San Antonio Museum of Art incorporates local contemporary artists into exhibitions

The image of the San Antonio Museum of Art has changed significantly since David S. Rubin arrived in town five years ago. Though SAMA was an early supporter of Contemporary Art Month, it was still known primarily as the city’s big collecting museum, more interested in representing historic art from around the world than living artists. Today, the art on view still has global concerns, but often it was made yesterday — sometimes, in San Antonio.

In 2006 Rubin, the new Brown Foundation Curator of Contemporary Art at SAMA, was charged with reorganizing the museum’s holdings of modern and contemporary art. He found that Texas artists were kept in their own gallery, but he soon integrated their works into the main contemporary collection. “That was just marginalizing our artists,” he said. “We have world-class artists here in San Antonio.”

Texas artists joined the rest of the 20th century, and began to appear in 21st-century exhibitions at the museum, too. In Chocolate: A Photography Exhibition, SA local favorite Chuck Ramirez was exhibited next to Brazilian art superstar Vik Muniz. The show of chocolate art is typical of Rubin’s insistence on presenting exhibitions that are “mission oriented, thematic … showing art that has relevance to people’s lives.”

Accessibility is important to Rubin, who also insists that the art he exhibits needs to be “visually engaging … to have a fresh, unfamiliar edge.” Two of the many other shows organized by Rubin at SAMA have been El Chavez Ravine, a joint project by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez and guitarist/composer Ry Cooder that mixed music with a painting-covered 1952 ice cream truck. The group show Psychedelic, which is also a book co-published by SAMA and MIT Press, was inspired by Frank Stella’s 1968 painting at SAMA, Double Scramble. The large show presents works of several dozen artists, including pieces by Andy Warhol, contemporary luminary Fred Tomaselli, and local artist Michael Velliquette.

Rubin’s evident interest in local artists is exemplified by his understanding of the job. “The contemporary art curator’s role is to be liaison between artists and the museum,” he said. To accomplish this, he not only exhibits local artists, but also attends as many openings as possible, and sends notice of exhibition and grant opportunities to an email list that includes over 400 artists. For all his interest in communicating to the public, his statement reveals a firmly artist-oriented sensibility. In a profession dominated by art historians, it is also a peculiar bias, but one that for Rubin may be natural. Rubin is curator, art critic, and practicing artist, too — a rare triple threat in the curatorial world. He is modest about his art practice, which he describes as “automatic drawing,” claiming he is “just now becoming an emerging artist.” It is an unusual remark from someone who graduated from Harvard University in 1974 with an MA in Art History. “I have to draw for my sanity, it’s what I do,” Rubin demands. I suspect that may accurately describe everything he does.

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