Regional Report

San Antonio

This report began as a standard travelog, factual, but listless. The GIA conference title, Intersections, seemed appropriate, but irritating as it pricked at some memory I could not grasp.

Intersections...coming home in late October from a tour of a school southwest of the city center, lost. Not really lost, just confused, and looking for signs of friendly humanity to guide the way. Dusk coupled with a creeping haze which precedes some of our fall evenings lent an urgency to aggravated feelings. Suddenly, the light industrial area gave way to a turn-of-the-century business center showing signs of renovation. A gathering around a bonfire at the rear of a botanica (pharmacy) flashed by and a glimpse in the rear view mirror caught a smaller light flickering against the side of the building. All the urgency quickly evaporated in a surge of curiosity.

Against the side of the botanica was a small altar built of cement blocks and wide wooden planks. A tablecloth, shawl, and two or three crocheted place mats covered the rough wood. White candles in all sizes and in a variety of holders strategically lit the mementos of a lifetime. These ofrendas, or offerings, are unique to the individuals they represent and often include photographs, flowers, food and drink items, and household effects. They are sacred to their neighborhoods and are rarely vandalized.

I later discovered that this intersection was at one time a thriving mercantile and produce center settled by some of the early Jewish families who came to San Antonio—eventually evolving into smaller neighborhood stores serving the surrounding Hispanic community. Now, it is riding the wave of a trendy antique trade, but the culture and influences linger.

Like the intersection of my experience, Intersections: art, culture, and global change is an opportunity to explore cultural differences, exchanges, and evolution in a city rich in cultural celebration.

Marion Lee
San Antonio Area Foundation

Art and Politics Intermingled
San Antonio is a city where arts and politics have long intermingled. It is a city where a former mayor serves as development director for the museum of art, and another former mayor is now a former Cabinet member—under whose helm, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development formed and funded a number of national and local partnerships between housing projects and cultural arts entities. It is a city where the east side's Carver Community Cultural Center is a line item in the city budget and not subject to the grantmaking processes of the Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs (DACA), yet the west side's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is a grant applicant along with all others in the city.

San Antonio was selected as the site for this year's GIA conference, in part, for its current vibrancy as a cultural community collectively negotiating both neighborhoods and cultural tourism. Currently, however, the mix of arts and politics means that, in addition, conference participants will be tourists in a city where the debate over public arts funding is in high gear and where events are changing moment to moment. Examples include:

  • The city's Percent for Art Program, run by DACA and in place for just a year, has been under close scrutiny by the city council with the threat of rescission. A likely “compromise” will replace it with a “design enhancement ordinance” that will erase the words “art” and “artist” from its text.
  • In mid-September 1997, the city council reduced DACA's budget by 15%, set up a $100,000 “arts incentive fund” intended to reward arts organizations who attract the most tourists, and eliminated all funding ($62,000) to the Esperanza Peace and Social Justice Center. The city council cuts were made following a surprise visit to the council chambers by the local Christian Pro-Life Foundation. Esperanza, a community cultural center serving San Antonio and south Texas, brings together diverse communities—women, people of color, lesbians, gays, and “flaming heterosexuals,” as writer Sandra Cisneros put it. It had been consistently funded by the city in the past and is the recent recipient of an NEA arts education grant.

While public support seems to be diminishing daily, positive developments still seem to spring steadily from the private sector. New leaders are being identified for and within the community:

  • The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Blue Star Art Space, and the Southwest Craft Center have, or will soon welcome, new leadership.
  • PICASA: People Involved in Culture & Arts in San Antonio, a loose broad-based citizens action group that mobilized around the Percent for Art debate, hopes to remain vigilant and responsive to needs of the arts community.

Local foundations and new patrons are demonstrating a responsiveness to cultural community needs:

  • ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art/San Antonio, Linda Pace's vision and gift to San Antonio established in 1995 and growing, has infused unprecedented energy and resources into attracting the international art world's attention through high quality residencies, exhibitions, commissions, and travel for international, national and South Central Texas artists.
  • The same weekend that news of the DACA cuts sank in, Spurs basketball center David Robinson announced a $5 million donation to a $10 million dollar project adding a college preparatory school, meeting space and a variety of social services as an adjunct to the Carver Community Cultural Center.
  • New leadership at the San Antonio Area Foundation has been approached by the community about the seemingly novel idea of individual artist grants.
  • Earlier this year, an heir to the Gebhardt chili fortune left the bulk of his fortune (estimated at $300 million) to the local Albert and Bessie Mae Kronkosky Foundation. The gift will infuse at least $15 million annually into area beneficiaries which are likely to include agencies that encourage the arts and support museums and libraries.
  • Local auto and communications giant Red McCombs and his wife Charlene have announced their contribution of $1 million to the restoration of the Empire Theatre downtown.

New relationships are being forged between business owners and the arts community:

  • First Fridays in the Southtown section of the city, near downtown, are successful merchant-driven monthly events where restaurants and antique stores showcase local art while exhibition openings anchor another end of an avenue at the Blue Star Arts Complex.
  • A Blue Star Art Space public art project this summer filled storefronts along the gradually developing “Deco District” with such success that businesses are interested in it as an annual event.

Successful shifts in focus have led to new partnerships:

  • San Antonio Fighting Back (the local outpost of a national United Way program to reduce the demand for alcohol and illegal drugs funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention) has acknowledged this year that the arts can be as effective youth alternatives to gang activity as sports.
  • Southwestern Bell and Pace Foods came to the aid of an event called “Art in the 'Hood” as it tried to define itself as either an arts event or a fundraiser for a local community development corporation. The corporate support helped the community adopt the arts event portion while the CDC benefited from food booths. A base was successfully established from which to repeat the event annually.

Initiatives like these are helping lead this vibrant and diverse community of artists, arts organizations, academics, audiences, and collectors toward becoming a body of vocal arts advocates seeking other untapped sources of cultural support. Yet, while growing and great, private support is not enough.

For tourists and travelers, San Antonio has long been both a destination and a place to start. Like many other cities in this country, San Antonio—ninth largest in the nation—dickers about potholes and public art, dispenses with funding for arts agencies, confuses public art with public funding for the arts, and continues questioning public funding of art that some consider too public.

Art historian Victor Zamudio Taylor has characterized San Antonio as a hotbed for “glocalization.” San Antonio is cast as harbinger for the rest of the nation, and here, Grantmakers in the Arts may witness what's coming.

Penny Boyer
commissioned by ArtPace