Culture feature Pulse strong, peripherals weak

San Antonio's arts core is vital, but support systems such as galleries are still struggling

San Antonio's contemporary art scene has become successful enough in the past decade to have inspired equal parts pettiness, hubris, and misguided capitalism. Occasionally it seems as if the community's leaders are fiddling like Nero as Rome burns in the background. In the previous 18 months alone, squabbling erupted over ownership of Contemporary Art Month because Blue Star and the Office of Cultural Affairs favored moving it to the more tourist-enticing month of October; District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle, in a well-intentioned attempt to argue that tourists shouldn't be the primary benefactors of local art, pointed out that the Egyptians didn't build the pyramids to draw the Grand Tour crowd (an analogy fraut with about a billion pitfalls). Finesilver, the premiere gallery for promoting San Antonio artists on the international art-fair circuit, closed up shop without so much as a fare-thee-well, and Austin, apparently not content with the "Music Capital of the World" mantle, made a credible grab for the statewide contemporary art crown with an exciting biennial and a cash prize.

Paula Owen, director of the Southwest School of Art & Craft, says the organization's commitment to local culture and "the methods, skills ... and arcane knowledge" of artisans has contributed to its success. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

And yet, San Antonio's vital core, the artists who continue to live and produce work here, appears to be in great shape. This month, the City Council passed the Cultural Collaborative master plan `see "Drum roll, please," January 20-26, 2005`, and theFund opened up shop `see "theFund begins its first campaign," June 2-8, 2005`, while several of the city's most important arts institutions are celebrating landmark anniversaries. Artpace turned 10 to much acclaim for its international artist residency program. Blue Star attained the grand old age of 20 (which is, like, 60 in art-space years). The Southwest School of Art & Craft marked 40 years, the McNay its golden anniversary. In fact, every cause for concern seems to be leavened by at least one good reason for optimism that before hell freezes over, Blue Star Contemporary Art Center won't be living paycheck to paycheck and your favorite artists won't be tending bar at Liberty while waiting for another opening at the local community colleges.

Contemporary Art Month is a good time to look for clues to the well-being and future direction of the local art scene, and several exhibits around town oblige the sleuth. Blue Star is commemorating its 20th anniversary with Blue Star 20, featuring more than 40 artists representing two decades of local art. It's too big by half and not exactly forward-looking, which is what the public still seems to expect from the formerly artist-run organization even as it steams gently toward middle age. Under the leadership of sculptor Bill FitzGibbons, Blue Star has changed its name (from Blue Star Art Space) and eliminated the requirement that 50 percent of the board be artists in favor of luring more corporate and philanthropic representatives.

Most significantly, and driving these other decisions, Blue Star has set its sights on becoming a non-collecting contemporary art museum like Houston's CAM. FitzGibbons plans more retrospectives of mid-career and established artists such as Jesus Moroles - whose large-scale granite carvings dominated the 6,000-square-foot main gallery this spring - complemented by local exhibitions. Not surprisingly, those latter, smaller shows in Gallery 4 and the Project Space tend to be the most exciting. This month, sculptors Ken Little and Richie Budd present a collaboration based on the theme of risk. Little invited Budd, who is known for massive sculptures that look (and erupt) like the dyspeptic innards of an alien that consumed an entire household, to eviscerate Little's well-known life-size dollar-bill figures and glue monitors, mechanical parts, and other items inside of them in Budd's space-age bricolage style. "I told him it had to have a fart machine," says Little.

New gallery owner John Markey has shown the work of former graffiti writer David "Shek" Vega, above, at Contemporary Art for San Antonio. San Antonio has so many emerging artists, he says, and not enough galleries to show them all.

FitzGibbons has an affinity for sweeping, feel-good group shows that strive to be epic in nature, such as the 2004 Texas Uprising sculpture exhibition and this year's two-part San Antonio Painting show - shows that aren't curated so much as doled out like relief ration cards. But FitzGibbons takes his role as an ambassador for San Antonio's artists seriously. A key part of Blue Star's mission, he says, "is to support San Antonio artists, particularly, and that doesn't just mean having an exhibition or doing a catalog. It also means doing things like our WAX Conference (which brought writers and editors from national arts publications and major papers to town in the fall of 2003; a second WAX is planned for next spring) and trying to develop collectors."

