When locals and visitors fill the newly opened Briscoe Western Art Museum Saturday and Sunday mornings, they will be reviving a tradition of community, culture and learning, one that began in 1903 with the opening of the city’s first public library. The Carnegie Library, funded by a $50,000 gift from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, was the first of 32 public libraries in Texas he helped establish.
The Carnegie in San Antonio was a racially exclusive library, and private libraries serving the city’s African-American population on the Eastside eventually led to the building of the Carver Community Center in 1930 as the “Negro Library.”
The historic flood of 1921 compromised the Carnegie Library’s building foundation and led to extensive loss of life and property damage throughout the city. Afterwards, the first significant flood control projects were undertaken in the city.
The original Carnegie was demolished in 1929, and the current building, an art deco design by San Antonio architect Herbert S. Green, was built in 1929 at a cost of $300,000. It served as Main Library until 1968.
San Antonio lawyer Harry Hertzberg had amassed one of the nation’s largest collections of circus memorabilia and artifacts and donated the Hertzberg Circus Collection to the new public library. Even after Main Library moved to a new building on South St. Mary’s Street in 1968, the renamed Hertzberg Circus Museum, which included the Tom Thumb collection, stayed in the building at the corner of Presa and Market streets. until it was closed in 2001. The collection was donated to the Witte Museum in 2003.
The building itself sat in a state of disrepair for a decade until the Briscoe Western Art Museum was born as an idea that grew out of an unsuccessful effort to move The Museum of Western Art from its home in Kerrville to San Antonio.
Saturday marks the start of a new chapter in a storied downtown building brought back to life by Lake/Flato Architects and Zachry Corp.
“(The art museum) is part of this renaissance of the historic urban core and the conversation about culture in San Antonio,” said Briscoe Museum Executive Director Steven Karr during a media preview of the museum on Wednesday. “We’re not a history museum, we’re an art museum … (while) history clearly plays a role in what we do, we want the viewer to (interpret the exhibits) on their own.”
About 90% of the lobby was restored to replicate the original Main Library lobby. Hunter green walls, historic light fixtures, a beautiful gold and silver molded ceiling, wall carvings, leather staircases and other embellishments greet visitors entering from West Market Street for an immediate introduction to historic context for the art within.
The magnificently refurbished building is now connected to the newly constructed Jack Guenther Pavilion and the McNutt Courtyard and Sculpture Garden, all of which opens to the River Walk where a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a Texas longhorn will greet visitors approaching from the river.
Revenues from events held at the Jack Guenther Pavilion will help fund museum operations and keep admission fees among the lowest of any cultural destination in the state – $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, students and military. Children 12 and under enter for free. Opening weekend events are free for the whole family.
The new Briscoe Museum is named for former Texas. Gov. Dolph Briscoe and his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe. Briscoe served as governor from 1972-78 and was a Uvalde-based rancher and banker well-known as the state’s largest landholder and one of its most generous philanthropists.
Briscoe’s donation of $4 million was the museum’s lead gift, and a replica of his Uvalde home office forms part of the collection.
Gov. Briscoe, who was preceded in death by Janie, died in 2010. Briscoe was able to play a role in the museum’s first conceptual meetings which started about 10 years ago.
A who’s who of San Antonio donors followed Briscoe’s lead, and many elements within the museum bear the names of individual and family donors.
A limestone wall visible from the ground floor or a glass-enclosed walkway contains the chiseled names of the museum founders, those who gave $100,000 or more to its establishment.
Texas history is taught to fourth and seventh graders, so students from those two grade levels will be regular visitors on Tuesday and Thursday field trips held in the Gloria Clingman Education Gallery. Gloria’s husband, Fully Clingman, was the longtime time president and COO of H-E-B.
While there is plenty of educational and contextual signage throughout the museum, it’s purposefully kept at a minimum to allow for the artwork – both contemporary and historic – to be appreciated more as art than artifacts.
So why another museum? What makes this one special?
“San Antonio is arguably the most iconic Western city … seen as a gateway to the West,” Karr said. The Briscoe Western Art Museum represents that culture and heritage and “to create that sense of identity as Westerners.”
There is little chronology used in the organization of exhibits. The work has been organized by theme to emphasis artistic value and context: movement, work, opportunity, and conflict.
Exhibit Designer Kevin Sayama and his team found the facilities and goals of the museum unique.
“It’s an interesting mix of modern and historic architecture,” Sayama said. “They created lots of ways to look through the space – to get little glimpses of other rooms … we want (visitors) to wander around.”
There are sitting areas with iPads complete with informational and interactive programming.
While the exhibits have been accessible to novice art and history patrons, there is plenty of material for aficionados to admire.
Karr pointed to General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s sword, Pancho Villa’s saddle, and a “major Remington” painting as a sampling of the most historically significant pieces of the Briscoe’s collection. Karr’s personal favorites change every day, he said. “Going to a museum once is the biggest mistake you can make … because the second or fifth time, you’ll see something you missed.”
Inscriptions that mirror the building exterior’s historic inscriptions at each compass point are found in many of the Briscoe’s public rooms, including its new digital reference library.
“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.” –Lady Bird Johnson
The State Coach Gallery, with its replica coach of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, leads to a gallery of Edward Curtis photographs of great American Indian leaders.
A Willa Cather quote from 1925 adorns a gallery wall:
“When I pulled out on top of the mesa, the rays of sunlight fell slantingly on the little twisted piñons – the light was all in between them, as red as the daylight fire, they fairly swam in it … It was like breathing the sun, breathing the color of the sky.”
Nearby, in a sunken gallery, a Comanche teepee hand-painted by modern Comanche artists underscores the museum’s effort to tell the story of the West as much through the history of American Indians as the later-day pioneers who emigrated here, warred with indigenous tribes, and ultimately claimed the land.
For more information on Saturday and Sunday’s free grand opening activities at The Briscoe Western Art Museum, visit www.briscoemuseum.org. Throughout the weekend, visual and performance folk artists will be demonstrating their crafts and Southwestern-themed food will be available.
“The Briscoe Museum will have something for everyone, from the beautiful art and artifacts, to family activities and, of course, a chuck wagon cookout,” stated Briscoe Museum Board Member and Grand Opening Co-Chair Tracy Wolff in a press release. “We are looking forward to welcoming visitors from all over.”