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"Don't take CAM away from us," pleads artist Robert Tatum, who registered both "Contemporary Art Month" and "CAM" at the Bexar County Courthouse after hearing City officer Felix Padrón's proposal to move the event from July to October. Photo by Mark Greenberg
The City Office of Cultural Affairs proposes to move Contemporary Art Month from July to October, packaging it in a 'Fall Arts Festival' and positioning it as a marketing tool

"Paris is a moveable feast," wrote Ernest Hemingway. Although each city boasts a river walk, San Antonio is less mobile than the French capital. For 18 years, San Antonio has scheduled a cluster of events and openings in July, dubbing it Contemporary Art Month. A proposal to move CAM from July to October has stirred up a tempest in a paint pot.

The proposal came from Felix Padrón, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs of the City of San Antonio. "We need to position San Antonio as a serious arts destination," Padrón says. "Now we're not. We're on nobody's radar screen."

A "Fall Arts Festival" that included Jazz'SAlive, FotoSeptiembre, the International Accordion Festival, and the Day of the Dead, along with CAM, would, according to Padrón, create a critical mass of events that would attract outsiders serious about the arts. CAM, whose calendar Padrón's office has for the past two years been compiling and funding (at an annual cost of $15,000), has not succeeded in putting San Antonio on the international arts map. As long as CAM remains isolated and in torrid July, San Antonio will be a hot spot for art - too hot for anyone but a resident. "No one is talking about the future," Padrón complains. "Where do we go from here?"

To map an itinerary, Padrón met at the Main Library on July 9 with a few dozen artists and arts administrators. In a Powerpoint presentation that provoked some acrimony, he announced an initiative to promote a new Fall Arts Festival, to begin as soon as 2004. The Office of Cultural Affairs, whose funding comes entirely from the hotel/motel tax, would attempt to raise an additional $300,000 for a focused campaign to make the world aware that San Antonio is where it's at in October. OCA is not in the business of creating events and organizations - merely marketing them.

So, to include painters and sculptors in the Fall Arts Festival, Padrón suggests shifting an established entity, Contemporary Art Month, to October. The result, he believes, would benefit everyone.

Leigh Anne Lester, of both San Angel Folk Art and Cactus Bra, disagrees. "I like it where it is, but I'm open," she says. "In July, Contemporary Art Month stands out on its own. It's an opportunity to focus on this particular area and to support its independently owned businesses." According to Lester, the strongest argument for moving to October is that it is cooler: "But the Venice Biennale is sweltering."

"Don't take CAM away from us," artist Robert Tatum pleads. "The artists are the ones who came up with the concept." He argues that artists, not OCA or tourists, are the ones who should control the institution.

To that end, Tatum informed the Current (before telling Padrón), he went over to the Bexar County Courthouse and, for a fee of $14 each, registered both "Contemporary Art Month" and "CAM." Now anyone who wants to use either term must do business with Tatum, their proprietor.

"We want to keep it in July," he declares. Tatum contends that out-of-towners account for a tiny percentage of those interested in the cutting-edge contemporary art that has created a revolution in local studios and galleries. "It's a very exciting time," he says, insisting that his excitement is shared by a faithful local following. "We don't care about tourism."

The controversy over CAM is no July-October romance. Padrón's proposal has exposed fault lines splintering government, artists, galleries, and the general public. If the fault is Padrón's, he is unrepentant.
According to Gene Elder, the gadfly of local artists, "This is all a marketing scam thought up by Felix to get money for his office (with a threat of blackmail, I might add)." Elder applauds Tatum's actions and claims that he himself registered the name "Contemporary Art Mouth." "Just in case somebody thinks he can shut me up," he explains.

No one has kept Leslie J. Klein from voicing her anger and bitterness about the Padrón proposal. In a report to her partners at Textures Gallery, she states: "To me this is trickle-down theory at its best - co-opt what the artists have built for years with token help from the city, and leave us to start over again with no help and less funding. The first beneficiaries are sure to be the major art institutions, to trickle down to the artists in due course."

CAM began because major institutions such as the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay were neglecting local contemporary art. Jeffrey Moore, then coordinator for the fledgling Blue Star, persuaded City Council to confer official recognition on the creative ferment occurring in the abandoned warehouses on South Alamo. During the past 18 years, SAMA and the McNay have changed their policies, ArtPace has been born, and Southtown has sprouted as many galleries as Terrell Hills has swimming pools. "The original goals of CAM have been realized," declares Bill FitzGibbons, Blue Star's current director, who is ready for new goals. His board voted to endorse Padrón's proposal.

"I am a little surprised at the reaction in the community after hearing complaints about July for 15 years," says FitzGibbons. While he notes that Blue Star 19, the next edition of the annual exhibition of local contemporary art, will occur, as always, in July, Blue Star will schedule a curated tour of local studios in October - "the ideal month for people to go to studios." Although he admits that Tatum's ownership of the name CAM makes moot a plan for CAM 2 in October, FitzGibbons supports the effort to stimulate cultural tourism: "To have collectors coming from around the country can only be beneficial to our local artists."

San Antonio City Council provides what little funding it does for the arts because it was convinced that the arts stimulate cultural tourism, and tourism means cash for the city of the Alamo. If tourism can underwrite the arts, why should artists be overwrought? "What happens when a piece disturbs City Council?" asks Paul Bonin, proprietor of the San Miguel Folk Art Gallery and a playwright. Bonin worries about trusting a tradition as important as CAM to the whims of officials in a city with a recent history of demonizing art and artists.

One might also worry about a scenario in which the Convention and Visitors Bureau would dictate cultural life in San Antonio. The performing arts will probably always be the strongest tourist magnets, but does that justify giving more support to music, theater, and dance than literary magazines? Should marketable, commodified paintings be given priority over conceptual installations simply because they might draw visitors from Michigan to spend a few nights and a few hundred dollars in San Antonio?

The controversy over CAM is no July-October romance. Padrón's proposal has exposed fault lines splintering government, artists, galleries, and the general public. If the fault is Padrón's, he is unrepentant. "At least we're talking about art," he offers. But Tara Elgin Holley, a spokesperson for ArtPace, regrets uncivil wars. "These camps that people create for themselves do nothing but divide us," she complains. "Can't we get past that? Look around; these kinds of divisions - at the macro level - are destroying civilizations. Can't we avoid this at the micro level?" •

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