Art advocates As good as any anywhere 

Lawyer and contemporary art advocate Lewis Tarver talks about the future of SA philanthropy and his firm's large collection

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Attorney Lewis Tarver stands in front of "Shoe Bear", a mixed media piece by local artist Ken Little, in the offices of Cox Smith & Matthews. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Real estate and transportation attorney Lewis Tarver has been listed in the Best Lawyers in America 15 times, but in San Antonio's arts community, the former San Antonio Museum of Art and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center board member holds another kind of authority. Tarver and his wife, the artist Tinka Tarver, have been longtime collectors of local and Texas art; Tarver is also given credit for helping to build and maintain his former law firm's contemporary collection. At the time of its merger with Cox & Smith, Matthews & Branscomb held more than 70 contemporary Texan works, arrestingly installed at the firm's Westin Place offices. When Tarver spoke with the Current on April 19, the fate of the collection was undetermined. Cox Smith & Matthews is having the offices redecorated and Tarver worries the extensive installation of mostly minimalist-influenced work will not survive the makeover. Tarver, who also shares a painting studio with multi-media artist Ethel Shipton, discussed the state of contemporary art in San Antonio, his desire to see a contemporary museum established, and the "great man" (and woman) theory of philanthropy. For the entire interview, go to sacurrent.com.

Elaine Wolff: How is the state of contemporary art in San Antonio?

Lewis Tarver: I think the state of things is good, largely because of Blue Star, which in turn sort of made Artpace happen. That in turn led to Parchman Stremmel and Finesilver Gallery, and Joan Grona, and other good galleries.

What hasn't happened, unfortunately, is that most of the institutions have not really picked up on contemporary art as I thought they would.

EW: It seems that part of the tension for Blue Star `is that it is` struggling between being a space for showing cutting-edge and emerging work, and trying to fill the gap for a non-collecting contemporary museum like Houston's CAM.

LT: Blue Star started out with two main goals: One was to expose people in San Antonio to contemporary art - the best - and to promote it; and to promote local artists. From the beginning we always felt it was critical to have local artists shown in the company of national artists.

I think mainly what Blue Star is confronting now is how to be a well-funded organization and yet take the risks that are inherent in showing cutting-edge work.

EW: Dallas and Houston museums have recently received bequests in excess of $400 million apiece. San Antonio doesn't see that kind of arts funding. Is it because there isn't that kind of money here, or is there a lack of leadership among people who could initiate that level of giving?

LT: I think it's a third factor, and that is that San Antonio is an extremely conservative community as far as matters cultural are concerned.

But there isn't the money available for art; there is the money available - I mean look at Kronkosky, which does not really strongly support the arts, but they do other good things.

EW: They'll support arts-related education for instance.

LT: `And there is` the recent experience of the Tobin Foundation, which has not been exactly courageous in leading the community into new experiences in contemporary art. But maybe that wasn't their purpose.

I think that it's awfully hard in a community to have a strong voice for contemporary art and not have a great contemporary art museum, something like `Houston's` CAM.
- Lewis Tarver

EW: The Tobin made the first matching grant of $20,000 to get the new Bexar County Arts & Culture Fund off the ground.

LT: Bruce Flohr has a key role in that, and Janet Flohr, who is one of the true leaders of the contemporary art community here; the two of them will see that it's gonna be dynamic. What they will do with it, I don't know.

Unfortunately, in a way, it is following the very successful pattern of the United Way organizations, and United Way organizations are effective; they're middle of the road, they're gonna do something for everybody.

But I still have great hope. Bruce and Janet Flohr are strong people and they're real advocates of first-class contemporary art.

EW: What one change might be the most helpful in advancing San Antonio's contemporary art community?

LT: I think that it's awfully hard in a community to have a strong voice for contemporary art and not have a great contemporary art museum, something like CAM. Blue Star may grow into that. I think that the leadership there would like to see it get more into that mold, but it certainly hasn't yet. And the other place I think could probably put that across would be the Southwest School of Art & Craft.

I require myself to have at least one bad idea every quarter. And I was telling `Southwest School Director Paula Owen` last quarter's was to acquire the property across the street from the school and turn it into just a super-knockout contemporary art museum.

I think she'd love to do it if it were feasible.

EW: Maybe you can start a contemporary art museum in San Antonio with Matthews & Branscomb's collection as the founding gift.

LT: The problem there is it takes more than having an initial collection. What I wish would happen is that the `San Antonio` Museum of Art would donate its `contemporary` collection and combine it with ours. But ... I love the idea that it's a private collection and I had always thought that this idea would spread to others.

EW: Others within your `new` firm?

LT: In other firms and businesses. There's been a few examples of it. I don't know that we could take any credit at all, but I'm sure that the SBC Center and Peter and Julianna Holt - they have wonderful taste and they already had a collection - but I'm sure that they had heard some things about our collection, that it was local artists. And that to me is the biggest thing that we accomplished: that we've recognized that local artists are as good as any anywhere.

By Elaine Wolff


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