The Institue of whose cultures?

The Institue of whose cultures?

This month, a special Institute of Texan Cultures exhibit titled HemisFair 1968: San Antonio’s Introduction to the World will commemorate San Antonio’s international coming-out party, complete with complimentary admission for its April 6 unveiling.

That’s all well and good, but it raises a serious question: What’s next for the 40-year-old

Created by the 59th Texas Legislature in 1965 to serve as a permanent museum and research organization, the Institute of Texan Cultures was the centerpiece of HemisFair ’68. The Institute
became part of the University of Texas system in 1969, following the fair, and in 1986 it became a campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

ITC’s mission was, and is, to tell the story of the people of this state. Texas in 2008 is vastly different than Texas in 1968, following strong shifts in its demographic makeup. According to the 2000 U.S. census, nearly 26 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic and the state is home to the second-largest Latino population in the country, behind only California. The Anglo population was recorded at 65 percent. In 1970, two years after the opening of the ITC, no classification for Hispanics or Latinos existed. The Anglo population registered at 87 percent. By 1980, the Hispanic population had already boomed to 22 percent of the state’s residents.

“The ITC is at a crossroads in its history right now,” says Felix Padrón, executive director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. “With the Folklife Festival and the Asian Festival, they have built up a lot of goodwill in the community. But they are at a point right now where they really need to define who they are and what their mission is going to be going into the future.”

Looking to the Past for the Future

“I remember the day very well. It was April 6, 1968, and the gates of HemisFair opened to the public,” reminisces Felix D. Almaraz Jr., professor of history at UTSA. Widely regarded as the honorary “dean” of Texas history by his peers, Almaraz was beginning his teaching career at UTSA in 1968.

“The ITC was the crown jewel of the HemisFair Complex. The dome show, called the ‘Faces and Places of Texas,’ was its highlight, and it was supposed to show the ‘face’ of Texans. And it did — in 1968.”

That is the crux of the majority of the criticism leveled at the Institute over the years. Imaginative in its displays and technologically innovative when it opened, the ITC has suffered from a distinct lack of both in recent years. Visiting the facilities now, one can’t help but notice the dated feeling of it all. In an era where interactivity is the buzz words for museums, ITC comes up short.

“Under the direction of its first director, a newspaperman by the name of R. Henderson Shuffler, the ITC did live up to its mission of being a place — even a home — for the people of Texas as put forth by Governor Connally,” explains Almaraz. “He personified the best that the museum had to offer.”

Changes in leadership (with varying success) has been a cause for concern, as have attendance figures. The ITC relies on three funding sources: biennial legislative appropriations, various grants and donations, and admissions fees. In 2007, the Institute hosted roughly 200,000 visitors; reports vary, but the Alamo’s attendance figures were in the 6-million-plus range last year. Considering the minimal physical distance between the two institutions, these figures are staggering.

“As school buses became fewer and fewer in the parking lot of the ITC, I noticed changes in the way the administration did business,” says Almaraz. “There were no upgrades done to the exhibits, and every decision was based on making money. In other words, it was not a people place anymore, it was a place of business.”

Harsh criticism leveled at a harsh reality. Across the San Antonio cultural landscape, new museums and cultural facilities are being built, including the Museo Alameda, the proposed Bexar County Performing Arts Center, and the Briscoe Museum of Western Art. When you add in the expansions at the McNay Museum of Art, the Witte Museum, and the Alamo, it’s a very competitive cultural market.

“The way it is right now, the ITC is a dying institution,” laments Almaraz. “Can it be saved? Can it be turned around? Without a dynamic leadership that is willing to reach out to the public, it will die, and I will be very sad to see it go.”

Evolve or die

2008 is shaping up to be another landmark year for the downtown area — the heart of the city’s tourism trade — with the re-opening of Main Plaza, the unveiling of the Grand Hyatt Convention Center Hotel, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, and a year of activities planned to highlight HemisFair’s 40th anniversary, beginning with this Sunday’s festival.

Will the ITC be able to ride this momentum?

“The University of Texas at San Antonio is committed to taking the ITC to the next level of excellence,” says Jude Valdez, vice president for community services for UTSA. “The University itself is going to that next level and I have a personal commitment from `UTSA President` Dr. `Ricardo` Romo that he wants to make the ITC at tier-one museum.”

That means everything from the famous dome show to the name of the museum itself could get a makeover.

“Back in 1969, the dome show was the talk of the town,” explains Valdez. “But that was created using 1960s technology. We will be updating the show — digitizing everything. It will be a brand-new film production with all-new pizzazz.”

For now, it’s the job of interim Executive Director John L. Davis — who has been a part of the ITC off and on since the very beginning — to oversee these promised sweeping changes as well as to interpret them on a day-to-day basis.

“The demographics of the state of Texas have quickly changed around us,” explains Davis. “This changing population affects everything — economics, education, immigration, and migration. We have to figure out the best way to continue to be the museum that tells story of the people of Texas, but in a newer way.”

In addition to rotating out the current standing cultural and ethnic group exhibits, the museum plans on making better use of its collection of historical photos and oral histories.

“Our special events, like the Texas Folklife Festival, sell to all demographics. Our signature exhibit, Texans One and All, and other exhibits like Living Texas are very popular with traveling audiences,” comments Aaron Parks with the Office of Marketing and Communications at the Institute. “Our visiting exhibits, like the upcoming HemisFair 1968: San Antonio’s Introduction to the World, are geared toward local audiences.”

“We are always conscious of layering our exhibits in the space we have,” Davis says. “When people already see the exhibits on the floor, there are already dozens of in-house sources that people are not aware of. We will also use more first-person presentations as those are what people seem to be really drawn to.”

The first phase of these changes is already underway. A search is being conducted for a new, permanent executive director, allowing Davis to step back into his former role as director of operations and research. The University and the Institute are in the process of creating a master plan for the facilities to make better use of what is some of their already-valuable real estate, which could include knocking down the berms that flank the perimeter of the museum complex, opening it up to more foot traffic.

“We also are in talks with the City of San Antonio, as they have expressed interest in placing an official visitors center here, either on the grounds or in the building itself,” says Valdez.

Other plans on the table include moving the “Back 40” collection of reproduced historical structures from its current location at the corner of Bowie and Durango streets toward the front of the complex, in addition to renovating the pavilion’s interior.

“There is no set timetable for any of this, though we do anticipate having approval of the master plan this year, probably within six to nine months,” Valdez says. “So, these are very exciting times for us.”

As for reaching out to the community, a new branding strategy is in the works to help better identify the Institute — if it is indeed still called the Institute at the end of the year.

“The building is still in prime shape and there is good synergy between the ITC staff and the University,” says Valdez, “and we are looking forward to the future.”

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