Rivard: Centro de Artes Awaits a Better Vision

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Centro de Artes in the heart of the Zona Cultural. Photo by Scott Ball.

In the end, consider it good news that the City of San Antonio is terminating its lease agreement with Texas A&M-San Antonio to operate Centro de Artes in the heart of the Zona Cultural where the spirits along San Pedro Creek are stirring with anticipation.

The next five years will bring great transformation to the western reaches of downtown, and a fledgling university preparing for its first freshman class is not equipped to lead the way. So Centro de Artes is yet again awaiting its own rebirth, and it can happen and will happen if the right people come together and make it happen.

San Antonio deserves nothing less. The focus seems to be on the next million people coming here, on where they will live, and how they will travel between home and work. But what about the city and the people that are already here? What about the many generations that came before us and the incredible wealth of history, culture, and stories all around us?

We have the place to put it. We need to find a way to put it there.

If  the people of San Antonio really want a national-class Latino arts center, they will find a way make it a reality. So much good is happening to make San Antonio’s downtown more vibrant, more inviting, and more true to its past. All of us in this city should be embarrassed that we haven’t been able to build an arts and cultural institution worthy of the San Antonio name story. We are one of the country’s truly unique and singular cities – what made us so? The city’s Spanish/Mexican/Tejano/Latino heritage and its present-day identity of a city that looks like what so many others cities will look like, too, some day.

Yet we struggle to tell and display our own story. We have Centro de Artes a 15-minute walk from Main Plaza for the local or the visitor. West Commerce Street will be part of that coming transformation, along with many of the buildings and businesses that line it. What we need to summon now is the leadership, the vision, the philanthropy – no arts institute or museum can live without it – and the city’s artists and arts community to come together and find ways, step by step, to try again.

The City of San Antonio has been a great partner and can continue to be a great partner, but it cannot lead, manage, or control it. We need arts professionals and good people willing to support their creative independence, and we need the voices and passion of our artists.

We also need someone with the political credibility who can make it their mission to catalyze all these forces. That would be Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who happens to be ideal for the job. It was Treviño who acted after reading the Rivard Report story on July 8 that first disclosed A&M-San Antonio’s President Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson’s negotiations with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to bring the homeless DRT Library into Centro de Artes in place of Latino arts exhibitions and programs.

(Read more: A&M-SA in Talks to House DRT Library at Centro de Artes)

Treviño’s letter of July 12 to Dr. Matson unequivocally opposed such a move and for good reason. The traditional telling of the Alamo story has not been an inclusive one, and the DRT over the last century is responsible in no small part for that distortion of history. Whole chapters have been excised to make it easier to turn history into myth. This in no way diminishes the heroism or sacrifice of those who died defending the Alamo. That battle may be the most dramatic 13 days in the history of the site and the people who have occupied it over the millennia. But that doesn’t make the rest of the story any less important or compelling.

(Read more: Plan to House DRT Library at Centro de Artes Quashed)

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) thanks stakeholders for their support in the Alamo master planning process. Photo by Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson / Rivard Report

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) thanks stakeholders for their support in the Alamo master planning process. File photo by Lea Thompson.

By July 15, Treviño announced an end to that scenario and followed his letter with meetings with Dr. Matson and with City staff. Behind the scenes, Bexar County officials were doing what they often do – working on an alternative plan. In the end, we reported that A&M-San Antonio and Bexar County had agreed to lease terms that will bring the DRT Library into the County-owned Presidio Gallery at 126 E, Nueva St. across from the Bexar County Courthouse.

Left unresolved is the future of Centro de Artes. Treviño will be working with others starting Tuesday, he said in a weekend interview, to start building the kind of coalition it will take to bring a Latino arts center back to life. The City, for its part, has pledged to pay the $10,000 a month to maintain and secure the building, with its new roof and air conditioning system, and it will involve its own staff talent to support and work with Treviño.

“This town has all the resources it needs to make such an endeavor a success,” Treviño said. “It’s a matter of putting it all together, a matter of taking action. We have the mission statement. I see this outcome as an opportunity. I have to be mindful that there are things the City should not be in the business of doing, but we are there to protect and advocate.”

There are considerable resources at hand. For starters, San Antonio has any number of Latino artists worthy of solo exhibitions, and it would be useful to establish timelines and show groups of artists from different generations and how each one led to the next in a natural evolution to the present day.

Other arts and cultural institutions in the city can play a role. The San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) has the best collection of Mexican folk art to be found, thanks to former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and his descendants who bequeathed the collection to the museum. Most of it sits in the museum’s underground storage. Why not lend it and raise SAMA’s profile downtown and on the near-Westside? It might bring more first time visitors to the museum at 200 W. Jones Ave.

The McNay Art Museum will soon be under the leadership of its new director, Peruvian-born Rich Aste, who comes here from the Brooklyn Museum and has  long history of curating Old World and New World art together in ways that tell the story of where we came from and what we became. Aste grew up in Miami and comes with a Latin sensibility and a wealth of knowledge on how Latino cities have learned to tell their story.

