Una Noche en la Gloria’s Funky Foundation

On the corner of Guadalupe and South Colorado, the beginnings of glory apparently occur in an unadorned studio where the only thing fighting back the surrounding vegetation is a campaign placard. There, the giant picture of Bexar County Democratic chairman Manuel Medina’s face gives me the sort of fright that indiscriminately proves that democrats can be scary, too. I make my way past the unruly greenery to the cemented area behind the studio where my appointment with Gabriel Quintero Velasquez, founder of Una Noche en la Gloria: Contemporary Art in the Cultural Zone, is to take place.

Once a neighborhood gas station, Velasquez’s studio has the feel of a New York railroad apartment. He shows me his office kitchenette, once a bathroom. “See?” He points out where the commode used to be. He’s dressed from head to toe in the de rigueur black that genuine artists don regardless the time of year. His goatee, a potent mixture of gray and a deep tenné, is perfectly cut.

Velasquez, an architect and seasoned community activist, combines his love of design and organization with a hearty West Side grito in Una Noche, which for years went by the grammatically questionable Una Noche de la Gloria. He was on the steering committee for the first two Luminaria events before stepping out on his own to create this kindred festival focused on Latino arts and artists. The event—now in its fifth year—is an arts expo only on the exterior. Underneath the bountiful community-based excitement is a workforce development project woven with a sturdy stitch of Latino activism.

But the general public isn’t really supposed to see behind the curtain. While festival-goers sway back and forth to the (increasingly) modern Chicano music and enjoy performances, visual art and a fervently anticipated fashion show, the artists themselves are learning something very particular; the business of selling their work and finding a place for themselves in the so-called the creative economy.

“In the world of enjoying your craft in the arts, there is a level of sheer joy, sheer playfulness,” Velasquez said. “There’s a society that’s just ready to go out and do La Dolce Vita, you know? Underneath that there is the need to survive and to pay bills and to sell their art.”

He explains that the creative economy is a component of San Antonio’s own economy. “That’s where people spend their money. My job is to tell my social network that they need to get that money before anybody else does … I want [artists] to discover that they have value.”

Of his Una Noche program—which gets much of its funky flavor from the West Side (imagine a Latino arts fest of this color and magnitude in the land of D2 councilwoman Ivy Taylor or D10 councilman Carlton Soules’ ’hood)—Velasquez says he “won’t say someone is in or out because their work is good or bad.”

He added, “The reason I don’t quantify anyone’s paintings or artwork is because people buy whatever they’re going to buy … And I’ve seen some people buy the worst-looking stuff.”

Velasquez continued, “I can get in a lot of hot water if I would talk art with the artists. [Because] then, we are talking about opinions. There’s no way to quantify what the value of your product is except that there’s a consumer waiting to buy it. This project is about subversively forcing the artist into my dialogue.” And this dialogue isn’t all about art. If it was, Citibank wouldn’t be sponsoring it. They “aren’t art funders” according to Velasquez. This is where the workforce development spin comes in, making Una Noche attractive to donors even if they don’t dig art in public or on paper.

Instead, artists are free to talk business. Insert awkward pause here, because coming up with the value of an artist’s work is level one of this game and that’s a tough call in any market.

Take for example fashion designer Agosto Cuellar, age 50. On Saturday, Cuellar will present the local fashion component, Runway en la Calle, for a fifth go. When I met him at his West Side home he admitted to being panic-stricken at the negotiating table. Well, at least he used to be pre-Una Noche.

“Yes, I have been scared,” he confessed. “It’s a value thing. It’s a worth thing. We don’t know where our value is because no one has taught us our value. We’ve taught ourselves our value.”

But it takes two to tango. “When we put our value out there, people in this city go, ‘Really? You’re asking for that much?’ But I know I’m worth that much.” Cuellar adjusted his signature horn-rimmed glasses. “‘Why can you not give me that respect?’ It’s because they’re not trained.”

Velasquez’s aspiration to train artists extends to schooling the city’s talent buyers as well. “There has to be drivers on both sides,” he said. “Once you put a price tag on it, you’re not an artist anymore. You’re a businessman,” he continued.

Velasquez believes that educating young artists about the importance of healthcare and a retirement plan is absolutely essential. “They don’t know anything about the fate of being a painter,” he said.

It’s not just the visual artists that he feels could use some mentoring. “Some bands don’t have a bank account!” he exclaimed. “At the end of the night you pay all your players and you’re the one stuck with the tax bill.”

