Centro de Artes, the troubled educational and cultural arts center established by Texas A&M University-San Antonio in the former Museo Alameda in 2012, is negotiating with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to house its Library Collection in the historic, City-owned building that sits in the heart of the Zona Cultural.
University and DRT officials confirmed Thursday that negotiations are now underway and nearing completion. Both parties expect a memorandum of understanding to be signed “within days.” The DRT is in the process of vacating the 1950s-era building it built on state land on the Alamo Grounds to house the Library Collection, which is expected to go into archival storage while the Centro de Artes building is assessed. It’s faulty HVAC system was just replaced and a leaky roof will undergo extensive repairs this summer. Even then, the building will fall far short of museum standards for preserving the DRT’s priceless library.
“We are in the middle of negotiations with DRT to house their collection,” said Cavett McCrary, a senior communications specialist at Texas A&M-San Antonio. “We should have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) for release soon.”
“They should have the MOU worked out in a few days,” said DRT spokesman Jim Suydan. “The DRT were having to move out, one way or the other. They’re very happy the university was there and available.”
The City’s newly-formed Tricentennial Commission also established its offices at Centro de Artes, but was forced to move out more than one month ago when the air conditioning system failed. Tricentennial Commission CEO Edward Benavides said he expects to move back into the building later this summer. The City is paying for the extensive building and system repairs.
The university-run center has received significant City funding in addition to its use of the building for a nominal $1 a year rent. A&M-San Antonio received annual stipends of $445,000 in the first three years of Centro de Arte’s operations, yet only two major exhibitions were mounted in the first two years. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, who was hired as president at A&M-San Antonio last year, asked the City to extend the contract for another three years, but the maximum City funding now is capped at $300,000 a year. Currently, A&M can receive up to $150,000 for operations, funded by City parking revenue at Market Square, and an additional $150,000 annually for exhibitions and programming that comes out of the hotel-occupancy tax.
Even with that funding, A&M-San Antonio has struggled with leadership turnover and continuing delays in developing a robust exhibition schedule. The university hired Joseph Bravo, the former executive director of the International Museum of Art & Science in McAllen, as Centro’s arts administrator in January. Bravo replaced Alicia Viera, who held the title of director of cultural programs for two years before leaving. The hiring of Bravo, a San Antonio native who worked at the San Antonio Museum of Art from 1994-2006, raised hopes in the Latino arts community that a first-class arts and cultural center would develop under his leadership, but sources say the university has been slow to approve his proposed plan to implement a more ambitious exhibitions schedule.
Roberto Gonzalez’s “Sacred Waters” exhibition, which consisted of 44 large scale painting of pre-Colombian images, was very well received, but closed June 19. The Centro de Artes website offers no hint of future programming. There are no current exhibits. Centro’s online Exhibitions Calendar features a Mel Casas exhibit that closed last September. The Centro de Artes Facebook page has been largely inactive since the Gonzalez exhibition closed. Assistant City Manager Lori Houston provided the Rivard Report with a single page of planned exhibitions that appears to come from an 18-page document, but sources in the Latino arts community say that schedule of exhibits has never been officially approved or shared.
The facility was closed on two occasions over the past two weeks when I tried to visit to speak with staff. Rivard Report Photo Editor Scott Ball visited Centro de Artes on Thursday, and was told by a receptionist that he could not enter the facility because there are no current exhibitions. The same receptionist then resigned her position over the telephone while Ball was there.
Bravo declined comment for this story, but a range of individuals associated with the Latino arts community, the university and the City have expressed concerns that yet another Latino arts institution appears to be in trouble. Others were equally troubled to learn about the DRT occupying first-floor offices at Centro de Artes in the heart of the Zona Cultural, which would be inconsistent with the institution’s stated mission, “to facilitate an understanding and appreciation of Latino arts and cultures and their influences on the United States, through exhibitions and related educational programming for a variety of audiences.”
