The people have spoken. Bexar County arts fans and supporters voted to award a $15,000 Artist Foundation of San Antonio grant to performing artist and composer Nathan Felix. This is the first year a people’s choice award was included in the foundation’s annual granting process.

The Tobin Prize for Artistic Excellence People’s Choice Award was announced Tuesday evening at Francis Bogside, the recently reopened Southtown bar and restaurant, to an audience of more than 80 attendees packed into the small, triangular space near the venue’s stage.

Those in attendance included literary, performing, and visual arts finalists who were eligible for the award, but did not know in advance who the winner would be: Anna De Luna in performing arts; Nan Cuba and Michelle Mondo in the literary arts category; and visual artists Sarah Fox, Megan Harrison, Jim Mendiola, Eric Fonseca, Raul Gonzalez, and Jacqueline McGilvray.

Felix won the award with a project proposal for Headphone Opera, a “one-person, player-immersive experience” with live audio projected through headphones, to take place within the corridors of a theater, where the line between performers and audience is intentionally blurred.

It’s a busy week for Felix, who will be attending another award ceremony on Thursday, March 8, for San Antonio Magazine’sBest of the City 2018” awards. Felix won for his From Those Who Follow The Echoes opera performed on the VIA Viva Culture bus in October 2017.

The event also celebrated three previously announced winners of 2018 foundation grants: sculptor Riley Robinson for visual arts, writer and editor Bryce Milligan for literary arts, and pianist/composer Aaron Prado for performing arts.

Also for the first time in an Artist Foundation grant cycle, all four grantees – including Felix – will be presented in a special public showcase during the 2018 Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival held in November at Hemisfair Park.

The 10 people’s choice award finalists were selected through the regular Artist Foundation jury ranking process, representing the top 10 percent of each category, according to the foundation’s announcement. A total of 1,693 votes were cast.

During her announcement of the winning artist, Artist Foundation Board Chair Susan Heard said the voting was “very, very close.”

Each finalist’s project was presented in a brief paragraph on the foundation’s website. “We felt that was the most equitable” method to present projects for voters, Heard told the Rivard Report via text message prior to the award ceremony. However, at least one finalist felt limited by the way the projects were presented to voters.

“It would have been nice for a visual artist to include a description and an image,” said visual arts finalist Sarah Fox. The vote-based system “inevitably becomes a bit of a popularity contest,” she said, “but then it also does give people input, and I like the idea that people can vote for whom they like.”

Artist Foundation Advisory Board member Rene Barilleaux, who heads the curatorial staff at the McNay Art Museum, said, “If an artist’s audience is his or her own community, what better way to fully engage the community than by giving individuals a vote.”

Tobin Endowment Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said he applauds the use of community input in determining one of the grantees. “[It] broadens the scope of inputs as to where the talent in our San Antonio community is,” he said.

The Tobin Endowment has sponsored an Artist Foundation grant since 2007, Bugg said, when the program began under Bettie Ward and Patricia Pratchett, founders of the Artist Foundation and its granting program.

Composer Nathan Felix accepts the Artist Foundation’s  inaugural Tobin Prize for Artistic Excellence People’s Choice Award Tuesday night at Francis Bogside. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

More than one finalist said they felt that the process of their candidacy was as important as Tuesday’s result.

Performance artist Anna de Luna, nominated for her proposed project based on the #MeToo/#YoTambien movement supporting women who have experienced sexual harassment, said that despite being a self-described introvert, having to reach out to her community of friends and colleagues “really opened up my eyes to all the support that I have, and that’s been lovely.”

Her project would go on whether or not she received the grant, De Luna said, as did Felix before he knew he’d won. During the voting period he went door-to-door knocking on residences and businesses “mostly on the Westside and Southside, where I live,” he said, so as to galvanize support among potential voters.

Felix said the friendships he built among the people he met spurred him to think of his community in a new way. “How would my project serve them?” is a question he’d now ask himself as his Headphone Opera moves toward realization, he said.

De Luna also said the people’s choice award might help bring attention to the issue of overall lacking funding for individual artists in San Antonio. “A lot of people are going for very few grants,” she said. De Luna won a $5,400 National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) grant for individual artists in 2015. NALAC and the Artist Foundation are the only two nonprofit agencies in San Antonio that distribute public funding to individual artists.

“I wish we could all get the money,” De Luna said of the finalists for the people’s choice award. The finalists are active artists in the community, she added. “I think all of us are very deserving of it.”

Senior Reporter 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...