Will alternative art return to Blue Star? 

Two weekends ago, it almost seemed like First Friday was back at the Blue Star Arts Complex. For months, foot traffic at the Complex, which relied on First Thursday and Friday art openings, suffered as its main entrance was all but impossible to access due to construction on South Alamo Street. Another construction project, this one rehabilitating the Complex itself, caused the displacement of several art spaces, diminishing the allure for serious art hounds. When Alamo Street’s blockades are finally removed for good, and Blue Star’s makeover is complete, will the art focus that helped launch First Friday, and cement Blue Star as a San Antonio landmark, return with the crowds? The jury’s still out.

Though the Department of Public Works estimates that the massive Alamo Street project to widen sidewalks and install sewer lines may take until the end of 2014 to complete, Blue Star’s revamping, which started last May, has reached a turning point. Two walkways linking the three long buildings in the Complex are now complete, and there seemed to be an uptick in the amount of people milling about last First Friday. Patrons packed Bar 1919, Blue Star Brewing Co., and Joe Blue’s bar, while Stella Public House, sister restaurant to newly opened Halcyon, hosted a private party — a dry run for the pizza spot’s soft opening last weekend. Galleries, though, are still fewer and further between than they had been just last year.

As of last week, Jump-Start Performance Company received notice that their lease will not be extended. The Overtime Theater already relocated, faced with losing half their area in the new build-out. Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, UTSA Satellite Space, and a few resident photographers and painters still mount shows, but Stone Metal Press closed. Joan Grona Gallery, a professional operation representing local and Texas artists, shut its doors last April when Grona segued to working as an on-call art consultant. Three well-known alternative art spaces dear to the San Antonio arts community — cactus bra SPACE (the oldest continually operating artist-run space in the city), Three Walls Gallery, and Stella Haus Art Space — had to vacate their premises for the construction to begin. Though promised new locations once the dust settled, new leases have yet to be finalized.
With the Complex’s first anchor tenant, Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, long-standing Blue Star Brewing Co., and the Complex itself sharing near-identical names, there has long been confusion whether the project that began with a renegade art show 28 years ago would find its final allegiance with art or more prosaic commerce.

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In the beginning — 1985 — the dreams were big, when developers Hap Veltman and Bernard Lifshutz partnered to buy a plot of out-of-date warehouses on the west bank of the San Antonio River in the King William neighborhood in Southtown. Veltman, who had a special affinity for the river, had pioneered restorations of historic buildings downtown, and saw possibilities for bringing back the old district in Southtown, too. A year later, when the curator of contemporary art at San Antonio Museum of Art lost his job, a planned exhibition of local art was cancelled, but the artists simply relocated.

They came to terms with the new owners of the old Blue Star buildings, and staged an art show that July. Against expectations, it was a resounding success, and an agreement was made to continue the art presence, leading to the founding of Contemporary Art Month and what is now Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. Artists moved into the raw spaces, setting up studios, and several years later Lifshutz built the new loft building in the center of the Complex, with the first tenants moving in 1991. Over the years, businesses have come and gone, and the residential spaces, now numbering over 60, have swelled, though occupied by fewer and fewer artists, as the physical conditions at the complex slowly improved and rents crept up.

Hank Lee, owner of San Angel Folk Art, believes the future of Blue Star will most likely tilt towards either art or restaurants. Now, the food and beverage business has the edge.

“Restaurants thrive next to other restaurants, but galleries need to be near other galleries, too,” Lee told the Current last week. Approaching its 25th anniversary at the arts complex, the loss of other art spaces hasn’t helped San Angel, while the new bunch thronging for cocktails and beer are, says Lee, “another crowd. They show up at night, and they don’t buy art.” Alamo Street’s closure this winter hit Lee’s gallery hard. “We lost Christmas,” he said.

But things may finally be turning a corner, art-wise. James Lifshutz, son of Bernard Lifshutz and present head of the company that owns the Blue Star Arts Complex, spoke with the Current last week. He affirmed that the Complex is still committed to art, stating that, “The dream that began 25 years ago is now blossoming.” Galleries are finally starting to trickle back. Robert Hughes, a longtime dealer on Alamo Street, has relocated next to San Angel in Grona’s old spot, and expects to open his doors to the public in the next month or two. Mockingbird Hand Prints, a new joint effort by artists Jane Bishop and Paula Cox, will present paper and fabric prints designed by the artists, ranging from letter press cards to custom wallpaper and upholstery fabrics. Sharing the retail workload and utilizing the space as a studio will help the new venture stay viable. Bishop and Cox hope to move into their new space sometime in the spring or early summer.

