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City Scrapes: Building the arts 

click to enlarge The Tobin Center (2011 plan)
  • The Tobin Center (2011 plan)

We do a great job building buildings. We built an AT&T Center for basketball and an Alamodome for the promise of big league football. We built the space formerly named Museo Alameda for Latino art. Now we’re building a new performing arts center, renovating and restoring an historic movie theater and creating a new western art museum

But while we spend lots of money on buildings, we don’t seem to manage quite so well with institutions and people. Jack Downey, president and CEO of the San Antonio Symphony, recently resigned after just three months on the job. Local and national reports attributed his departure to a “budget dispute” with the symphony board. At a time when Bexar County is spending $100 million to build the Symphony a new home at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, news of yet another change in symphony leadership and uncertainty over the group’s finances is far from encouraging. The Symphony has struggled with a host of budget and financial issues in recent years, and Downey’s abrupt departure suggests things are far from resolved

Over at Texas Public Radio, home of KSTX and KPAC, there have been other leadership changes and issues. CEO Dan Skinner departed in December for Kent State University in Ohio. Then in August, there was an abrupt and dramatic change in the programming and staff at KPAC, the classical music station. Where once we heard (at least for most of the day) a longtime staff of talented local announcers and hosts, they have largely now disappeared. The music and the programming no longer come from San Antonio. Listen today and you hear “Classical 24,” a continuous 24-hour music service provided by American Public Media from Minneapolis. The local hosts who have long been major parts of San Antonio’s arts and cultural scene—James Baker, John Clare, Randy Anderson and Ron Moore—have all disappeared from the airwaves. One national blogger ran the story under the headline “Classical radio sacks presenters and goes auto-feed.” The official line for the changes, from acting TPR chief Wayne Coble, is that the classical station was running in the red. But that argument raises far larger questions, relevant for the San Antonio Symphony, TPR and a whole host of local arts organizations: can this community support a vibrant and diverse arts and cultural scene, and why are we building a massive new performing arts center (effectively replacing the still-standing Majestic Theater) when the Symphony—the Tobin Center’s prime tenant—appears to be struggling for both money and leadership?

At least a part of the answer is obvious in the set of other new public buildings we’re busy planning or constructing. There’s the rebuilding (it’s not really an “expansion”) of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, with a price tag of $325 million. Then there’s the spending from the County’s venue tax bond issue: $80 million for amateur sports facilities (including $15 million for UTSA), $100 million for the AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum, $6 million for the Alameda Theater, $4 million for the Briscoe Western Art Museum (plus another $2 million for the city/county “history museum” in part of the same building) and finally $100 million for the Tobin Performing Arts Center. All of that paid for, in part, with hotel and car rental tax revenues, much of which might actually have been used to support arts and cultural organizations and programs

We seem to have a natural constituency for building new buildings. A larger convention center holds out the hope for local hoteliers of more hotel business. The County funds for the Alameda accommodate some folks interested in more activity and business on the west side of downtown. The money for the Briscoe provides a new home for what was a failing institution in Kerrville. The Tobin Center both honors the financial commitment of the late Robert L. B. Tobin, but also offers the potential of (maybe) spurring more activity and development along the expanded Museum Reach of the river. Lots of buildings with lots of expectations and benefits for private developers. But not necessarily a more vibrant, genuinely local, arts scene

Might we as a community have chosen a different path if the alternative had been offered? Might we have chosen to invest in a real city museum rather than a building for western art with an 800-square-foot space devoted to explaining our rich history? Might we have preferred a symphony (or other arts organization) that was well financed and assured a real future, to a bulky building? Investing in building organizations and people rather than bricks and mortar should have been discussed and debated. It wasn’t

Maybe now it’s time to open up the discussion


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