The necessary removal of a crumbling, 37-year-old public sculpture in the heart of downtown San Antonio aligned with the City’s desire to revamp a key portion of the downtown River Walk.

A 1982 statue honoring labor leader Samuel Gompers, the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL, now the AFL-CIO), was removed in March from its Market Street location due to significant structural issues. In vacating its spot, the statue has made way for the new River Walk Public Art Garden, a concept first envisioned four years ago by Public Art San Antonio’s Jimmy LeFlore and other officials.

“This is now the front door of what will be an incredible new public art facility,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a Nov. 6 ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating Phase 1 of the project, which comprises a 16,000 square foot plot on the north side of Market Street near Alamo Street. Phases 2 and 3 will occupy Peak Park on the River Walk and a section of the Rivercenter Mall extension, due for completion in 2020.

“This site was originally built in 1968 as a new section of the River Walk that connected the San Antonio World’s Fair and now Hemisfair. And here in the near future will be the entrance to the Alamo project” and the new Civic Park, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) noted at the public dedication.

The site had been previously referred to as the “San Antonio ‘T,’” for the T-shape of the River Walk extension under Market Street. Part of the Department of Arts and Culture’s Cul-Tú-Art five-year strategic plan, the new public art garden is intended to create a downtown hub that will connect to public art projects in each of the city’s 10 Council districts.

On view currently are five brightly hued sculptures by Mexican sculptor Sebastián, as part of the citywide, 100-work retrospective honoring of the Torch of Friendship artist’s 50-year legacy. After the retrospective ends in mid-2020, an installation dedicated to the labor movement will take over the space, said Debbie Racca-Sittre, executive director of the Department of Arts and Culture.

The gesture is a deliberate nod to the history of the location, and the Gompers statue. Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president emerita of the AFL-CIO, was one of “maybe 10” local labor leaders who were at the 1983 dedication of the original statue, she said. After being approached by the City, Chavez-Thompson put together a Gompers Committee with other local labor leaders to help the City decide the fate of the statue and the plaza.

The unpopular sculpture, by San Antonio artist Betty Jean Alden, was called “awful” and “the world’s ugliest statue” by detractors. Even a 2017 City-commissioned condition report was subtly critical, noting, “What is most surprising about the sculpture is the amount of attention that was lavished on sculpting details that are not visible to a viewer on the ground,” including “very distinctive” faces possibly modeled on real people.

Alden’s statue was made from a mixture of sandstone and oyster shells called “shellcrete,” which generally requires a stucco surface to protect it. The condition report determined the “overall condition of the monument is very poor” due to internal corrosion of its steel armature and cracking of its shellcrete surface. It recommended the 23-foot-tall statue be moved permanently to an indoor location.

Without adequate funding available to repair and restore the work, it has been placed in storage indefinitely, Racca-Sittre said.

Discussions between the Gompers Committee and the department were “very amicable. We had a good back and forth with the City, never any disagreement,” Chavez-Thompson said. The City agreed to place a new monument honoring “the working families that have formed the labor movement in San Antonio,” she said.

At a Nov. 12 San Antonio Arts Commission meeting, the City announced the selection of artist Anne Wallace to create the new installation, for what will likely be rededicated as Labor Plaza. Other works will eventually occupy Phases 2 and 3 of the public art garden.

Planned for completion in spring 2021 and still in its earliest stages, Wallace’s installation will likely include etched concrete texts honoring local labor figures. Wallace, an experienced public artist who recently mounted the Destino San Antonio exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, is known for incorporating historical research and local communities in her work.

“Community involvement and community engagement is the most important thing when it comes to public art. The community has to feel engaged, and they have to own it, because this belongs to them,” Racca-Sittre said.

“We want to make sure what we ultimately build will have a way of honoring the many people that have made San Antonio a better city,” said Chavez-Thompson.

The words of Gompers, once emblazoned on a plaque accompanying the statue, echo Chavez-Thompson’s thoughts:

What does labor want? …
We want more school houses and less jails.
More books and less guns.
More learning and less vice.
More leisure and less greed.
More justice and less revenge.
We want more … opportunities to cultivate our better nature.

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...