No sooner than the curtain had closed on one of the best nights of his life, the evening Sir Paul McCartney played one month after the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2014, than prominent businessman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. began planning the next phase for the world-class venue.
“I told the board I can foresee a day where we need to transition the talents that the board of directors have from being a ‘capital campaign, a construction, and hiring staff’ board – an early but important stage of the foundation – to a board that has operating talents,” he says.
Bugg kept with his plan and announced earlier this month that he is ending his historic nine-year tenure as chairman and president of the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation. Sam Dawson, CEO of Pape-Dawson Engineers, will succeed him in leading what has recently been hailed as the No. 1 theater in all of Texas.
There were long days, Bugg said, between the time he was asked to build the state-of-the-art center in 2007 and opening night. And it was during those challenging days that he motivated himself with the dream of seeing the former member of the Beatles perform here, and wondered about “the art of possible:” Could they make this venue worthy of Paul McCartney wanting to play there?
In fact, they did, and today, the Tobin Center is the most utilized theater in the world for a venue of its size.
“McCartney really helped put the Tobin on the map,” Bugg said. “Other artists learned about the Tobin and since then, we’ve hosted people like (opera singer) Renée Fleming and just last week, Dolly Parton. We’ve had such a broad array of talent come to San Antonio.” And that has attracted even more talent to other performing arts venues across the city, he added.
As a young boy growing up in Springfield, Miss., Bugg was permitted to attend meetings at the manufacturing plant his father owned. “He was my first mentor-hero. He helped me get my wheels heading straight at an early age,” said Bugg, who left home to attend college at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.
After law school at SMU, he moved to San Antonio when a local firm hired him to start up the group’s tax section in 1979. Another mentor, Leroy Denman Jr., encouraged him to go into solo practice in 1986.
In 1995, having sold the original Bank of San Antonio he had acquired at age 29, Bugg was announcing his retirement from law when local art collector and patron Robert L.B. Tobin told him, “You can retire from law. But you can’t retire from me.”
Longtime friends, the two shared an interest in Spanish art, culture, and history: Tobin’s ancestors were Canary Islanders; Bugg had studied art in Madrid. When Tobin introduced Bugg to the renowned Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio – which Tobin generously supported until his death in 2000 – Bugg got a glimpse of how the art world really worked.
He learned fast, became more involved – and successful. In 2006, Bugg served alongside Frost Bank’s Tom Frost Sr., chairman of the board of trustees of the McNay Art Museum, and raised $50.8 million for the museum, considered at the time the largest amount ever raised for a cultural institution in San Antonio.
Soon, Mayor Phil Hardberger and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff came knocking with their vision for a performing arts center in San Antonio as well as a unique public-private partnership that would come to be known as the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation. “So that began the long journey to put all these various pieces together,” Bugg explained.
“There had never been an undertaking like a $205 million performing arts center and getting people to believe the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts could, in fact, be successful…well, there was a lot of skepticism in the community in the early days,” Bugg recalled.
“A lot of people politely said, ‘No, thank you,’ because they couldn’t quite see how it would end up being successful. And that’s where persistence and determination really came into play.”
After the people of San Antonio voted by a 65% margin in 2008 to approve a $100 million bond fund for the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation, the City of San Antonio followed by contributing the Municipal Auditorium and the adjacent building, worth $41 million. The Tobin Endowment kicked in a $15 million challenge grant.
“That gave me the opportunity to go back out to the community and start soliciting the private funds so we would have the money necessary to start construction,” Bugg said. “People started to believe.”
Less than a decade later, Bugg feels the success of the Tobin Center is also breeding a growing base of potential donors and a stronger economy. “You attract talent to San Antonio by having a rich cultural canvas to offer not only the people who have grown up here, but also for attracting talent in the years to come,” he said. “I think the cultural arts are a cornerstone of economic development, to attract the intellectual capital San Antonio deserves.”
Sustained now by the Foundation, the Tobin Center is completely debt free, has a full slate of programming booked, and was recently recognized by the Urban Land Institute as one of the top civic design projects in the world. Up next is a 500-spot parking garage, funded in part by grants from the City and County, soon to be built nearby, and a new chairman is about to take the take the leading role.
“The reason Sam Dawson was chosen for the board in 2012, along with Edward Steves (CEO of Steves & Sons) and other members, is because these are people who have operating experience in their respective companies,” Bugg said. “Those business skills are imperative in overseeing the operations of the Tobin Center.
“Also, Sam is a servant leader. He understands the importance of giving back to the community and can bring those talents to the Tobin.”
Bugg estimates about 10% of his time is focused on business these days, including his duties at The Bank of San Antonio, where he is chairman, the Texas Hill Country Bank, and Argyle Investment Co. He’s also exploring a new banking interest in Austin.
But he’ll keep giving most of his time to public service: as commissioner on the Texas Transportation Commission where he’s working on the statewide initiative to reduce traffic congestion, Texas Clear Lanes, and as chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment.
“With the arts community evolving in San Antonio,” Bugg said, “and the potential for it to grow so robustly, I intend to devote my time, talent and efforts as chairman of the Tobin Endowment in seeing what we can continue to do for both the visual and performing arts to thrive in San Antonio.”