Theater and stage Long time coming

Thanks to a pending (secret) grant, Centro Alameda may finally become a museum with walls

Centro Alameda Director Ruth Medellin stands in front of the theater's striking marquee, which was relit in 1999 as part of $700,000 in exterior improvements. Medellin says the organization is close to announcing a major grant that will finally complete the Museo Americano project in El Mercado. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

"People have no idea how hard it is to raise $10 million," Ruth Medellin exclaims. The Director of Operations for the Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture is dressed in her customary bright colors - a rich purple sweater and confetti-sprinkled glass frames today - but she looks tired. Her eyes are watery and her nose is red, perhaps from the pecan pollen or the overactive air conditioner, or maybe just because, with the responsibility for completing and opening the much-awaited Smithsonian Museo Americano by early next spring resting on her shoulders, she is susceptible to any virus making the rounds.

It's late April, and we are standing under the recessed cold-cathode lights in the small but striking Moderne foyer of Centro Alameda's Casa de México offices on East Houston Street. Medellin says that by June the news will be official: A large national corporation with a philanthropic arm will announce a significant gift, at least $2.5 million, maybe as much as $5 million, to complete the museum. Of course, not everyone believes her when she predicts this happy ending to a decade-long struggle to make a portion of Centro Alameda's giant vision tangible and fully functional. Ten years of unmet deadlines and phantom grants foretold have left skepticism in their wake.

Since the spring of 1995, when the City announced that it would buy the deteriorating Alameda Theater, the project has mushroomed from a mandate to restore one of the grandest Spanish-language movie and entertainment houses of its day to building, staffing, and programming a national center for Latino-American arts and history, from corridos to murals to telenovelas. Nelson Wolff, who was finishing his tenure as mayor when the City purchased the theater, invited Henry Munoz III, a partner in Kell Munoz architects and son of labor organizer Henry "The Fox" Munoz, to spearhead fundraising and development. Centro Alameda, the non-profit corporation Munoz founded for that purpose, announced the following year that the estimated $14.1 million needed would be raised by the fall of 1999 and the theater would open its refurbished doors in 2001.

At the end of this article is a historical timeline of the Alameda Theater
Then, the Smithsonian Institution struck. The Alameda project was in the national cultural consciousness almost from its inception. Not only does the theater contain the largest known surviving example of black-light murals, a brief trend in theater décor that has been mostly lost or destroyed `see "Ephemeral treasure," January 8-15, 2004`, but the country's major arts institutions were becoming aware of the growing Hispanic demographic. In 1995, Smithsonian scholar Miguel Breto published a report titled "Willful Neglect," that indicted America's museum, as it's often called, for failing to represent the Latin-American population in its programming or collections. "I invited Breto to San Antonio; that's where it all started," recalls Eduardo Diaz, arts consultant and former director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. "I convened a breakfast at Mi Tierra and Henry Munoz was there."

That breakfast led in 1997 to an invitation from the Smithsonian to become its first national affiliate museum, giving Centro Alameda access to the Smithsonian's vast collections, its expertise, and, most importantly, its reputation. The Smithsonian "confers instant credibility," says SBC Foundation President Laura Sanford, and that is a primary reason SBC has committed heavily to the project, becoming one of the first donors in 1996 and pledging an additional $2 million in 2000. At that point, Centro Alameda was trying to move the theater and the museum forward on roughly the same track, although the estimated price tag had grown to $32 million. In 2001, Centro broke ground at El Mercado's old Centro de Artes building, which would become the $5 million Museo Americano.

The same year, the Alameda pulled off another national coup, becoming the first arts organization to be affiliated with both the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which announced a partnership with the theater that will bring Kennedy-sponsored tours to town and also provides management and development training to Centro's director. The fledgling organization had acquired yet another initiative, but like unfunded federal mandates, the expectations far exceeded its assets. Nonetheless, it had wooed an impressive director, Laura Esparza, a co-founder of San Jose's Mexican Heritage Plaza, and it co-sponsored some critically regarded exhibits and programs, including the Americanos photo exhibit at the Institute of Texan Cultures, sculptor Luis Jimenez' Sodbuster installation in Milam Park, and most recently, the year-long show Tejano Voices, a collaboration with the Smithsonian, Say Sí, and SBC, which displayed the artwork in its Houston Street gallery space.

