The Briscoe Conjures Western America, Past and Present

The Briscoe Western Art Museum, named for the late Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe Jr. and his wife Janey Slaughter Briscoe, opened officially on October 26 along the San Antonio River Walk. Ten years in the making, the museum, housed in the original San Antonio Public Library, includes nine galleries with more than 700 works of art on three levels that connect to the Jack Guenther Pavilion. Lake/Flato Architects injected its modern aesthetic into the Art Deco/Neo-classical structure.

“San Antonio is arguably the most iconic of Western cities,” said the Briscoe’s Executive Director Dr. Steven M. Karr, who previously directed the Autry Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t matter what part of the West you are from, you are from the West. I embrace that because I am a Native Westerner and it means more to me. The [Briscoe’s] uniqueness is its emphasis at looking at artifacts as art.” However, Karr added, “We are not a history museum. We are an art museum.”

This concept announces itself even before one walks in the front door, with John Coleman’s amazing Visions of Change, a 13-foot-tall bronze statue that reflects the cultural collisions and purposeful ambition that define our concept of “the West.”

The Art Deco restoration was minimal but effective as evidenced by the interior’s hunter green walls and engraved oak trim that lets visitors revel in San Antonio’s Wild West heritage. The spacing is similarly thoughtful, an elusive quality for museums, especially those that focus on artifacts. On the two-dimensional side, whether you are looking for an oil on canvas by German-born Henry Raschen or impressionistic work by Taos-based Russian artist Leon Gaspard, the Briscoe presents a variety of solid works. A few paintings from Dolph Briscoe Jr.’s personal collection are present, including works from former ranch hand turned contemporary Western artist Melvin Warren.

As you make your way up the buffalo-hide stairs toward the second floor you are met with the Ewing Halsell Foundation Lobby overlook where you’ll have a better glimpse of the elegantly designed and arranged Indian Head nickels that line the ceiling. You also get a better view of LA art icon Millard Sheets Wild Horses: a set of four oil panels. That contemporary work overlooks a Wells Fargo & Co. nine-passenger stagecoach replica. Rather than seeming disjointed, this comingling of art and artifact serves to highlight the West in both form and function.

The second floor includes contemporary works from Chinese painter Z.S. Liang (who developed a fascination with Native American culture as subject matter while studying painting in Massachusetts), Native American sculptor Doug Hyde and wildlife adventurist Sandy Scott, who, like Hyde, works primarily with bronze. There’s also notable works by artist Maynard Dixon, whose sweeping, modernist landscapes and social realism owe a debt to his second wife, photographer Dorthea Lange.

The third floor galleries explore the art, history and culture of the West by connecting different periods, regions and people with an emphasis on the Borderlands and the Southern Plains. Much of this floor is devoted to artifacts. The massive arrangement of spurs ranging in age from 20 to 200 years creates a work of art on its own. The main gallery also includes Pancho Villa’s last saddle with an elegant devil and snake motif made of braided silver. A collection of rifles and pistols showcases a Springfield Armory Model 1865 Spencer Rifle along with a variety of make and models. As a counterpoint of sorts, a display of Mexican Army generals’ uniforms and pistols from the 1800s remind one that a strong Hispanic presence forged the region as we know it today. Another gallery provides a rare glimpse of maps and documents that include land grants from Stephen F. Austin. An Ex-Voto painting adds mystery—and Catholic influence—to the mix. Amidst the artifacts, the third floor offers some exceptional pieces by famed artists like Frederic Remington and George Catlin, the latter whose portraits of Native Americans continue to influence depictions of historic tribes.

Throughout the museum, exhibits like “The Women of the West” provide an educational slant to the collections, but you don’t need a class field trip to enjoy what the Briscoe has to offer. Whether you’re more interested in studying land grants, taking in a Remington or getting up-close-and-personal with real cowboy and Native American artifacts, the Briscoe delivers the West to SA’s doorstep.

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