The Lackland Corridor Gateway Sculpture is located at the intersection of West Military Drive and Highway 90.
Tribute to Freedom by George Schroeder was erected in 2018 and is located along the Lackland corridor. The sculpture came from funds in a drainage improvement project. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

That infrastructure is woefully underfunded in San Antonio is a widely accepted fact. Whether public art should be sacrificed to start making up the difference has become a point of contention among citizens committees charged with determining what projects get funded in the $1.2 billion 2022 municipal bond.

Since October, the committees have worked to make recommendations to City Council on the bond’s five parts: housing; facilities; streets, bridges and sidewalks; parks, recreation and open spaces; and drainage and flood control. Voters will have to approve each as a separate proposition in May.

In at least two committees, citizen representatives have discussed reducing the 1.5% public art funding to 1% — the funding level stipulated by a city ordinance — or eliminating it entirely from their category. In one instance the public art funding survived, but another committee cut the funding entirely.

Even before those discussions, city staff eliminated funding for public art from the housing category, recommending that 1.5% of funding from the other categories be dedicated to public art projects, for a total of $15.7 million worth of potential art projects.

San Antonio artist Leticia Huerta’s <I>Bloom</I> sculptures sprouted around San Antonio last year with public art funds.
San Antonio artist Leticia Huerta’s Bloom sculptures sprouted around San Antonio last year with public art funds. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

In a city experiencing rapid population growth and where the poverty level is high, the need for street repairs, affordable housing and park improvements inevitably clashes with loftier aims for cultural amenities such as public art.

“I think that we have put too much money into things that are much more nice-to-haves than really-needs-to-have,” said Patrice Melancon, a District 10 representative on the drainage and flood control committee. “I feel like our priorities have gotten a little skewed.”

The statement drew applause.

From 1.5% to zero

Melancon’s comments came after the committee viewed several dramatic videos taken by residents during incidents of flooding in their neighborhoods around the city, with pleas for flood control projects that have in some cases been neglected for decades.

The drainage and flood control committee ultimately voted Dec. 15 to recommend eliminating public art projects entirely, with the reallocated $2.47 million to be devoted to drainage and flood control infrastructure projects.

On the other side of the debate, supporters of public art say it’s integral to establishing and maintaining a sense of community in San Antonio neighborhoods.

“Public art is community,” said George Cisneros, co-founder of arts group Urban-15, speaking at a Jan. 5 community meeting called by sculptor Bill FitzGibbons in response to the bond committee discussions. Hung high on a wall behind the podium at Lone Start Studios, a poster characterized public art as promoting understanding, enlightenment, representation, education, inclusiveness, expression, beauty and the public good.

A sculpture from Mexican artist Sebastián is on view at Plaza de Armas in downtown San Antonio.
A sculpture from Mexican artist Sebastián is on view at Plaza de Armas in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cisneros recalled a bygone era when communities commonly had plazas, park-like settings where residents would gather around a fountain or piece of public art. Such public gathering places promote public health and safety, he suggested.

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger, a longtime proponent of public art and parks, also spoke in support of keeping the full 1.5% funding in drainage and flood control projects, and throughout bond projects.

“Am I for drainage? Of course I’m for drainage,” Hardberger said. “I am for spending 98.5% of the money that goes to drainage [on] the actual drainage project in question. And I love that 1.5% where it is, because it fulfills a real need of the city of San Antonio.”

Terry Ybañez, president of the Mission San José Neighborhood Association, said she was grateful her neighborhood was part of the World Heritage buffer zone, which provides protections for the Spanish colonial missions and promotes public art and other beautification efforts in the district.

“What I don’t see in neighborhoods that aren’t as lucky as ours is art,” Ybañez said. Public art “inspires, educates, it moves us to be better and to protect our neighborhoods. … It does so much for keeping a community healthy and inspired.”

Defining quality of life

Ybañez said public art projects could help improve quality of life in underserved communities throughout San Antonio, but Rose Araujo-Iracheta, a District 5 representative on the drainage and flood control committee, raised the issue of quality of life in a more basic sense during the Dec. 15 committee meeting.

Since the devastating flood of 1921, the city has “disregarded District 5’s [drainage] projects … to improve our quality of life in our neighborhoods. So for me, this is a no-brainer, to add those additional funds into the flood and drain projects,” she said.

Meanwhile, members of the streets, bridges and sidewalks committee suggested reducing the recommended 1.5% funding for public art to 1%, but the effort failed and funding was preserved at its initial level of $7.16 million out of its total $477 million budget.

From the people to the people

The question of how 2022 municipal bond funds will be spent will ultimately be decided by voters in the May 7 election.

Citizens committee recommendations will go to City Council for consideration on Jan. 12, with the council voting Feb. 10 on final bond measures to become propositions on the May 7 ballot.

While Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) has spoken in favor of public art at its full funding level, at least two council members say they support the elimination of 1.5% funding for public art on the drainage and flood control bond measure.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he fully supports the committee’s recommendation. “I think people are starting to realize, ‘Hey, we need to put more money towards our infrastructure,’” including drainage and street repair projects. “I’ve been saying that since I’ve been on council.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) listens to presentations regarding the proposed 2022-2027 housing bond program during B Session at City Hall in November 2021.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) listens to presentations on the proposed 2022-27 housing bond program during a November meeting at City Hall. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Perry pointed out that city staff members have calculated the current need for infrastructure improvements at $6.6 billion — significantly larger than the proposed bond. “That number is not going to get any smaller if we keep diverting money away from those requirements,” he said.

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said that while he initially supported raising the public art portion of the bond funding to 2% or even 3%, he would hesitate to override the recommendations of the citizens committee.

While he believes in art, Bravo said, “I also believe in public participation and that it’s not my government, it’s the people’s government.” He said the public process is important, “and I don’t believe in going back and undoing what the citizens do.”

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) has joined Perry in advocating against an increase above the 1% specified in the existing city ordinance. Perry said keeping the funding level at 1% would still mean a “massive increase” in public art funding, from $8.5 million in the 2017 bond to $12 million in the 2022 bond.

And even if the 1.5% for art provision is removed from the drainage bond, public art projects would receive a minimum of $13.2 million in bond funds if the bond measures meet with public approval.

Krystal Jones, interim director of the city’s Department of Arts and Culture, cited the Tribute to Freedom large-scale sculpture by George Schroeder at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, calling it a prime example of public art tied to a drainage project.

Jones estimated that with full funding, each district would receive two to three new public art projects over the next five years. She said she had not yet calculated how the loss of $2.47 million would affect the overall effort, but the department will be ready to proceed after voters have their say in May.

“After the bond projects are decided upon, that’s when the real public art process and program and work starts,” Jones said.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...