But behind the bright flashes of press-conference cameras, something was amiss. In 2002, Esparza resigned, noting that the organization needed to focus on fundraising. Her replacement, Dan Hagerty, who came from the Kennedy Center, lasted less than two years. In July 2003, he secured a $2 million loan from Frost Bank to restart construction on the Museo, but the following spring he returned to the Kennedy Center, echoing Esparza's recommendation that the board focus on financial development. Work had begun again on the El Mercado building the previous fall, but even though the loan was close to the $2.2 million Hagerty had predicted was needed to complete the Museo, the building has sat empty and largely silent since his departure.

Enter Ruth Medellin, who was volunteered for the director's position after her women's organization, Lo Bello, pledged to raise $50,000 to match a $400,000 City bond (Lo Bello delivered a check this spring, bringing Centro that much closer to earning the bond money). With a background in public relations and marketing, Medellin doesn't fit the model for a director of a Smithsonian affiliate. Since her arrival, some of Centro Alameda's programming has acquired a distinct PR flavor. On December 11, Santa made an appearance at the Alameda. An April 23 "Sneak Preview" performance for the Museo Americano featured Latino television stars from Desperate Housewives, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Pet Star.

This fiscal year, Alameda is a first-time recipient of City arts funding, which requires contracting organizations to provide specified arts services to the community. Office of Cultural Affairs director Felix Padrón says that the Alameda's application was based on last year's estimate that the Museo would be open in 2005. Its projected audience numbers and some events, he concedes, may have been affected by not having the Smithsonian-affiliated facility in operation.

"If `the Museo opening` doesn't happen, the question becomes what are the programs you're going to provide that justify the grant?" he asks, adding that other organizations have faced similar challenges. He notes that the Carver Cultural Center continued to host performances during its renovation, contracting with venues such as Trinity University's Ruth Taylor Theater. "The rule of thumb is, as long as they can continue to provide a service as specificed by the grant, they're in compliance."

"`Medellin` doesn't come from the arts field, and that's fine as long as she understands the importance - and I think she does - of getting curators and arts professionals that need to be in the forefront of making programming decisions," says Diaz. Marketing skills are critical to the Alameda's success, he adds. "Marketing I'm very keen on because marketing has to do with the generation of increased earned income."

In fact, it would be unfair to let Christmas and Fiesta-week events characterize Medellin's directorship. In July, the Institute of Texan Cultures will devote main floor space to Our Journeys/Our Stories * Nuestros Caminos/Nuestra Historias, a nationally touring exhibit co-directed by former Centro Alameda curator Henry Estrada and sponsored by Centro. The Museo has invited contemporary art superstar Victor Zamudio-Taylor (who curated Artpace's first 2005 residency) to serve as its chief curator, and Rome Prize recipient Franco Mondini-Ruiz, who last year contributed work for a fundraiser, will also have a hand in the programming.

Even while it eagerly awaits the Museo's debut, the Smithsonian finds its association with the organization worthwhile. "`The relationship` is having some good results in ways that might not be readily apparent," says Harold Closter, director of Smithsonian affiliations. "It's been very important in helping us establish a link with the Hispanic community." He cites an affiliate conference that Centro Alameda co-organized in San Antonio two years ago, and says he is also pleased with the recognition that Our Journeys is receiving nationally. The funding delays don't give him heartburn, he adds. "All museums are struggling with these issues - operation versus programming expenses."