Whether the alternative art spaces dislocated during the construction will return is yet to be seen. Though Lifshutz told the Current last week that he expects both cactus bra and Three Walls will return “in the next few weeks,” neither gallery owner could confirm that they would reopen soon. Asked the status of resuming operations, artist Michele Monseau, owner of Three Walls, told the Current, “He [Lifshutz] discussed rates with us about a year ago, and we came to a verbal agreement, but there is nothing in writing.” She did add, “It’s kind of exciting, I’ve been down there, checking on the space.”

But will the gallery’s non-commercial approach jibe with rent expectations, once they’re finalized?

Three Walls and cactus bra (co-run by artists Leigh Anne Lester and Jayne Lawrence) are both known for their experimental programming, high in installation work — which long attracted foot traffic and critical praise if not substantial sales.

“I plan on doing business the same as I did before, running it as a non-commercial gallery, an artist-run space,” said Monseau. “[Lifshutz] wants to keep the artist-run spaces, and he knows that it is just a different animal, a different market. But he wants to keep the artist-run spaces in there. We’ll see, when we see the lease.”

On the other end of the commercial spectrum, even more new dining and retail spaces will soon appear at the Complex. According to Lifshutz, another restaurant is slated to open this year, and a small food market will finally open its doors, too. A project of Blue Star Brewing Co., whose owner, Joey Villarreal, told the Current that new beer laws that may soon pass in the state legislature would allow the market to sell Blue Star’s beer to go, in addition to fresh local produce, grains in bulk, and bread baked in the Blue Star Brewing Co. kitchen. Whatever the lege decides, Villarreal plans to open the market before year’s end.

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A year ago, Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum was making big plans to expand in a new building — partially funded by a 2012 City bond — that was intended to be built on the Big Tex property adjacent to Blue Star, a property also owned by the Lifshutz Companies. But plans for Big Tex have changed, says Lifshutz, in order to dedicate the new development to residential housing.

Bill FitzGibbons, executive director of the museum, has gathered his board to consider their options. “We are doing a full-fledged strategic plan,” FitzGibbons told the Current. “By mid-summer, the plan should be finalized, and provide a roadmap for us. It’s everything from confirming the good things we are doing, to looking at options for building a new museum.”

Where that new facility might be — if it is built — is yet to be determined. But even if a new building is constructed, the Blue Star pioneers don’t plan on abandoning ship. “It is the board’s hope, and mine, that James [Lifshutz] will let us stay in our current building forever. But that does not preclude us from also having another facility,” FitzGibbons said, noting that the museum is seeing more, rather than fewer, visitors. “After we instituted a fee to get in, we actually saw an increase in attendance,” said FitzGibbons. “That could be a combination of things. There has been a lot of publicity for the Mission Reach,” said FitzGibbons, referring to one of Blue Star’s primary advantages, its proximity to the southern reach of the San Antonio River, also experiencing something of a renaissance.

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Few artists still maintain live/work quarters at Blue Star, though their presence was once an expected component in the mix that defined the Complex. Recent increases in rent make it difficult for some artists to remain, and impossible for others.

Alex Rubio, director of the MOSAIC art education program at Blue Star Contemporary, lived at the Complex for six years, but left last January when his rent was increased suddenly by $200. “It was kind of instant, and kind of a surprise,” said Rubio. “So I had to move. But there’s a happy ending. Two years ago, I knew that rents were going up; property values were going up. So I invested in some property on Lachapelle.” Now living in the back of R Gallery, Rubio is part of a new generation of art pioneers, blazing another art district centered on Lone Star Boulevard and South Flores Street.

But he still has faith in the institution on Alamo. Asked if he believes galleries will move back to Blue Star, Rubio replied “Definitely. I think Blue Star has a tradition of alternative spaces… It’s been a magnet for emerging — now established — galleries. I think people know that reputation, and want to be part of that. I think the spaces that are opening up are very inviting for people who don’t know what Blue Star used to be. We have to make way for retail, progress, the expansion of a demanding market.”

Now in their 10th year working and living at Blue Star, artists Bryson Brooks and Holly Hein Brooks are staying put. The entrepreneurial married couple take the business side, the hustle, of their vocation seriously, and the changes at Blue Star seem to be rewarding their efforts.

“Artists have moved, that’s for sure,” Bryson told the Current. “There’s us, and maybe a couple of people, who are left. But a lot of people are living here. Many are in the gas business, and military folks here too.” Asked about the resentment towards gentrification at Blue Star that is often voiced in the arts community, Bryson responded, “The rents, people get so mad about it, but San Antonio is one of the top 10 largest cities in the country. You’ve got the River Walk, a lot of tourists come down here. If you make your living off your art, you can make it work here. It takes a bit of focus, or maybe luck. But the people who have gas jobs are able to buy our paintings, you know what I mean?”

You’re making money off the fracking business?

“Yeah. We’re selling a lot [of art] to the neighbors.”

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