CAM o’ war

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In the relentless heat and sun of a textbook San Antonio summer, a mirage appears, the shimmering image of a four-year-old debate reflected in pools of sweat: Maybe it’s time to move Contemporary Art Month to another month — any month that, following the old wives’ tale about oysters, has the letter “r” in it.

Only this time, the movement starts from the ground up.

Four years ago, the Office of Cultural Affairs, headed by Felix Padrón, and Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, helmed by Bill FitzGibbons, proposed moving CAM to October to become part of the City’s developing Fall Art Festivals — a lineup that presently includes Jazz’SAlive, Fotoseptiembre, the International Accordion Festival, and Dia de los Muertos, among other events.

The grass-roots galleries and artist-run spaces who fill out much of the CAM calendar wholeheartedly rejected the idea, in no small part because it was seen as a top-down strong-arm move by OCA and Blue Star. `That’s called irony; CAM started in 1986, alongside its twin, Blue Star. Read about it online at` Among the arguments for keeping CAM right where it was was that July is traditionally a slow month for local downtown galleries, and the festival, which consists of a month of openings and special shows, guaranteed some foot traffic.

To the rescue in 2004 came Robert Tatum, SA graphic artist and venue impresario, who had the foresight to register “CAM” in his name when the conflict first flared. Under his and then-partner Anjali Gupta’s leadership, CAM flourished. Tatum built a website and printed a calendar. Gupta lured out-of-town shows and artists. 2006 featured both a slam-dunk opening party at the Motel 3 Group Show, and the Green Eggs and CAM awards. The entire month felt like an Event.

Tatum also reached out to community business leaders like Milton Guess and Tom Frost III, (who’s a notable musician), built an informal board, and initiated a media sponsorship with the Current (which continues to this day).

Then Gupta and Tatum went their separate ways and it became apparent how much CAM’s recent growth relied on Gupta’s connections through arts publications such as ART LIES (where she’s now the editor) and curatorial projects. And how the small budget — raised from listing fees ($25 per artist, with higher rates for galleries and institutions) and sponsors such as Frost Bank — was inadequate for much beyond printing the calendar.

“The whole reason for me to come in and grab `CAM`, was to come back with the football to the team to go, hey, you guys, I got the ball, let’s run,” says Tatum. “But then nobody really stood up to the plate to help.”

Last year’s CAM felt anticlimactic compared to the previous few years, more like a series of regular art shows without a real beginning or end — except the increasingly popular Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby, started in 2005 by Cruz Ortiz. So it’s worth noting that Ortiz is one of the artists who’s been making noise about moving CAM to a month when racing in manpowered carts on a lumpy, grassy track won’t be as likely to cause heatstroke.

Or, as Justin Parr, Fl!ght Gallery director (and Current freelance photog) puts it: “We’re trying to move it to a month when people won’t leave thinking, God, I’ll never do that again.”

Of course, there’s another good reason to consider moving CAM: money.

During the last few months, a series of meetings have taken place about the future of CAM, and depending on whom you ask, the story varies, but the more-or-less agreed-upon facts are these:

• This past winter, Tatum, feeling overtaxed and underfunded, reached out to various community leaders for support. According to Padrón and others, he wanted to “pass the baton.” Tatum says he was simply asking people who have participated in and benefited from CAM to give some time and money.

• On the advice of Blue Star board member Andy Benavides, Tatum met with FitzGibbons and asked if Blue Star would be willing to umbrella CAM. Mindful of the heated rejection four years earlier, FitzGibbons said he’d only consider it if he was convinced the community wanted it.

• Concerned that Tatum might be handing off CAM and dissatisfied with’s functionality, Parr encouraged his partner (and occasional Current contributor) Ben Judson to register

• Tatum’s overture to Blue Star led to a professionally facilitated community meeting, attended by more than 20 artists, the Office of Cultural Affairs, and Scott White of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The outcome, says Padrón, was agreement that the attendees want CAM to have a bigger national and international presence, and a more stable, artist-run infrastructure.

The once-controversial idea of taking CAM out of July almost seemed like an afterthought. Padrón says he walked away with the impression that there was a consensus to move the festival to March — an understanding echoed by FitzGibbons and Parr. The participants also agreed to form a steering committee that would finalize that decision and look at ways to build the organization and seek funding.

Key community members like Joan Grona, who operates the eponymous Blue Star gallery, are copacetic. “I’m at the point that, for me, almost every month is CAM,” says Grona. “Nothing is happening with CAM right now, there’s no organization. If moving it to March will help that, I’m all for it.”

Padrón and White are optimistic about the opportunities a calendar move could offer both CAM and the city. Holding CAM during one of SA’s many hospitable months could make San Antonio competitive with tourist destinations like New York, says White, where it’s still a chilly 45 in March while we’re sunning ourselves in 75-degree weather. Most top destination cities have strong arts-and-culture scenes, White adds. “We obviously are very interested in the vibrancy of the arts-and-culture scene in San Antonio.”

While Padrón stops short of promising CAM City arts funding — which is underwritten by the Hotel Occupancy Tax and whose applicants are measured in part on their attractiveness to visitors — if it moves to a more tourist-friendly month, he’s enthusiastic about the potential synergy with Luminaria, the Mayor’s new day-long art festival, if CAM were held in March.

Just one catch: Tatum wasn’t at that facilitated meeting. For reasons unknown, Tatum was out of the loop that round. Judson, who did attend, subsequently started a Google Group for stakeholders to discuss how to proceed, and the Group, said Parr, was going to be used to generate steering-committee candidates.

Tatum attended an un-facilitated followup meeting last week with an attorney in tow. It seems clear that if he ever was considering letting go of CAM, that time has passed. “It’s like, you guys, you’re acting like there needs to be this new CAM, but it’s going, it’s working,” he says, adding that he has the bank account, the mailing list, and the website. “It’s a little machine that’s working; it could defnitely be stronger.”

On that last point, Padrón and White agree, especially if CAM is serious about bringing in more money. “CAM needs to be a very structured organization without losing the authenticity of being by artists, for artists,” White says. “It’s a balance.”

“In order for you to be financially viable,” says Padrón, “you’ve got to have a well-structured infrastructure in place. Folks are not going to support something without accountability.”

Tatum, for his part, says he welcomes more community input, but a large steering committee isn’t a viable decision-making system. “I’m more for a driving committee,” he says, adding that he plans to expand his current team of Guess, Frost III, and Three Walls’ Michele Monseau to perhaps seven by including more artist and insitution representation. He, Frost, and Guess, he says, will meet with FitzGibbons to decide if Blue Star will be CAM’s new home. FitzGibbons responds that Blue Star is interested in having CAM back in the fold, but only if the community, as well as Tatum’s board, supports the idea.

“The artists own CAM,” FitzGibbons told the Current, “so the artists have to decide what the future of CAM is.”

But if there isn’t consensus yet on who should run CAM or how, March is sounding like a done deal.

“I think that March is a good month, and I’m gonna move it,” says Tatum, who is talking about taking the first step with a mini CAM showcase next spring. So enjoy your hot stroll through Southtown’s broiling streets this CAM, knowing that, the artists willing, in 2010 you won’t need a Camelbak. •

This story has been corrected: It originally reported that the Fall Arts Festival, rather than the Fall Art Festivals, included the Conjunto Festival, rather than the International Accordion Festival.

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