The City of San Antonio is in the enviable position of being one of the oldest and most culturally rich cities in the United States. Founded in 1718 — more than half a century before the Declaration of Independence — San Antonio is perched on the eve of its Tricentennial.
Since I arrived to San Antonio five years ago, I have witnessed incredible development on the north side of downtown in the neighborhood of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
The transformation of the Lone Star Beer Brewery into the Museum in 1979 was the first instance of reinvestment in the neighborhood and was driven by private dollars. In what had been a desolate, isolated, and unappealing part of town, the Museum became the lynchpin for the Museum Reach of the River Walk and the redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery complex.
Arts and culture provided the spark for the economic expansion on the north side of downtown and ignited the area as the place to live, dine, shop, and enjoy life.
The celebration of the Tricentennial in 2018 is an opportunity to take best advantage of arts and culture as a catalyst for growth and prosperity in San Antonio.
Study after study shows the rich, even heady, influence that fiscal investment in arts and culture has on city life, and in particular on economic growth, positive educational outcomes, and civic pride. The arts generate billions of dollars in federal, state, and local tax revenues. Besides that, a strong and vibrant culture of arts has profound positive effects on the educational outcomes of students who are provided even minimal exposure to the arts.
As one of five co-chairs appointed by Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to oversee the larger Tricentennial Commission, I have been deeply involved in creating the plans to mark this anniversary in a meaningful and lasting way for our citizens.
We have looked to the celebrations in other cities as our models for the Tricentennial and found one of the best in Hemisfair, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018 as well. Like the organizers of Hemisfair, I expect the Tricentennial to leave a lasting and positive mark on the cultural identity of San Antonio.
The timing should be auspicious: the city is collectively focused on the future and predictions that our population will grow by one million people in the next 20 years. Urban planning initiatives are underway to improve San Pedro Creek, redevelop Hemisfair Park, and turn Broadway into a beautiful “Smart Street.”
Each of these initiatives is intended to stimulate economic growth, yet none of them address the core importance of investing in arts and culture. Without that investment, we miss an opportunity to create the city we want – one that is attractive to new corporations, residents, and tourists. Simply growing in population is not enough to secure a strong and vibrant future for San Antonio.
Currently, financial support for the Tricentennial is limited, and few private dollars have been identified yet to support arts and culture during the Tricentennial year. Despite this, San Antonio’s cultural and educational institutions have vigorously responded to the call to participate in the Tricentennial. 2018 will be the year in which more than 400 arts organizations will show the world the breadth and depth of our achievements and aspirations.
We can do more. Cities with vibrant growth and bright futures have taken the initiative to invest in and support dedicated arts districts in their cities. Dallas identified and supported an arts district in the 1980s, driving organizations to locate in that area of northwest downtown Dallas. The Dallas arts district fully reimagined a part of that city that was desolate and abandoned, much like the north side of San Antonio’s downtown was in previous years. The Dallas investment in the arts spurred development, increased tax revenues for the city, and increased tourism to the arts district by more than 100%.
Let’s name the arts district after the Tricentennial. Let’s support organizations that need new facilities to relocate there and make it easier for our citizens and visitors to know where to go for the arts and experience the rich array of cultural offerings in our city. With the designation of an arts district, we could, in tandem, make the Tricentennial a year in which we celebrate access to the arts for everyone.
San Antonio already has a Museum Reach. For the city to dedicate the area along the river between the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the Pearl to an arts district will further improve our city and leave a lasting impact on residents and tourists alike. Many of the elements are in place already, including the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Southwest School of Art, and the Tobin.
My dream is to change the culture of participation in the arts across our city. Every organization could be open for free to our citizens for the entire year. To achieve such a vision requires investment, perhaps from a combination of public and private funding sources. The return on that investment will be much greater though. It will secure a lively future for the arts, enjoyed by an engaged citizenry who support and appreciate it.
I want the citizens of San Antonio to believe that they are an essential part of our arts institutions and to understand that our programs, plays, concerts, and exhibitions are for all to see and enjoy. Local participation and engagement strengthen arts organizations, making them more desirable for tourists seeking authentic experiences.
The argument for support of the arts is at core an economic one. We should seize the opportunity presented by the Tricentennial and invest in the arts for our future. Investment in the arts for the Tricentennial will help ensure that San Antonio becomes a model of economic growth, a place where our citizens are an educated and well-paid workforce, a destination city for international tourists, and a place where our beautiful downtown and historic city are revitalized and vibrant.
Disclosure: Katherine Luber is a Tricentennial Commission co-chair.
Top image: A man walks by one of the many murals at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.