For public art in San Antonio, the letter “T” can mean many things. First, the all-important Tricentennial, driving so many civic conversations of the moment.

Second, a transformation not only of public space, but of thinking about the role of public art in the community, as a process of community engagement and “stewardship,” said Jimmy LeFlore, public art manager for the San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture.

Third, the “T”-shaped convergence of the River Walk between Market and Commerce Streets, extending eastward from the Torch of Friendship sculpture, then one block north into the Shops at Rivercenter, and south into the Henry B. González Convention Center.

Under the City’s new Cul-TÚ-Art five-year strategic plan, this location will serve as the site of the new San Antonio T public art garden, featuring a combination of new, permanent public art works, and an initiative meant to bring public art to other districts of San Antonio.

“We want to create an interconnected body of art throughout the city,” LeFlore said, in contrast to prior models for public art, “and share that as a community.”

“[Public art] should be a community asset, and we need bring our communities together,” LeFlore said.

Jimmy LeFlore, public art manager for the San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio T project received approval from the San Antonio Arts Commission in a morning meeting Tuesday, presented along with new Cul-TÚ-Art arts funding guideline plans in development.

The proposed plan includes an innovative touring component that is meant to tie downtown San Antonio with districts and neighborhoods throughout the city. A project might take seed at the central site, LeFlore said, using a garden metaphor, and then move to the Eastside, Westside, or other districts to find what he calls “rich soil” where the project might flourish with community support.

City arts officials hope that this system of dissemination would fulfill another goal of the plan: to meet a desire for public art among San Antonio citizens, visitors, and arts patrons. An arts survey distributed by the department in October and November showed that 91 percent of respondents “would like to see more of some type of public art in San Antonio,” with a majority preferring three-dimensional and “environmental public art.”

The touring concept moves away from past notions of public art as permanent installations, unchangeable even as populations, neighborhoods, and social concerns change around them. Evolving notions of public art see it as a temporary, changeable, even mobile feature of urban landscapes.

The San Antonio T concept addresses several issues emphasized in the Cul-TÚ-Art plan, including equity, accessibility, and maintenance, the last of which is “critical” to adding more public art to a city that has struggled to maintain its existing pieces, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) at a presentation later Tuesday to the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee.

The public art and arts funding guidelines portions of the multifaceted plan will move forward to the full City Council for consideration on Jan. 10, pending approval by members of the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee.

Funding for the overall project will be determined as the plan evolves over its five-year lifespan, LeFlore said, but will begin with funds for public art that have already been approved in the 2012 and 2017 city bonds. Each year, new project proposals will undergo evaluation through the Arts Commission’s curatorial committee, then the Commission itself, then go to City Council for annual budgetary approval, a departure from the previous five-year planning and budgeting cycle.

That no dollar amount is attached to the plan at this early stage is a key part of the new thinking, LeFlore said. Asked how much City money has been dedicated to the plan, he said, “I think it’s too early to say. Anything we might say would create an expectation that we feel ought to come from the feedback and the ideas that are generated through more dialogue” with the city, property stakeholders, arts and cultural organizations, and citizens of neighborhoods involved in the projects.

Up to 20 permanent works could be placed on the San Antonio T site, said Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture, in addition to potential future projects that would fulfill the touring initiative part of the plan.

City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre welcomes the audience to the Third Annual Distinction in the Arts honoree announcement at the Centro de Artes Gallery.
City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture Director Debbie Racca-Sittre Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Each proposed project would meet new precepts of “healthy community engagement, long-term sustainability, operational feasibility, project management capacity” and have “unified leadership support,” in order to move forward, she said. Also, to meet an oft-stated desire for more local artists to be involved in public art projects, more than half of the artists on the City’s current prequalified list for artists eligible to propose new projects are from San Antonio, Racca-Sittre said.

Rollout of the public art garden would occur in December 2018, not only as a capstone for the city’s Tricentennial celebrations, LeFlore said, but as a gateway to a new future for public art in San Antonio.

The last “T,” has a particular resonance for this moment, LeFlore explained. In Greek numerals, the letter T, or tau, has a numerical value of 300.

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Nicholas Frank

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...