While the DRT has earned praise for its preservation of the Alamo and the library collection it has amassed and cared for, its past history as custodians of the Alamo and what many historians regard as its incomplete telling of history, diminishing the Tejano story and ignoring the indigenous and Mission San Antonio de Valero periods, makes it ill-suited to share space in such a culturally significant district and building.
A&M-San Antonio’s long-range campus development plan calls for construction of a free-standing library building once the fast-growing school reaches enrollment of 10,000 students. That could be years from now, with current enrollment standing at about 5,000 students. Some sources familiar with negotiations say the university would like to see the DRT library collection permanently housed on campus.
“This is a fundamental shift in what we are wanting out of that relationship, we definitely need to revisit this relationship,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said Thursday after learning of the negotiations. “We (Latinos) don’t have many places as it is, and it’s in the heart of the Zona Cultural, so I am not in support of such a move.”
Treviño, an architect, has taken a lead role in the City’s participation in the San Pedro Creek Improvement Project and planned Zona Cultural improvements along West Commerce Street.
“If you dislike the DRT, you certainly don’t want them in that building,” said one arts administrator not involved in the university-DRT negotiations. “And if you love the DRT, you don’t want them putting their stuff in that building just because they are being evicted at the Alamo. That building is going to need a lot of work: it’s not insect-proof, the interior needs reworking, and it isn’t set up for a major library collection. It would take one year to properly redo the building, and it would cost a lot of money.”
It’s possible that media attention to the A&M-San Antonio-DRT talks will kill the agreement even before it becomes official. Latino community leaders will not welcome any development that suggests Centro de Artes could go the way of the Museo Alameda, which opened in 2007 as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. with great expectations. Under the leadership of Henry Muñoz, its chairman and leading visionary, the Museo’s finances were badly mismanaged. The Smithsonian name was erased and five years after its opening, Museo Alameda closed. The City invested $3.7 million in the failed effort.
Centro de Artes, located in the heart of the Zona Cultural at 101 S. Santa Rosa Ave. on the westside of downtown, represented a return to its former name before the building became home to the Museo Alameda. It’s now seen as a historic landmark with a contemporary history of failed operations under a hodge-podge of different names and missions. Its annual operating stipend from the City is one of the largest public arts grants received by a local arts institution, but critics say it has failed to generate the kind of programming and exhibitions promised by A&M-San Antonio’s leaders at the time they established a downtown presence.
A&M-San Antonio originally took over the vacant building in 2012 and opened the San Antonio Educational Cultural Center. The name proved unpopular and one year later it was renamed Casa Rosa, which had a much warmer feel and reflected the building’s pink exterior. That name didn’t stick, either. Luis López, an artist in Tobin Hill whose gallery is named Casa Rosa, threatened to sue, so the name was changed to Centro de Artes. The university’s first president, Maria Hernandez Ferrier, established offices there in 2015 after stepping down as president to oversee a new university initiative to establish partnerships with Mexican institutions. She has since departed.
It’s hard now to imagine a building housing the DRT library going by the name of Centro de Artes.
“We are in talks with the Daughters, but until we have an MOU we can’t talk about it,” said Nan Palmero, A&M-San Antonio’s new marketing manager, in an after-hours interview. “We do have plans for a robust exhibition schedule, too.”
“We are working diligently with the city and with various groups to bring the history and culture of San Antonio, our state and our country as exciting and inclusive new exhibits to a refurbished Centro de Artes,” President Matson said in a statement released Thursday evening.
Palmero and City officials said there are tentative plans to mount a 9/11 exhibition and a Día de los Muertos exhibition later this year, and an early 2017 Aggies Go to War exhibition. Matson and Benavides also are working on a proposed Tricentennial exhibition that would include a Canary Island art exchange, and a timeline allowing visitors to experience San Antonio over 300 years. A Spanish exhibition currently in Houston also is under consideration.
Still, the dream of making building Centro de Artes into a national-class Latino arts center has never been realized, and it seems doubtful at this juncture that there is enough money or commitment within the university to achieve that goal.
Top image: Centro de Artes in the heart of the Zona Cultural. Photo by Scott Ball.