Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The official San Antonio Tricentennial website itself reveals the Tricentennial Commission’s chief accomplishment, and perhaps its biggest issue. The site touts “More than 500 Tricentennial Community Partners. Over 700 events sanctioned as official Tricentennial activities.”
With much programming revolving around the “300” concept, literally hundreds – even thousands – of artists, performers, writers, activists, and historians all contributed to the many events scheduled throughout the year. The terms “overwhelming” and “exhausting” could be heard uttered by key people involved with special Tricentennial projects, though most agree it was worth the effort.
“It was too much for anyone to see everything,” said Ben Tremillo of San Anto Cultural Arts, which participated with a new Eastside mural at the Southwest Workers Union Building on Commerce Street. Still, “the participation was so high because so many people wanted to be involved in celebrating the city,” he said.
With limited budgets, the arts and culture component of the Tricentennial started with narrower ambitions, but grew as the year went on.
Under the leadership of department Director Debbie Racca-Sittre, the City’s Department of Arts and Culture funded 20 major projects by arts organizations throughout the city, from a Tricentennial-specific budget of $314,000. The projects ranged from Flamenco dancing and a Mariachi music residency, to theatrical performance, participatory sculpture, and an exhibition of rebozos.
Through creative thinking, Racca-Sittre and her department were able to leverage those funds, and projects initially proposed for the Tricentennial, into many more projects, including 20 new commissions for the City’s collection at the Henry B. González Convention Center, and other public artworks that will last beyond 2018. In total, the department contributed a total of $5 million, Racca-Sittre said, though final numbers for the year’s events were still being processed.
With the Tricentennial year coming to an end, one of Racca-Sittre’s goals is to extend lessons learned in the leveraging of resources to the coming year, and beyond. “The Tricentennial for me was a shot in the arm for the arts that shouldn’t just be a one-time shot,” she said.
Instead, the city-wide celebration was a “pivot point” that created productive partnerships.
“Everybody in the City of San Antonio organization, and throughout the community, rallied behind the idea of San Antonio having a birthday. We were going to celebrate that, and tell people who we are, and artists are really good at that,” Racca-Sittre said.
An Inclusive Effort
Inclusivity was a primary goal for the Arts and Culture department, reached in part by funding projects that involved many more artists and performers than the city could have reached on its own, Racca-Sittre said.
Common Currents was one example of how multiple partners pitched in to go beyond the initial mandate and available resources. The visual art exhibition spanned not only the 300 years of the Tricentennial, but four months, six venues, and 300 local artists. From the outset, said Mary Heathcott, executive director of the Blue Star Contemporary gallery and a prime mover of Common Currents, the goal was to “try to do something as wide-reaching as we could imagine.”
The result was an exciting, unprecedented collaboration for the partners –Artpace San Antonio, Blue Star Contemporary Arts, the Carver Community Cultural Center, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the Mexican Cultural Institute, and the Southwest School of Art – that “celebrated not only where we came from but where we’re going in the future,” Heathcott said.
Notably, in accordance with guidelines for City funding established under Racca-Sittre’s new Cul-Tú-Art plan, each participating artist received an honorarium for the new artwork they were asked to produce.
“We helped each other raise money to provide these honorariums,” Heathcott said of the participating institutions. “Beyond that, everybody brought their own resources to the table” and helped each other in the fundraising to equalize resources, with some getting official Tri-Art financial support, she said.
Original Tricentennial Commission member Katie Luber, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), lauded Common Currents.
“The way they structured that was brilliant,” Luber said of Heathcott and early collaborator Mary Mikel Stump, formerly curator and director of exhibitions at the Southwest School of Art, whom Heathcott credits with the original idea for the show’s unusual crowd-sourced structure. Each of the six venues invited two artists, who then invited two artists, and so on, until the total of 300 artists was reached.
Such ideas were inspiring for other institutions like SAMA, the McNay Art Museum, the Witte Museum, and San Antonio’s culinary artists, Luber said. The overall collaborative effort “builds a model for the kinds of things we want to see happening in the future for our city.