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser agrees, and elaborates that the challenge is even more difficult for what he calls organizations of color. "If you look at Euro-centric organizations, individuals are the strongest donors," he says. Giving in ethnic communities is often focused on church and education, and the arts are a newer supplicant. The Kennedy Center's capacity building program, in which Medellin participates, focuses on cultivating donor bases as well as board development and related issues.

One of Hagerty's accomplishments was to place the theater and museum on separate funding and operating tracks, and many observers say that opening the Museo's doors will be key to raising funds for the much more expensive theater renovations. Medellin says $1.2 million will cover the Museo's final costs, and the anticipated grant (which Diaz, who consulted on the application, also feels very optimistic about) is enough to put a staff in place and initiate programming as well. Her eyes twinkling, she also allows that a performing arts high school "might" be part of the final mix.

"Actually, part of the museum design is with that in mind," says SBC's Sanford. "They have quite wide, low steps outside of the whole piece of the museum that fronts onto Market Square." Sanford says that "At this point, we've given them as much as we've wanted to to get them operational," but she doesn't rule out future funds and she, too, is feeling good about Centro Alameda's prospects. "I think that they're over the hump, and the only place to go is to get there."

By Elaine Wolff

The Alameda Theater

1949: The Alameda Theater, a project of Sam Lucchese, who wanted to build a venue that would bring together the city's Anglo and Hispanic populations, opens on the edge of San Antonio's "Little Mexico." Magnificent black-light murals depicting the story of Anglos and Mexicanos in Texas line the walls.

1995: City purchases the shuttered and dilapidated theater. Leaks in the roof and architectural modifications threaten the murals. City asks new organization, Centro Alameda, led by Henry Munoz III, to undertake funding and restoration efforts.

1996: Estimated cost to "renovate and upgrade" the theater is $14.1 million. Munoz predicts to Express-News that fundraising will be complete in fall of 1999 and the theater will open in 2000. SBC Foundation is one of first donors, contributing to $1 million raised.

December 1996: Council commits to $5 million over 4 years for Alameda. Alameda is required to raise $8.73 million to match public funds.

1997: Smithsonian comes to town in wake of report, "Willful Neglect," detailing the Institution's failure to serve Latino audiences. Smithsoanian invites Alameda to be its first affiliate. It is estimated the Centro de Artes (later called Museo Americano) will require $3.5 million to renovate the El Mercado building to house permanent and traveling exhibitions documenting the history of Latinos in the U.S.

January 1999: City approves additional $1.5 million. Munoz tells Express-News he expects to announce a $5 million grant in February, bringing commitments to $13 million.

March 1999: After a $700,000 facelift, the Alameda's striking cold-cathode marquee is lit for the theater's 50th anniversary. Estimates for the theater's capital campaign are $16 million, and Centro Alameda projects that the renovation and expansion will be finished by 2001.

October 2000: SBC announces $2 million gift. Estimated cost for the museum is at $6 million; the theater $26 million.

2001: Centro Alameda signs a strategic partnership agreement with the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which will bring Kennedy-sponsored shows from Central and South America to the Alameda when it is opened. Agreement also gives Centro Alameda staff access to the capacity-building program designed for performance organizations of color.

May 2001: Museo Americano breaks ground at Market Square after a battle with the Historic Preservation Committee over the old Centro de Artes building façade.

October 2002: Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser tells media he expects the Alameda Theater to open its doors in three years.

Spring 2003: Centro Alameda announces that it must halt construction on the Museo Americano due to a cash flow crunch.

July 2003: Centro Alameda secures $2 million in financing from Frost Bank to continue with Museo Americano construction. Director Dan Hagerty tells press the organization needs additional $2.2 million to finish the museum.

Spring 2004: Hagerty leaves Alameda, telling press that organization needs to focus on fundraising rather than programming.

Fall 2004: Centro Alameda hires marketing and PR professional Ruth Medellin to raise funds for completion of museum and theater.

March 2005: Lo Bello, the women's organization that Medellin belongs to, presents Centro Alameda with a $50,000 check towards a City matching fund bond of $400,000.


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.