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.
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)
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.
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.
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.