“That, to me, is the real value of the Tricentennial.”
With SAMA’s signature exhibitions San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico and Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid, Luber said her own institution “tilled the ground for future collaborations” with partner institutions in Mexico and Spain. Also, importantly, media coverage those shows received will sow rewards for future, more widespread attention for the arts in San Antonio, she said.
“I believe that a city with a strong arts presence, and footprint, and programs, is a city that will get attention. And we showed that we could do it as well as anyone,” she said.
The Pearl also fostered new collaborations that will last into the future, said Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer for the redeveloped Pearl brewery. The two-month Olé San Antonio festival “knocked back” visiting Spaniards involved in the project, who found San Antonio’s genuine warmth and allure attractive and productive, she said.
“We now have a family of collaborators from this,” Fauerso said of the Pearl’s overall Tricentennial efforts, which shifted seamlessly from Spain to Mexico just in time for Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16.
Fauerso used the word “overwhelming” in describing the 128 scheduled events during the Olé festival, but said “we wanted it to feel like San Antonio, which is authentic, genuine, and truly human.”
Using the annual Fiesta celebration as an example, Fauerso said the city’s sense of generosity in celebrations can seem a bit out of control, “but that also feels very San Antonio. Everything is not disciplined and controlled and orchestrated, it’s human beings being organically creative together.”
Collaboration and community efforts extended beyond the city’s major institutions, throughout smaller arts and culture-focused organizations and groups. Many programmed Tricentennial-themed offerings, like the Classical Music Institute’s February A Modern Trifecta and Love: Transcending Three Centuries in June, or the Ballads of the Borderlands collaboration between the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio and the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, which received Tri-Arts funding from the City.
Despite limited “official” resources from the Commission, the City, and Bexar County, many artists and organizations stepped up with grassroots efforts, often self-funded or only partially funded from the Tricentennial funding pool.
Laura Thompson, founder of The African American Network (TAAN) TV channel, self-funded her major Tricentennial project “300 Voices in 300 Days,” an extensive collection of interviews with influencers in the city’s black community aired primarily on Facebook and online at taan.tv.
Though focused on the present, Thompson said that “by allowing people to tell their stories, you get an indication of what people have been doing for the past 300 years,” though “it was just a snapshot of what the community looks like.”
With many other projects delving deeply into 300 years of regional history, like the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, the true legacy of the Tricentennial might be in cementing that San Antonio history did not begin in 1836.
When people think of Texas history or even local history, their first thought is the Alamo, said Mari Tamez, president of the Canary Islands Descendants Association. “But unfortunately, the truth of the [Battle of the] Alamo was that it came 110-plus years after the real work that was being done to form a community,” she said.
“For us collectively it was an opportunity to get our story out,” Tamez said of the Tricentennial, citing the March El Nacimiento event that brought together many local heritage groups, including the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians of San Antonio, Presidio Soldiers descendents, and the Main Plaza Conservancy, who collectively told the story of the city’s founding.
Events like El Nacimiento and the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions Founder’s Day Feast “gave each one of these constituencies a voice throughout the year,” Tamez said, “and that’s important because 300 years is a lot to cover.”
Not everyone agrees that the Tricentennial lived up to its early promise. Civil rights activist and former City Councilman Mario Salas (D2) joined the Commission late, in August 2017 as a replacement for Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert.
“My position from Day One was to make sure that all the different cultural elements, ethnicity-wise, would be equally represented in the history of San Antonio, and all the nuances that go along with that. I wanted it to be very inclusive of every single culture,” he said.
Asked whether that goal was reached, Salas said, “No. I think there could have been a lot more done.” He said another lasting legacy of the year, the official commemorative book 300 Years of San Antonio & Bexar County, begins to redress what other histories have lacked.
“If we were going to do a real book, it would have to be about 10,000 pages,” he said. “It would be an encyclopedia.”