He then switched back to telling me more about Una Noche, pulling out his Mac as an aid.

When I visited the free event’s official website and clicked on the thumbnails of the 30 “organizers” (the artists involved in Una Noche, including Velasquez as a DJ), many of them didn’t have hyperlinks, seeming to have missed an important point in Velasquez’s directive. If potential clients were interested in their work, they’d hit a digital brick wall if they couldn't easily contact them via internet. When I asked him why most organizers didn't have hyperlinks, he seemed disappointed.

“That’s a really good question,” he said. “Some of the artists aren’t quite up-to-date with the importance of getting their information out there. I’m trying to get them to know that they have this opportunity.”

Velasquez said Una Noche exists right now because there is a need for it. He hopes that participants will carry the torch one day and make an event that is even better. Perhaps this was his own thinking when he left Luminaria after “clashing heads” with others on the committee.

“The urban aspect of the organizing [with Luminaria] ... We knew that was the part that was really special about it,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “The problem with Luminaria is that the vision of Phil Hardberger didn’t get followed through. It got taken over by the nonprofits. And then after that it, got taken over by the Hemisfair [group]. It isn’t what we had intended it to be.”

But even with Luminaria, Una Noche and other prominent festivals, San Antonio doesn’t have a track record of being a city where artists can find the kind of work that could provide decent living wages.

“We have some struggling artists because San Antonio has become a cheap town for gigs so bands have to take it out of town,” Velasquez said, giving an example of a $20 per band member gig for a four-hour show in SA. Barely a full tank of gas and a Red Bull. He claimed other cities, like Chicago, willingly paying more. Much more.

Cuellar agreed with this view and added that the local fashion collective shares a similar view about “creative economy.”

“[Fashion designers] have almost lost interest in the San Antonio market,” he divulged. “They’re saying to me, ‘You know what? We go to L.A., we go to Chicago and they love us and we sell our stuff. In San Antonio—we produce it. But we don’t get any attention here. So why try to be recognized here? ’Cause it’s not gonna happen.’”

Some of the artists taking part in the fest are more seasoned. Meet Yvette Shadrock. She has a gallery in Alamo Heights where she sells paintings, jewelry and mixed media sculptural pieces. Shadrock says she’s grateful for the new audience that Una Noche brings her every year but finds the idea of lowering her prices for her artwork and jewelry “a ... very difficult thing.”

“As you progress as an artist, your work is sold at a certain price,” she explained by phone. Although pleasant, she seems disenchanted with my choice of subject matter. “Once you get to that point it’s hard to go backwards.”

Not everyone has the benefit of Shadrock’s experience. Some artists still struggle with basic etiquette and making a good first impression. Velasquez offered an example of some recent commentary he had for a young artist regarding the presentation of his work.

“I know I should be looking at your art—it’s a beautiful painting—but all I can see is your crooked frame and how poorly you staple everything!” he recalled saying with mild frustration. Mild because one of the life lessons he’s learned from his years in activism is to not take responsibility for other people’s actions.

Louie Chavez, who describes his artwork as pop surrealism, told me about a lesson he learned at Una Noche in 2010.

“I made the mistake of getting there late,” he said via phone. “I didn’t get the space I wanted. I was setting up while people were in full swing.”

The spot he did find didn’t get much traffic at all and it resulted in poor sales. In fact, none. “I never made that mistake again,” he said. He grabbed his preferred spot the next year and sold some pieces.

“I like organizing chaos,” Velasquez admitted. For him, the true test is to see artists like Chavez learn from their mistakes and rid themselves of old self-defeating habits in an effort to reach the next level of their careers.

Cuellar said he needed to look beyond the fashion to see that what the runway aspect was really doing was inspiring people. This year, many of his designs will be recycled.

“Repurposed, reused fabric … Reimagined from things that are already out there. We don’t need to produce more stuff. That’s what we’re teaching them,” he said, adding that he’ll be working with six designers this year and “a lot of egos.”

It’s easy to assume that Cuellar’s fashion show is the centerpiece of the event, which, by Velasquez’s estimate attracts up to 7,000 visitors through the course of the six hours of programming. Runway en la Calle, produced on Guadalupe Street this year, is the final event. Like an early cast photo of television’s Friends, the fact that Jennifer Aniston just happened to be in the middle might be an accurate comparison of billing and placement. Again, this is all business stuff.

With a quiet laugh, Cuellar dropped his head.

