Finding the Groove: From Museums to Comic Cons, San Antonio Arts and Culture Hardly Missed a Beat in the 2010s

click to enlarge BRYAN RINDFUSS
Bryan Rindfuss
San Antonio has always been a city with vibrant arts and culture scene, but something really locked in during the 2010s. Longtime institutions experienced significant growth and evolution, and new organizations stepped up to make a major mark. However, while most of the changes during the past decade have been for the city’s benefit, the decade wasn’t without its setbacks.

This year marked a decade of the River Walk’s Museum Reach, which opened in 2009 followed by the Mission Reach in 2011. Now spanning 15.2 miles, the River Walk isn’t just a tourist attraction anymore — it’s now a hub for locals who run, bike, walk their dogs and even kayak along its length.

The city continued to invest in green spaces, furthering the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System, which now boasts 69 miles of trails. With the opening of Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair in 2015, the redeveloped park again became a hub for major events, from Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival’s return to its grounds in 2017 to Muertos Fest’s move from La Villita this fall. The decade also marked the redevelopment of the historic Hot Wells Ruins into a park and the opening of Pearsall and Confluence Parks. What’s more, the San Pedro Creek Culture Park Project opened its first segment in 2018.

Longtime arts hub the Blue Star Complex also maintained an upward trajectory. In 2014, Mary Heathcott assumed the role of executive director of Blue Star Contemporary, ushering in a new era of leadership for the museum — expanding its educational outreach, creating more opportunities for artists and even overseeing building renovations. That same year, Brick brought an inclusive, adaptable venue to the complex, creating a space where everyone from visual artists to aerialists could strut their stuff.

Under the direction of Katie Luber from 2011-2019, the San Antonio Museum of Art grew both in local membership and international acclaim. After longtime McNay Art Museum director Bill Chiego’s retirement in 2016, Rich Aste took on the reins and brought an age of reinvention at the museum focused on inclusivity, exemplified by groundbreaking exhibitions like 2019’s Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today.

The decade culminated with the long-anticipated opening of Ruby City, recently declared one of Time Magazine’s 100 World’s Greatest Places of 2019. The contemporary arts center dreamed up by the late Linda Pace and designed by acclaimed architect David Adjaye was years in the making, and the recent appointment of Elyse Gonzales — described as a connoisseur of contemporary art with a “great, great eye” by SAMA co-interim director William Keyse Rudolph — as its new director indicates that there are great things to come.

Not all changes in leadership have been fruitful. The non-profit Symphony Music for San Antonio — with former Express-News publisher Thomas A. Stevenson at the helm — ostensibly took over operations of the San Antonio Symphony to promote its long-term viability but left the orchestra in dire straits when it suddenly reneged on its agreement in late 2017. Fortunately, the symphony recovered, resuming operations under the Symphony Society of San Antonio.

Unfortunately, 2019 also marked the end for two local arts organizations: Alamo City Opera, which folded after the sudden death of founder Mark Richter, and the Arts Foundation, whose regranting duties have been adopted by Luminaria.

You can’t talk about culture in town without mentioning pop culture.

Over the course of the decade, the Alamo City evolved from a fandom desert into a nerdy hotspot. While local anime behemoth San Japan was founded in 2008, the show didn’t come into its own until it made the move to Henry B. González Convention Center in 2012. Soon, other cons came onto the scene in a big way — Apple de la Fuente founded Alamo City Comic Con (ACCC) in 2013, and gaming behemoth PAX expanded its brand to the Alamo City with the PAX South conference in 2015. ACCC grew meteorically, drawing in big stars like Stan Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger and packing both the convention center and Alamodome, but things haven’t all been rosy. This year marked a turning point for SA con culture, with new cons Celebrity Fan Fest and Big Texas Comicon muscling their way in. Meanwhile, ACCC made a series of last-minute announcements including two changes in venue — amid the revelation that the con owes the city $170,000.

Fortunately, these splashy, celeb-worship weekends weren’t the only events to crop up. The ’10s also saw the rise of creator-focused events like Pop Con, the San Antonio Book Festival and print-centric art fest Paper Trail SA, all of which have carved out a niche by giving locals a chance to interact directly with creators.

The city moves into 2020 with plenty to look forward to: SAMA is seeking a candidate to serve as its new permanent director, the McNay will begin work to transform its campus with a $6.25 million landscape master plan and Hemisfair’s Civic and Tower parks are anticipated to open in the coming years.

What can we say? The beat goes on.

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