(Read more: New McNay Director Brings Global Perspective

The McNay owns one of the nation’s greatest collections of prints, and many of them are those of great Mexican artists. Treviño pointed out to me in our weekend conversation that one only has to travel a handful of generations to go from Mexican muralist and artist Diego Rivera to his friend, the great Mexican architect Luis Barragán, to two of his protégés, Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta and Architect and Landscape Architect Mario Schjetnan. Legorreta designed our Central Library, while Schjetnan has become a central influence on the San Pedro Creek design.

Muñoz & Co. Design Team Consultants Mario Schejetnan (right) and Steve Tillotson present to the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project committee. Photo by Scott Ball.

Landscape Architect Mario Schjetnan (right) and Muñoz & Co. Architect Steve Tillotson addressing the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project Citizens Committee. Photo by Scott Ball.

Under retiring Director William J. Chiego, The McNay has greatly expanded its collections and community outreach. Bringing a small selection of its print collection to Centro de Artes would introduce The McNay to a new audience and undoubtedly attract new visitors to its verdant campus setting on North New Braunfels Avenue and Austin Highway.

Visitors who have been fortunate enough to spend a few hours in the home of UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo and his wife, Dr. Harriet Romo, know that the Romos have amassed one of the finest print collections of contemporary Mexican-American artists in private hands. The Romos have donated hundreds of prints to UT-Austin, their alma mater, and to UTSA, and easily have enough art in their collection to stand as a solo exhibition.

The Instituto Cultural de Mexico (ICM) is under new leadership, and its new Director, Mónica del Arenal – who, like Treviño, is an architect – is a dynamic figure with deep connections in Mexico’s contemporary art scene, as evidenced by the most recent exhibition mounted under her direction, Mundos Posibles/Possible Worlds. Prior to the current exhibit, the ICM and SAMA collaborated on the exhibition, Mi Casa, Tu Casa, which drew 900 people on its opening days despite the intense demolition clean up and construction underway at Hemisfair.

(Read more: Instituto Cultural de México Sees New Leadership, Uncertain Future)

Mónica del Arenal, director of the Instituto Cultural de México. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Baststone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Mónica del Arenal, director of the Instituto Cultural de México. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

The point here is that San Antonio is rich in art and arts leadership. It will have to match that with supporters willing to provide the funds necessary to revive the Centro de Artes. Even after the City footed the bill for a new A/C chiller and a new roof, the building lacks some of the archival quality elements that any responsible repository of irreplaceable art deserves.

A new contemporary art exhibition curated by the City’s Department of Culture and Creative Development and showcasing the works of San Antonio artists and their roots in Mexico, SATX/MX: Un Viaje Lleno de Cultura, will open sometime in early September before the city’s Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrations. It will remain open through Dec. 16.

The City’s small Tricentennial staff will move back into its offices at Centro de Artes later this month, and Dr. Matson, one of 18 Tricentennial Commissioners, wants to establish and install a timeline in the building of the city’s 300 years of history. Done well, that will be worth experiencing.

The SATX/MX could be a more interesting and living example of Latino art. It would be a mistake to make Centro de Artes a place to experience San Antonio’s past. Like the city around it, Centro de Artes will truly come back to life when the past is connected to the present and we can show ourselves and the millions of people who visit San Antonio the city we have become and where we are going.



Correction: An earlier version  of this story stated that Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson is one of the City’s five Tricentennial Commissioners. She is one of 18 commissioners.


A&M-San Antonio and Bexar County Reach a DRT Library Deal

Branch: On the DRT Moving Into Centro de Artes

Daughters of the Republic Bid Farewell to Alamo Duties

‘Nuestra Gente’ Exhibit Shines Light on Everyday People

4 thoughts on “Rivard: Centro de Artes Awaits a Better Vision

  1. There are indeed large portions of import Mexican art collections that are in storage in local museums like SAMA and the McNay. In the future, some of this art might be loaned to a revisioned Centro de Artes for exhibition. But the challenge for the Latino art museum in El Mercado has not principally been where to get the art. Latino art is ubiquitous and available from countless sources locally and abroad. There is no shortage of museum quality Latino art produced in our region.

    No, the challenge for this institution has been a persistent absence of competent professional management. Since its inception, it has never been operated by trained museum industry professionals. Most of its exhibitions, with the exception of those curated by Ruben Cordova, have been mounted by well-intentioned amateurs who have lacked the scholarly and professional experience to curate “museum quality” exhibits. Hence these exhibits and the artwork displayed in them have been, at best, uneven and infrequent.

    While funding has also been a challenge, money has been spent but not always wisely. The institution has historically been dominated by parochial politics rather than operated according to established professional industry standards. Efforts to date have been ad hoc, lacked strategic planning, lacked experienced successful managerial staff and lacked the operational protocols that are well-understood by museum industry professionals.

