JJ Levine, Switch 1, 2009. Digital photographs.
JJ Levine, Switch 1, 2009. Digital photographs. Credit: Courtesy / JJ Levine via McNay Art Museum

The McNay Art Museum is inviting the entire San Antonio community to join a conversation about its new exhibition, Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today.

The free public information session starts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and is hosted by McNay staff, including Museum Director Richard Aste, curators Rene Barilleaux and Lauren Thompson, and Rachel Trevino, head of communications and marketing for the McNay. Renee Garvens, president of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce, also will participate.

Transgender issues can be confusing, Garvens said, but “confusion definitely leads to curiosity, and leads to people’s desire to understand.”

The McNay wanted to have an open dialogue about Transamerica because, as it stated in its press release, “the communities reflected in Transamerica/n have not widely been reflected at the McNay before.”

“Absolutely everyone has the right to see themselves reflected on our walls and in our galleries,” Aste said as the galleries were being prepared. He praised Barilleaux, the curatorial staff, and museum board and trustees for their forward vision in rewriting the mission statement he now works to fulfill.

“What I’ve been doing since I’ve arrived two years after that mission statement was rewritten [in 2014], was lean into it as much as possible to make sure that when we say we engage a diverse community, that means we engage everyone,” Aste said.

The Transamerica/n exhibition will be paired with an exhibition of portraits by Andy Warhol in various media, including polaroid photographs, film, and prints. Warhol was notable in part for his gender fluidity, frequently appearing in drag, alongside queer characters such as Ultra Violet, Viva, Ondine, and Billy Name.

Thursday’s question-and-answer session will be preceded by a curatorial team presentation on the main themes of the exhibition: Andy Warhol and his Legacy, The Performance of Dress, Home and Community, The Authentic Body, Conversations with Myself, Agents of Change, and The Pursuit of Happiness.

Transamerica/n will include a colorful array of art that borders on activism, Barilleaux said, including work by Keith Haring addressing the AIDS epidemic that ravaged his community in the 1980s, and a large painting by David Antonio Cruz that depicts transgender women who have lost their lives.

The exhibition effort as a whole, including the community conversation, has ambitions to create empathy among the San Antonio community, Barilleaux said. Art can help “make you maybe more empathetic to others’ experience,” he noted, so that “people come out with a greater understanding of something outside themselves. That’s a lofty-sounding ambition, but we have lofty ambitions.”

All museum staff has undergone training, Trevino said, to promote understanding of issues raised by the exhibition, including learning more about terminology used in discussions of transgender identity. “That’s always changing, with different terms for different communities,” she said. “We’re keeping up as much as we can.”

Even as a gay woman, Garvens admits to being unsure which terms and pronouns should be used in a given situation.

“We all want to be careful about our language to make sure however we speak is inclusive of all communities and takes into account peoples’ emotional reaction to specific words,” she said.

Though she is careful, she sometimes errs. But, Garvens said, “what I’ve learned when I say the wrong thing is people are very forgiving, as long as I’m sensitive to the fact that I want to be correct.”

She said the exhibition is an ideal means to open public dialogue about issues of gender identity. “I think that’s what art does, it challenges us to try to understand a phenomenon or feeling or situation. So when we talk about gender, or gender identity, or biological gender, it’s a very curious concept. What is gender? Is it a binary thing? Are you male, or female, or are there lots of different genders?”

The purpose of the conversation is to give voice to these questions in an open forum. “I think it’s fun to talk about. I think it’s interesting, and I’m open to all those different ways of people perceiving themselves. And I would love to have a world that’s open to it.”

The Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today information session begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Chiego Lecture Hall of the McNay Art Museum. The session is free and open to the public, with parking available onsite. The museum advises that the presentation will include images of potentially sensitive works of art that include nudity.

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...