Like moths to the Luminaria

The website is up, applications are pouring in, big names are signed on, the scent of money is wafting through the streets of Southtown and Monticello — and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to resist the glow of Luminaria. If all goes well, in less than six months a team of mostly volunteers will pull off a multidisciplinary, community-wide, day-long arts festival that will create ad-hoc performance and gallery areas downtown, while keeping the lights on into the wee hours at museums across the city. Inspired by galas in Europe and Canada, Luminaria is meant to become a tourist attraction of the first caliber, as well as a vehicle to promote San Antonio’s year-round cultural appeal.

It’s a noble cause aided by many of our city’s finest creative minds, so naturally it’s hard to be critical — to people’s faces, that is. The Current hears plenty of bitching behind the scenes. A rare exception to this misplaced comity is, of course, the Esperanza.

“I feel awkward, because I don’t like the process,” said Graciela Sanchez, when I asked if the 20-year-old arts and social-justice organization would be participating in Luminaria. A diplomatic statement under the circumstances, because Esperanza is still talking with community stakeholders about a possible suit against the City over the $200,000 in Luminaria start-up funds the mayor and city council diverted from the Hotel/Motel Occupancy Tax surplus `See “Cutting out the CAB,” October 17, 2007` — in potential violation of the Esperanza v. CoSA ruling. Sanchez says they plan to sit down with Mayor Hardberger and City Manager Sheryl Sculley to talk about the situation before proceeding with any legal action, but the shadow hangs over the fledgling arts festival.

That $200K — which otherwise would have gone to the Office of Cultural Affairs, the bankroll for public arts monies overseen by the Cultural Arts Board — is almost half of Luminaria’s inaugural budget. Museo Alameda founder Henry Muñoz is charged with raising an additional $300,000 for Luminaria to add to the City’s HOT donation. More of that diverted Hotel Occupancy Tax surplus, is, of course, underwriting free entry at Muñoz’s Museo Alameda, to the tune of $315,000 a year through 2009 — an unofficial quid-pro-quo that has left a bad taste in some observers’ mouths.

More greasy mouthfeel: Even though the artists’ application (you can fill it out online at; deadline January 11) is still in diapers, the first (and only, to date) official Luminaria project is already running tests. Blue Star Executive Director Bill FitzGibbons, who’s the Site Specific/Visual art contact for Luminaria, plans to illuminate the Alamo with LED lights, much as he did with his permanent Light Channels installation at the Houston and Commerce street I-37 underpasses. ( leaked images last week; think limestone snow cone.)

FitzGibbons isn’t approaching the controversial monument to Texas independence from a historical point of view, but in the same way that wrap artist Christo encourages the public to reexamine familiar geographic features and manmade objects, FitzGibbons’ Alamo project will, he hopes, “allow the public to see the Alamo in a way they’ve never seen it before.”

Consider this his official proposal, because it won’t be going before the Review Committee like the other artists’ applications. Luminaria spokesperson Libby Tilley says FitzGibbons’ selection for the festival “showcase” area has nothing to do with his participation on the Luminaria committee — and other artists are already mentioned as sure things, too: Richie Budd, Alex Rubio, Vincent Valdez.

But even if FitzGibbons’ idea is brilliant, his early appointment sets another bad precedent (Is it possible another artist or two, maybe even San Antonio natives, have a proposal for an artistic reinterpretation of the Shrine to Freedom?). Two of Luminaria’s unofficial founders should know better: former Cultural Arts Board members Bettie Ward (who heads up Luminaria’s application-review committee) and Patricia Pratchett.

It’s not all backroom deals and friends-of-friends, of course. Thanks to the efforts of some squeaky wheels, participating artists will be eligible for a minimum $250 toward expenses — more if Muñoz raises enough money. That decision, to pay artists at least in part for their participation, may simply be another expedient way to silence critics, or it may indicate a real effort to respond to public input. If only the entire festival had started off on that footing.

My gripe with Luminaria comes down to this: We have an entity that is in charge of public funding for the rest of the city. OCA signs off on budgets larger than Luminaria’s every year. Yet, the mayor and council chose to circumvent that agency — and its process, which builds in public input through the peer-review panels — for a pet project.

Yes, good people and good intentions are involved in Luminaria, but if those good people don’t support a transparent arts-funding process that treats all ideas and entities as equal, it will ultimately undermine the progress OCA has made building a legitimate, authoritative, public-funding entity. Luminaria will likely happen with or without us, so at some level it makes sense to try to change it from within, but if you choose to do so, mind the glow — when people are elevated over process, somebody’s liable to get burned.

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