But if one contemporary art institution is currently favoring development over curatorial focus, another, perhaps unlikely, source has been consistently provocative: The Southwest School of Art & Craft's exhibits have consistently revisited the tricky line between the two vocations evoked in its name. Its CAM show, Hanging in Balance: 42 Contemporary Necklaces, is no exception `see "The art capades" and "The subject of desire" in this issue of the Current`. As was the case with last year's CAM show - which featured Lauren Levy, who uses small mass-produced objects such as piano keys and buttons to create emotionally laden, trinket-like sculptures - Hanging in Balance confounds the viewer who wants to draw a bright line between objects of meaning and objects of consumption. "Part of what we do here is to preserve methods, skills, the use of materials, the equipment, all of the arcane knowledge that is required before you begin with the inventive, expressive, creative, and so forth," says Director Paula Owen, and that commitment is apparent in the exhibitions as well as the award-winning classes.

If there is an area in which vis-art vital signs are sparse, it's on the professional gallery scene. Finesilver folded up shop last winter after announcing plans to open a gallery in Houston; two Finesilver artists commented off the record recently that they don't know if or when proprietor Chris Erck will open the new location. But nature abhors a vacuum and where one gallery vanishes, another generally appears.

Contemporary Art San Antonio is located farther north than the traditional art crowd is accustomed to (save those who remember Harold Wood's Aviart), on Nakoma, but its second show, which opened in May - featuring fresh faces such as David Vega - is cause for cautious optimism.

Bill FitzGibbons, director of Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, says that supporting local artists means building national relationships, not just having shows and publishing catalogs. (Photo by Rick Hunter)

"It seems what was really needed was a place that would show emerging artists on their own terms," says gallery director John Markey, who settled in San Antonio last year. "What I saw was that there was just a lot of young talent and not enough galleries." Markey says he realizes that the biggest challenge will be developing a local clientele, but he sees that as part of a larger marketing issue. "The usual suspects," he observes, "all go to all the same talks and all the same things. As a community of artists and art patrons, how do we expand the way we communicate and bring people into this?"

Still, Markey is optimistic because San Antonio's art scene is so accessible. "In some places you can see there's an establishment and it's hard to break into," he says. "Most people that walk into a gallery in a city like San Antonio find that it's affordable and it's the opposite of intimidating." As the First Friday crowds attest, getting folks in the door isn't the only issue. "The other is the high-end side: Do you always have to leave town to get a good price?" Markey asks. "And I don't know."

"Boy, you go over $1,000, you're going to wait a long time before you sell anything," says Little. But the sculptor, who has taught at UTSA since 1988, says the city remains a welcoming place for students and, as a result, many graduates stay here, enriching the teaching staff at the local colleges and showing their work. "It kind of makes its own weather, so to speak," he says. "The good side is that there's a whole lot of artist-run spaces, so they can have shows and build up resumes and start careers. But we have hardly any galleries, so they're not gonna make a living here, unless they're gonna teach, or work at the McNay or at Liberty Bar."

Nonetheless, Little says he feels more positive about San Antonio's contemporary art scene than he did five years ago. High-profile UTSA professor and art critic Fran Colpitt is leaving, but Little says he is excited about several new and recent staff additions, including a video-arts professor who is joining the studio faculty this fall. In the next 10 years, Little says he expects the art department to move downtown, which will help it capitalize on the popularity and critical success of the UTSA Satellite Space. "That will hopefully change our relationship with the community," he says, "because we've always kind of been the University of Texas near San Antonio."

The Satellite Space has been an awfully good emissary, however, and it may be in its scrappy walls that the future of the local art scene is best glimpsed. Richie Budd will make his second CAM appearance there alongside Brian Jobe and another UTSA student, Jimmy Kuehnle, who has attracted attention riding his confrontational bike sculptures from art location to art location on First Fridays. "Richie's outstanding,"says Little, "but he's also typical of the kind of people we've attracted to San Antonio." And many of those people will stay, despite the lack of professional galleries, and they'll continue to find inventive ways to shape San Antonio's arts community.

By Elaine Wolff


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