One of the many goals of the project was to restore former historical and cultural connections that tied the San Antonio missions with the river that brought them here. These connections were lost years ago when good-intentioned flood control projects isolated the missions from the natural course of the river. Now, these portals reinforce the importance of the river to the missions by encouraging visitors to circulate between the two and the signature public art pieces at the portals serve as beacons to passing walkers, runners, and bicyclists.
Bringing world-class contemporary art to the Mission Reach isn’t just about connecting the river to the Missions, though. It’s about connecting the citizens of the Southside of San Antonio to art outside of a traditional museum environment, to truly bring the art to the public. The vibrant contemporary public art bridges the cultural history of the community to the exciting growth ahead for the area.
With the recent designation by UNESCO of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage site the Mission Reach area will play an even greater role in our city. The portals and public art will enhance the experience for both locals and visitors coming to see our World Heritage site. It is timely that the most recent piece of public art, at the Mission San Juan Art Portal, is by an internationally-known artist. Belgian artist Arne Quinze, who has works throughout Europe and Asia, chose San Antonio as the location of “WHISPERS,” his first permanent public art installation in the United States. Quinze’s goal as an artist is to make people stop and think about their immediate surroundings and the overall environment, just as the portals are designed to give visitors a moment to pause and reflect upon the river and the missions.
And sometimes public art is not just for reflection and appreciation. Stacy Levy, the Philadelphia-based artist responsible for “River Return,” the expansive limestone and concrete outdoor space at Mission Concepción Art Portal, envisions her art as a hands-on piece, allowing visitors to interact with the artwork as part of the experience. Low curving limestone walls surround a “carpet” of intricately etched drawings in concrete of river currents and mission fresco drawings.
In addition to bringing in artists from around the world, the San Antonio River Foundation has involved local artists, including Riley Robinson, Vincent Valdez, and Anne Wallace, in creating various public art offerings along the Mission Reach. Plans are already underway to develop the remaining two art portals at Mission San José and Mission Espada.
A natural next step in the evolution of the Mission Reach segment of the San Antonio River is Confluence Park. The San Antonio River Foundation’s plan for Confluence Park is to bring art, education, and recreation together in a green space in the heart of the southern urban core of San Antonio. Located where San Pedro Creek enters the San Antonio River, Confluence Park will transform a former industrial storage yard into a unique, interactive learning and recreational space for local residents, students, and visitors.
All of these endeavors by the San Antonio River Foundation to provide essential amenities and enhancements along the San Antonio River are funded solely through corporate and private individual donations. The Foundation raises funds for, invests in, and manages these public projects that provide opportunities for residents and city visitors to enjoy the river, experience our rich cultural heritage, and appreciate our vibrant, artistic community identity.
Beautiful and inspiring public art, pedestrian bridges, and art benches not only add attractive new appeal to the area, they provide an important social and cultural connection to the community. We are fortunate to be able to witness these installations become an integral part of the Southside and our city at large, as the transformation of the Mission Reach continues.
*Top image: The back side of the ‘Whisper’ Portal at Mission San Juan. Photo by Scott Ball.