Melissa Streel and her son Liam, 7, sketch as they admire a painting from the McNay Art Museum's collection on a recent Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

McNay collectors forum draws a dubious distinction

At the 9th Annual Blue Star Arts & Eats fundraiser last week, the hot topic wasn't the live mermaid in the giant shell frame at the Bohanan's steak house booth, and it wasn't the free tequila in the Blue Lounge, responsible, no doubt, for many a hangover. Heads were bent together heatedly discussing the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum's newest addition, purchased and donated by the McNay Contemporary Collectors Forum this October. Reactions have been mixed over the piece, a 1992 line pattern painting by California artist John Miller, not because of the work's merits - which most agree are strong - but because as a matter of policy, no San Antonio artists' works were considered in the selection process.

The Forum was founded by arts patron Cynthia Toles in 2002 as a dues-paying membership organization that financially supports the educational and collecting mission of the museum while developing a base of private collectors and enthusiasts for contemporary visual art. In its first year, the group has drawn close to 150 members, sponsored a series of artists' lectures at the McNay, and organized a trip to Houston to view private collections and studios. Participants and outside observers are particularly pleased by the new - and younger - faces that have become regular participants in the museum's activities.

As a culmination of its successful inaugural year, the Forum pooled membership dues to make a purchase for the museum's collection, a common activity among patron organizations. The work was selected from a wish list of five pieces compiled by Malin Wilson-Powell, Curator of Art after 1945 at the McNay. The list was reviewed by the museum's selection committee. But a decision had been made previously by Wilson-Powell, with the consultation of some Forum members, not to include works by living San Antonio artists. Wilson-Powell says she didn't want to submit them to a voting process that, in some cases, may include their friends, neighbors, and collectors; she also wanted to avoid creating any conflicts of interest. While privately a few collectors and arts professionals say they can understand the temptation to avoid the potential discomfort that might arise when a local artist is considered but not chosen, the public consensus has been that this is a misstep in an otherwise outstanding first year of activity.

"Art is about judging, finally," says Linda Pace, founder of ArtPace, a foundation for contemporary art, which awards fellowships to local, national, and international artists. The hopes of some San Antonio artists have been dashed, Pace says, because they haven't been selected since ArtPace began their programming in 1995, but, "We just bit the bullet." Pace, who is a Forum member, believes that not being tapped in a juried or otherwise judged process can be a learning experience for an artist.

Collector Michael Westheimer sits on the board of Blue Star Contemporary Art Center and is also a member of the McNay Forum. Westheimer's personal collection is comprised primarily of local artists and he is, presumably, someone who could face a conflict of interest or an uncomfortable moment at an opening or dinner party following an acquisition vote. Yet he observes: "To exclude `San Antonio` artists whose art is being collected nationally and internationally just doesn't make any sense." Westheimer, who notes that he has formed his opinion in conversation with several local artists and arts professionals, doesn't think it is the Forum's role to dictate to the museum what it ought to collect, but he also disapproves of a decision-making process that involves factors other than the quality of the art. "Most importantly," he says, "I believe in subjecting San Antonio artists to a national standard."

Arts professionals, academics, and local patrons agree that the quality of local artwork is not the issue, and Wilson-Powell notes that the McNay has other avenues for adding San Antonio artists to their collection. She is, in fact, raising funds for the purchase of a piece by sculptor Ken Little. The Forum also promotes local artists through free, public monthly gallery talks at which they have the opportunity to talk about their work in relation to pieces collected by or on tour at the McNay.

Wilson-Powell notes that the McNay has other avenues for adding San Antonio artists to their collection. She is, in fact, raising funds for the purchase of a piece by sculptor Ken Little.
Photographer and filmmaker Rob Ziebell, who lives in Castroville with his wife and fellow artist Liz Ward, thinks this misses the point. Ziebell served as a juror on the Houston Cultural Arts Council during a contentious year when a decision was made to award individual artist grants only to women to address public criticism over all-male recipients the prior year. "And damn if they weren't all white," says Ziebell. "Once you start going down this road, it's hard to make it right." You shouldn't complicate the process with arbitrary criteria, he argues, because it politicizes the decision. "You've just got to pick the best, and let the chips fall where they may."

ArtPace Executive Director Kathryn Kanjo agrees that it can be tricky when you have local individuals picking and choosing among local artists, as she has learned with awarding ArtPace travel grants, but, she says, "It's about the right fit. You go back to your mission, to the clarity of your purpose," which gives institutions and individuals the rationale and framework for making decisions. "That's maybe a lot to ask of a support group," she concedes.

But Forum member Westheimer, who believes that developing an intelligent, critical dialogue is vital to a vibrant, world-class contemporary arts scene, thinks it is paternalistic and insulting to suggest to local artists and collectors that they can't cope with a competitive process. "They're professionals," he says of the San Antonio artist community. "They need to be treated as such, and I think they can handle it."

Westheimer is also adamant that the flap over the Forum acquisition shouldn't obscure the good that has already come of the group's mission, especially the attempt to include and develop the next generation of collectors. Founding President Toles envisions the Forum as a distinctively service-oriented group, "versus let's be elitists and go off and have a good time."

Wilson-Powell, who compiles her acquisition wish list based on gaps in the McNay's collection of art after 1945, is very excited about the new Miller painting. "It's a perceptual engine in a way," she enthuses. "It's different every time you look at it," which suits the McNay's goal of encouraging repeated, intimate contact with art over time.

"I have the biggest wish list of any curator in the world," Wilson-Powell says, describing the McNay as a Swiss-cheese collection - rich but full of holes. "If anyone wants to give us a de Kooning or some great pop art," they will happily accept.

This year's View & Vote, as the Forum annual acquisition is called, also included works by Elgin-based artist Margo Sawyer and Houstonian Joe Havel. Wilson-Powell was particularly pleased that the vote was very close between all five very distinct works, an indication she said, that the collection is likely to grow in diversity and representation via the Forum's contributions. Nonetheless, Pace, Westheimer, and others feel strongly that San Antonio artists ought to be part of the process. Not to do so, promotes "a small-town mentality," says Pace. And our world-class artists deserve better. •

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