Public art has a loud and splashy presence in San Antonio. From the Arnold Park Playground by Katie Pell on the far Southwest Side to Douglas Kornfeld’s Open Hand, Open Mind, Open Heart in Pittman Sullivan Park, and from Mark Schlesinger’s Along Here and There on Jones Maltsberger Road to the new River Walk Art Garden on Market Street downtown, large-scale sculptures and colorful murals enhance the landscape of the city.
Much quieter has been Jimmy LeFlore, who for 20 years managed public art programs for the City of San Antonio. Though visible in many community meetings dedicated to developing a vital public art program for the City, LeFlore said he always preferred that the focus remain on the artwork.
Without LeFlore, though, arguably most of it wouldn’t exist.
A Feb. 3 Facebook post quietly announced his retirement after 20 years of service for Public Art San Antonio and the Department of Arts and Culture, drawing 120 comments from well-wishers.
Mike Greenberg, a former arts critic for the San Antonio Express-News, commented to LeFlore, “Your work has transformed San Antonio.”
Greenberg said later, “It’s really been quite remarkable how much has been accomplished [during LeFlore’s tenure]. … It’s really made a big difference in the look of the city.”
In 2000, “public art was very much a suspect concept in San Antonio,” Greenberg said. At the time, the City department overseeing cultural affairs had tried to institute a percent for art program, mandating that one percent of an overall budget for new architecture projects includes public art. The effort was rebuffed by City Council.
Felix Padron, who had led that effort, then moved over to the Public Works Department to become its art program coordinator. Padron hired LeFlore on April 1, 2000, as a program manager in the Design Enhancement Office, a term deliberately used to avoid potentially contentious “public art” terminology.
LeFlore and City Engineer Tom Wendorf gradually guided a reintroduction of the term, changing the title of the program to Public Art & Design Enhancement, which eventually became Public Art San Antonio (PASA) in 2008 with the introduction of LeFlore’s Public Art Master Plan and creation of a new mayor-appointed Public Art Board.
In 2014, due to various departmental reorganizations, LeFlore moved to what would become the Department of Arts and Culture as Public Art Manager.
Throughout his time, LeFlore fostered dialogue and cooperation among the various City entities needed to complete projects such as Diana Kersey’s Life Cycle of the Gulf Coast Toad in Brackenridge Park, Everything Was Close in the Lavaca neighborhood by Anne Wallace, and a light installation in Culebra Park Plaza, by Bill FitzGibbons.
The 50-year-old LeFlore retired not long after the official opening of the River Walk Art Garden, and counts it as among the best of San Antonio’s many public art achievements, pointing to its changeability and connection to all parts of the city. Though LeFlore is willing to acknowledge that the garden is the ultimate realization of a concept he presented years ago, he said only the cooperation of many people throughout several City departments made the project possible.
At the Nov. 6 dedication ceremony, LeFlore observed quietly from the audience while Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture; Veronica Rippel, hired by Racca-Sittre in 2018 to take over management of the Public Art division from LeFlore; and Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) lauded the project.
In December, LeFlore announced his intention to retire in the spring to Racca-Sittre. He cites career burnout as among various reasons, but the most important factor, he said, was “an internal clock set long [ago] back in 2000, that I didn’t want overstay my post or abandon my independence as an artist.”
In March 2019, LeFlore had an exhibition at Jesus Toro Martinez’s Lone Star Art Space, bringing together small-scale cut sculptures made from simple materials like a Central Market paper bag and cut cardboard product boxes. The exhibition was titled “Late Bloomer,” evincing a return to a consistent studio practice as an artist, though he had been making artwork all along.
LeFlore’s Instagram feed began filling with larger-scale works, based on simple materials like cut and folded cardboard, elastic, and box tops and paper bags turned into paintings.
LeFlore’s retirement and return to the studio was well-timed for the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent social isolation, but he has not stopped thinking about ways to continue a more public practice of fostering art in San Antonio.
Back to the Future
The pandemic and subsequent collapse of San Antonio’s economy now give greater urgency to LeFlore’s budding plans, which are not fully formed but involve shepherding new sources of support for artists beyond City funding.
Dependency on arts organizations for support actually has limited opportunities for artists, LeFlore asserted, as he moves from bureaucratic support structures to what he called “the plight of the individual artist.” He called for “an artist-first movement that would be not only symbolically encouraging” and let artists know they are important to the fabric of the city, but “also to literally put some food on the table, and help to take care of some bills.”
He said that though City leaders are currently overwhelmed with emergency measures, new strategies must move beyond the Hotel Occupancy Tax as a primary source for arts funding for City-related arts projects, arts organizations, and the Department of Arts and Culture itself.
Public-private partnerships, and other inter-organizational collaborations could foster in a “New Deal WPA-style program,” LeFlore said, recalling the post-Depression public works program that hired artists, architects, writers, and other cultural workers to create and enhance civic infrastructure.
LeFlore pointed to the former City departmental structure, when public art projects were managed from within the Public Works Department, as better suited to such collaborations than the current structure, because connections can be more easily made with other departments and agencies, and funding can be drawn from multiple sources, including corporate sponsors, philanthropy, and infrastructure funds.
Looking to public art programs run by national organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtPlace, the Bloomberg Foundation, and other major grant-giving bodies, LeFlore said, “when they put these massive grant opportunities out there for public art, they’re looking for local communities to collaborate and leverage each other’s resources so that the funds are touching as many individual artists and partner agencies as possible.”
Such collaborations address the broadest need for the most diverse audiences, he said.
Looking Outward, Seeing Home
LeFlore “represented San Antonio well on the national stage,” said Carrie Brown, public art curator of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. “Having his voice and expertise on the council elevated our city’s various public art collections and brought national recognition to some of our most cherished artists and arts organizations.”
The High Line in New York City is considered among the world’s most successful public art venues. Robert Hammond, its co-founder and executive director, is a San Antonio native who grew up in Alamo Heights a few blocks from LeFlore.
“I was already very proud to be born and raised in San Antonio,” Hammond said, “but Jimmy’s work helped make San Antonio even more a beacon for great public art.”
Brown also highlighted LeFlore’s local influence. “Jimmy was someone I turned to for guidance as I began to develop a new program from the ground up,” she said. “His support was instrumental in launching the San Pedro Creek art program.”
When LeFlore opened PASA Studio – a glass-front gallery, gathering space, and offices on St. Mary’s Street downtown – in 2010, public art in San Antonio was still evolving as a defined and vital presence.
Community conversations at the space, and initiatives such as “Que PASA” summer bike tours to visit public art locations throughout the city helped demystify public art, he said, as ways of “getting people to see that there’s more to public art than just the execution of procedures.”
PASA Studio was in operation from 2010-2012, when PASA was absorbed into the Dept. of Arts and Culture.
The success of his long-term efforts is evident, he said, in the various outgrowths from the original City program. “This community has grown up around a small public art initiative that proved to be very successful and spawned many more public art programs,” he said, including projects initiated by Bexar County, VIA Metropolitan Transit, the San Antonio River Authority, H-E-B, and private developers.
Having taken on the challenge of the individual artist, he feels even closer to the difference between internal motivation and dependency on the outside world for support.
With the coronavirus arrived a challenge for the arts on a whole new level, he said. “We’ve never really been through this before,” LeFlore said, noting that moving forward will require opening a new dialogue that moves beyond funding from one City department. His vision includes “the art community taking the lead, and to not necessarily expect that to be done externally.”
That focus on community has been consistent throughout his career, a quality evident to those who’ve worked with him. “We, the San Antonio arts community, are better for having an advocate like Jimmy,” said Brown.