When City Hall was undergoing its recently completed $38 million renovation, architects Ford, Powell & Carson uncovered 18 shallow niches in walls that formerly held indoor windows, a common source of interior ventilation in buildings built before the advent of air conditioning.
Architect Allison Chambers suggested using the niches for artwork, and the staff of the city’s Department of Arts & Culture saw an opportunity. It commissioned six artists to fill those niches, which are situated in groups of three abutting hallways in the main lobbies of floors two, three, and four in City Hall.
The resulting works are by contemporary San Antonio artists Ruth Leonela Buentello, Ana Fernandez, Emily Fleisher, Raul Rene Gonzalez, Megan Harrison, and Mari Hernandez. All reflect aspects of the city they call home. The artists were tasked to consider the theme “creative geographies,” which could include notions of mapmaking, local culture, and the history of the area’s residents.
Gonzalez chose genres of local music as his subject for a set of three paintings. Hernandez created photographic portraits of members of the Tap Pilam Nation. Fernandez depicted three San Antonio streets, while Harrison elegantly framed three views of acequias and local waterways. Buentello highlighted migrants’ role in the city.
By focusing on the very niches that would hold her artwork, sculptor Emily Fleisher said she tried to “pick apart the truth of the site” — that “City Hall is, and always has been, an office building” since its construction in 1889.
In her three-part work titled Foundational Elements, Fleisher pays homage to the original City Hall while bringing to light other generally unseen aspects of City operations.
A miniature rendering in concrete of the pre-renovation City Hall is set atop a miniature desk, with a slew of stacked papers and file folders, also cast in concrete, between the building and desk surface.
“I thought it would be a fun nod to all of the people who have worked in the building over the years” and all the “mundane office tasks” they must perform, she said.
Behind the more glamorous and public roles of mayor, city manager, and City Council are the many staff members who make City Hall — what Councilwoman Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) called “the house of the people” — work.
“They are the backbone of the city, they are making the city run,” she said. “Without them, I’m not here. Without them, all of the work I try to do to get your streets fixed doesn’t happen.”
Joining City Hall are miniature renderings of the Bexar County Courthouse and Mission Espada. Above each are glass lamps that echo the three tiny Espada mission bells in the center niche.
Fleisher’s sculptures sparked a joyful reaction when Cabello-Havrda first saw them, both because Fleisher is a resident of District 6 and her work represents the talent there, and for what she chose to represent.
“Those are very important buildings to me as a native San Antonian,” the councilwoman said, in that they represent law, government, and the city’s deep and complex cultural identity.
While Fleisher highlights the work most constituents of local government rarely see, most members of the public won’t be able to see any of the new artworks for some time. Due to standard security precautions, only people with official City Hall business are permitted access inside the building’s newly renovated floors.
An open house is in the works, however, to give San Antonians a chance to see not only the new building, but the artworks that now adorn its many niches and walls, said Department of Arts and Culture Executive Director Debbie Racca-Sittre.
In addition to the six commissioned installations, Stephanie Torres, a senior management analyst with the department, curated a selection of the City’s art collection to fill the walls of the basement level and other floors with framed artworks by a selection of the city’s artists.
Included are works on paper by Jose Villalobos, who has lately received national recognition, small portraits in pencil by César Martínez, who has been collected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and a distinctly Trumpian visage by Richard Armendariz titled Time Will Tell.
The basement features an oil painting honoring the Tuskegee airmen by Howard Roeder Jr., portraits by Anthony Francis, and drawings by Joe de la Cruz, one of which features a Black Lives Matter hoodie.
Racca-Sittre said final approval of the artworks rested with the city manager’s office, which had no issues with the installation.
In a media statement issued by the city, Mayor Ron Nirenberg praised the inclusion of local art: “These artworks bring much more than interior décor for this space. They intrinsically set the tone for the important issues tackled here, rooting us in the fabric of San Antonio.”
Cabello-Havrda emphasized that including art in the seat of local government is a point of distinction for the city.
“It warms my heart to go into City Hall and know that I’m in San Antonio City Hall,” she said. “This isn’t just any city hall across the country. It is San Antonio’s City Hall. And you see that everywhere you look in that building. I love this city, this city is my whole heart. Seeing [the art] just inspires me.”