“I try not to be Jennifer Aniston,” he said. “We are the last thing that happens at La Gloria. We are OK with that, but I know that it’s hard for some of the musicians who work just as hard as we do ... poets and performing artists ... and they’re almost our opening act in a sense.”

Runway en la Calle does have a broad appeal. Chavez, the visual artist, agrees.

“It’s one of the most legitimate events put out for San Antonio. It’s top-notch,” he said.

“I like fashion that makes me laugh,” Cuellar said. “It’s so outrageous and so over the top that it couldn’t possibly be couture [or] high-end but it is. I find that genius.”

Although Cuellar is given free rein artistically, he did find a learning curve when his working relationship with Velasquez began.

“We needed to up [the runway show] a bit and that was probably the biggest struggle that I had with him. We needed to create a certain look ... so that we could be taken seriously and not be looked at as just another attempt at something that it’s not,” Cuellar explained.

One year the runway that arrived was entirely made of plastic.

“It was Lucite and I didn’t get it. Lucite? It doesn’t make sense,” said Cuellar.

Since then, Cuellar says they’ve both learned working together is a give and take. He praised Velasquez for noting the issues and problems of each Una Noche and making those items goals to overcome for the next year with corporate-speak phrases like, “How can I help you make that happen?”

If Una Noche were to end today, Cuellar says he would continue doing Runway en la Calle in another form; possibly on a smaller scale.

“When this is over, that is what I’m taking with me,” he said. “Runway en la Calle, that in itself becomes a branding.” No doubt Velasquez would be pleased with that lesson.

I asked Velasquez what the biggest obstacle standing in the way of fulfilling his vision for Una Noche was. In architect mode, he replied. “The lack of infrastructure in a city that has a lot of festivals [but] that doesn’t think of the infrastructure as a means of affordability [or] sustainability,” he said. “What that means is if the city had been developed properly ... they could cut back on the amount of money that it takes to do something that helps people. Power in the streets, etc. San Antonio has a lot of things that it could activate, but it’s too busy...”

His voice trailed off. “San Antonio is full of control freaks,” he concluded. “I wouldn›t want to be anywhere else. I like San Antonio. My best friends are here. My family’s here. I’m not happy with the way that it’s developing right now. I’m not.”

Fair enough. What is San Antonio good at?

“Wow...well, San Antonio’s good at coming together,” he conceded. “But that’s the people that do that, not the system. San Antonio is always working against an ‘us vs. them’ environment. We are always trying to connect. San Antonio is always good at trying to achieve its knowledge of itself. [This] is a world-class city which will sooner or later get past Davey Crockett.”

He views the deliberate staging of Una Noche in the less-touristy, but perhaps even more culturally relevant, neighborhood of the West Side as a means to help highlight a different side of SA. In Velasquez’s opinion, the gateway to the West Side is unfortunately flanked by the Bexar County Jail and

Haven for Hope, about the last place you’d expect to find a fashion-art-music mash-up.

Yet for all his grand visions, Velasquez seemed dismissive when I asked what kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind.

“I’m really focused on right now. I don’t worry too much about the future. The future will take care of itself. It’s got to…. The best thing we can do is fortify today and make it very hard for tomorrow to change it. I see things architecturally. I know that if I build a building out of concrete, it’s going to give you less incentive to tear it down.”

Then he reminded me, “There isn’t a funding grant for this project. It is not tied to any guarantees.”

So it could end this year?

“It could end right now,” Velasquez said with a laugh. “This year, I was very successful in getting some [committee members] to raise money.”

Speaking of money, what about the artists? Is that end goal working, in dollars and cents?

Both Chavez and Shadrock have sold “some paintings” at the event. Velasquez says that one of the artists was hired in the middle of a press event for Una Noche to do a mural for $8,000 at the old Pig Stand in Southtown.

“I’m not seeing any benefits of La Gloria,” said Cuellar. “Monetarily.” But he has been asked to do speaking engagements and has crossed paths with people in the industry he wouldn’t have met if it hadn't been for his Una Noche gig.

“I will always be cool with San Antonio if it decides to stay the way it is but I’ll know that in some sense I’ve changed a couple of people’s minds,” Cuellar concluded.

“What’s important today is to help build strong foundations,” said Velasquez. “We can only hope that the investment we’re making lasts.”

Spoken like a true architect.

Una Noche en la Gloria

6pm-midnight, Sat Oct 12
Brazos and Guadalupe
(210) 823-6382

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