    Both SAMA and the McNay are AAM certified institutions. The American Alliance of Museums is the professional body that certifies museums and establishes professional operating protocols by which museums should be governed and operated. In all the previous attempts to create a Latino art museum in this facility, those charged with the task have never even considered pursuing AAM certification. Without it this certification, any future efforts will likely yield the same lack luster result that we have seen to date.

    AAM offers professional guidance in board governance, strategic planning, facility operation, collections management, curatorial methodology, educational programming and a host of other issues required to create and maintain an exhibiting institution that will be viable and thrive for generations to come.

    AAM also establishes protocols for intra-institutional lending. Most American museums, including SAMA and the McNay, are extremely reluctant to loan artworks to institutions that lack AAM certification because without this certification the lender cannot be assured that their artworks will be safely and securely stored and exhibited. AAM certification provides the baseline for being a professional exhibiting organization that can be trusted by museum industry peers.

    AAM certification also provides potential funders and donors confidence that their contributions will be well-managed from the board level, through registration, through curation, through exhibition, through educational outreach and right down to maintaining the facility to ensure that it provides a secure environment for the care of artworks in its charge.

    AAM provides continuing education for industry professionals through its annual convention, through its publications and through its peer networking year round. This enables museum professionals to stay abreast of developments in their industry and in their particular areas of specialization.

    The continuing risk of trying to establish a Latino art museum in El Mercado is that it will continue to represent yet another half-hearted effort that amounts more to political tokenism than a genuine effort to establish a professionally run organization that actually delivers the cultural goods. Without AAM certification, other museums, potential donors and industry professionals will continue to be skeptical of the veracity of the intent of a City that proposes to operate a museum without first running the essential AAM certification gauntlet.

    We must not only assemble a museum board that understands this and is committed to the arduous effort required to successfully undergo the ordeal of establishing a viable museum, we must also hire experienced museum industry professionals with the academic qualifications and established track records of success. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and good intentions alone will not get San Antonio the thriving Latino art museum it needs.

  2. Well said Joseph, but I would add that an AAM certified Latino Museum deserves a much better location . The location of Centro de Artes building is not a destination programmed for scholarly stimulation. As you stated its an “institution that has historically been dominated by parochial politics “. It will continue to be because of El Mercado’s historical and political context.

  3. Felix, I am somewhat agnostic on the location for such a Latino art museum. But I do know that without industry standard professional protocols, experienced staffing and AAM certification, any such endeavor is fraught regardless of its location.

    The location in Market Square may be problematic, no less so now because after so many less than fabulously successful efforts, it is currently associated with failure in much of the public’s imagination. As a respected museum consultant recently observed on a comment thread addressing this issue, such a locational stigma is now no small challenge to overcome. When I first accepted the position as the Art Adminstrator at the Centro de Artes back in January, one of the first things I was told, by a high ranking administrator who shall remain nameless, was that, “A Latino art museum has been tried and failed here, evidently there is no community interest in having one.” I suspect that this opinion is not unique to that person. Regardless of how many people may suffer from this misconception, it is indeed misguided.

    The facility in Market Square is not physically unworkable and could be an enviable exhibition facility with a built-in traffic generating location. Between March 29 and June 19 of this year, half of this time with only the Sacred Waters exhibit on view, the Centro de Artes had 14,692 visitors to its Market Square location. With more than one exhibit mounted at a time and with an established consistent track record of museum quality exhibitions in this space, that reasonably impressive number could be driven substantially higher.

    This is why I focus on AAM certification, because it is an insurance policy to mitigate against meddlesome political interference from various parties regardless of the location of a Latino art museum. Once an institution receives AAM certification, it has the protocols in place for competently efficient management. In addition, this certification means that museum leadership is generally reluctant to do anything that could jeopardize this respect conferring auspice. AAM requires regular reporting and inspection, hence, the American Alliance of Museums can revoke its certification from any institution that fails to consistently follow its protocols.

  4. The city appears to lack the expertise and financial commitment necessary to establish Latino art exhibitions in that facility or elsewhere in the city. The city seemed more concerned about getting a tenant in the facility instead of being concerned about the establishment of a Latino art museum or Latino art exhibition space. The city contracted with TAMU-SA by providing it with a facility along with operating and programming support dollars without receiving any detailed plans from TAMU-SA regarding how it was going to utilize/develop the facility and with little to no oversight of planned activities resulting in unused budgeted program dollars from both the city and TAMU-SA. That approach is acceptable if the city’s only concern was getting a tenant into the building, but I feel it was an inadequate and irresponsible approach if the city was truly trying to establish a Latino art museum in the facility. It is clear that the city does not have the expertise to be in the “museum” business nor the expertise to evaluate proposals from outside entities on the development of a museum. The creations of “museums” should be left up to nonprofit entities like the Witte or McNay and not something city bureaucrats should attempt to accomplish.

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