Contemporary Art Month: A story of power, control, and multiple births

Contemporary Art Month begins this week and continues through March with dozens of exhibitions, performances, and more than a few happenings that do what contemporary art is known for — stretch our understanding of what makes art, art. Now in its 26th year, CAM ran as a July event until last year, when it was moved to gentler spring weather. Don’t miss the CAM Kick-Off Party at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center this Thursday or the one-night visual and performing arts bash Luminaria, March 12, at HemisFair Park. All the good stuff won’t be made by art pros, though. Public art creation is the point of the 2nd Annual Art Kite Festival, to be held March 20 with encouragement and kite-making supplies offered by artists Chris Sauter, Stuart Allen, and Rick Frederick. During the month seemingly all of San Antonio’s artists will join the museums, cultural centers, and alternative spaces that make CAM an art whirlwind.

It may seem a bit chaotic, but that’s as it should be. Art masterminds don’t dictate the calendar of events. “CAM is sort of like an arts potluck,” said this year’s Executive Director Jason Jay Stevens. “Everyone brings something, and that’s the meal we eat. The CAM board does not control programming.” Stevens has great faith in San Antonio’s passionate arts community, claiming that “even if CAM management dropped the ball, the event would still happen.” No doubt. It’s happened before.

The story is wrapped in time, told by many — a true origin myth. It all began in 1986, when local artists were invited to exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Before the show opened, the curator who had proposed the exhibition was fired; the show cancelled.

Jeffrey Moore, director of the Southwest Crafts Center (now Southwest School of Art), is remembered as the one who rallied the artists to find a new exhibition space. Of the two or three sites that were considered, the location of what is now the Blue Star was chosen for the show, loaned to the artists by downtown developer and arts supporter Hap Veltman and his associate Lewis Tarver. Though now a centerpiece of the surrounding King William and Southtown neighborhoods the building was located on what was described by Bill FitzGibbons, Blue Star Contemporary Art Center’s present director, as “the wrong side of the tracks” and was 90 percent vacant, with only one repair shop open for business. It took the artists several days’ hard work to clean up and ready a makeshift art gallery. “It was thought that maybe two or three hundred people would show up. To everyone’s surprise, the exhibition attracted over 3,000 people,” FitzGibbons said of that July 1986 opening. The building’s owners, Veltman and Bernard Lifschutz* Tarver, agreed to another exhibition, and eventually the building became the site of Contemporary Art For San Antonio, the legal name still in use by Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. July was proclaimed Contemporary Art Month by San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, and for many years remained so. The event was also endorsed by San Antonio Museum of Art and the Southwest Craft Center. Blue Star continued to present CAM and put out the calendar, under Moore’s direction, but when he retired 10 years later his successor at Blue Star was, according to FitzGibbons, “not so competent at organizing.”

Seeing CAM in jeopardy, Felix Padrón, the director of San Antonio’s Office of Cultural Affairs, suggested in 2003 moving the event to October the next year, where it could join the Fall Arts Festival during a month more likely to attract tourists. His office had taken over the CAM calendar for two years, but was losing money. Before the move could occur, a rather bizarre action occurred that changed the fate of CAM through what many have seen as treachery, and others as the salvation of the artist-centered event.

After hearing Padrón’s proposal, local artist Robert Tatum registered both the names “Contemporary Art Month” and “CAM” at the Bexar County Courthouse, effectively taking legal possession of the event. Tatum declared in 2003 that his actions represented the will of the San Antonio arts community. “We want to keep `CAM` in July… We don’t care about tourism,” he was quoted in the Current as saying. And so it remained, at least for a while. One of the best remembered CAM events of Tatum’s years featured a parking lot covered with Porta Johns, which artists were asked to fill with art — a fitting metaphor for Tatum’s uncomplimentary view of arts marketing.

After several years with CAM in his control, Tatum asked Blue Star to take back the event. FitzGibbons, Blue Star’s director, informed the Current that his organization refused to do so “unless 50 artists spoke up in support” of the measure. Though Blue Star, the original founder of CAM, remains strongly involved in the event, it did not revert to their control, but became instead the ward of another nonprofit arts organization, SMART, in 2009. The acronym stands for “Supporting Multiple Arts Resources Together.” The 501(c)3 business was founded by local artist Andy Benavides five years ago as a way to link the dispersed arts districts within San Antonio. “The different neighborhoods were each doing things, but there was no communication between them,” he said. “We needed something like a newsletter that could keep us all in touch.” Benavides, who in addition to being a well-known artist in SA, runs a frame shop and offers gallery and work space in his huge complex at 1906 South Flores, remarked that CAM is a good fit in his organization. “CAM always has been a community calendar,” he said.

Benavides also points out something heard from many artists in San Antonio: “Every month in the city is potentially contemporary arts month.”

Last year CAM finally moved away from super-hot July, but a committee of volunteers still manages the event. Of the opening party at Blue Star this Thursday, CAM director Stevens remarks, “CAM is like a child going back home. It is not any one person’s event to control.” •

Lewis Tarver was not a co-owner with Hap Veltman in 1986 of the property where Blue Star Contemporary Art Center was sited, as this article originally stated. Tarver was one of the original founding board members of Contemporary Art For San Antonio, as was Bernard Lifschutz. The Lifschutz Companies are the owners of the mixed use Blue Star arts complex, where Blue Star Contemporary Art Center is a tenant, along with Blue Star Brewing Company, and other art and retail concerns. I thank Bill FitzGibbons and James Lifschutz for informing me of this error.

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