The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) is alive and well at 35 years and counting. Summer 2015 has flown by, as new executive director Jerry Ruiz can attest.
“After the Tejano Conjunto Festival, probably our biggest event of the year, we decided to jump in and program a bunch of events,” he said. “This was very spontaneous programming. My team and I just jumped on some opportunities that came along.”
Ruiz hails from New York City, but he has South Texas roots. He was raised in Brownsville and left Texas to pursue degrees from both Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego. Based in New York since 2001, he took the reins from Pedro Rodriguez, the original GCAC executive director on May 4, 2015. Rodriguez had been serving as the interim director of the nonprofit since the exit of Patty Ortiz in Sept. 2014.
Among the performers that Ruiz and company brought in this summer was the ranchero punk band, Piñata Protest.
“To me, they speak to the next generation,” he said. “They are a punk rock band, but they infuse it with a completely unique cultural sound, still using the accordion and keeping the Tejano influence.”
This is the groove that Ruiz is tapping as he eases into San Antonio.
“We want to do new work featuring contemporary Latino, Chicano and Native American artists that are reinventing traditional forms that are in some way growing and expanding those forms and pushing forward in a certain way,” he said.
Satirist and comedian Chingo Bling also performed two sold out shows.
“We didn’t know what to expect. He has an extensive Internet following, but stand-up is still pretty new for him,” he said. “We ended up selling out 400 tickets in a single day and added a second show. It was also sold out. Artists like this are dealing with questions of Latino identity in the 21st century.”
A screening of the documentary “Cartel Land,” a film about American and Mexican vigilantes on both sides of the border, also sold out. Ruiz sees this as another example of a hunger for contemporary arts that speak to the cultural experience.
Ruiz has an extensive background in theater. His posting for the past four years has been as the curator and producer of the Crossing Borders Festival at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J. This free, multi-day festival is devoted to new Latino plays. The festival was started in 2011 to create stronger ties between the theater and the Latino community in Red Bank. It’s a good bet that this is the sort of model that we can look forward to seeing in the near future at GCAC. His is a multidisciplinary approach focusing on visual arts, theater, dance and music.
“I am definitely a performing arts guy. I think if we do the right kinds of plays – for example, Latino playwrights that are in the national conversation. If we do it in the right way, we can develop that audience, too,” he said. “We can develop the local Latino theater talent – the actors, directors, designers. I’m a big believer that opportunity grows talent.”
For all of his enthusiasm for contemporary, forward-looking Latino art, Ruiz also understands the importance of honoring long held traditions on the Westside.
“I want to see a strong performing arts program. However, the visual arts are also important and central to what this organization has always been about, it was really the first program. Our Dance Company is very strong and recognizable. And the film festival isn’t going anywhere. CineFestival (the first Latino film festival in the country) has been happening for over 30 years and we’re big believers in that.”
This is an important distinction as the GCAC works to insure relevance moving forward. Ruiz points out a recent Forbes Magazine article that identified San Antonio as the number one city for Millennial population growth.
“The future of this city lies with those under 35. I’ve seen it first hand in those deciding to stay, or those who have moved away and are moving back after going away,” he said. “We want to continue to serve our audience of 35 years, but we also want to serve this new energy.”
Ruiz emphasized again, “We have seen over the past few months that there is an audience for live performance reflecting our experience today. Performances navigating what it’s like to be Latino in the United States in the 21st century.”
One of the bits of history that Ruiz inherited is the landmark Mel Casas retrospective exhibit “Getting the Big Picture: Political Themes in the Art of Mel Casas, 1968-1977” curated by Ruben C. Cordova, which opened the second week that he was on the job.
“Attendance has been good and the opening was great,” he said.
Now that school is back in session again, Ruiz said he looks forward to working with school groups from primary to university level to bring students into the GCAC to expose them to the work of this important Chicano artist.
Walking the galleries, taking in Casas’s “Humanscapes” (created in the mid-’60s up until 1989) it is obvious to say that the broad graphic style of the work touches on subjects speaking to the cultural politics of the times in which they were created. More stunning is the realization that these paintings still resonate today, more than 35 years later. To see the work is also to understand how an entire generation of San Antonio artists were influenced by his style and his passion. The work is on display through Oct. 24, 2015.
Also on display through Oct. 2, 2015 is the work of Greg Rubio and Ann-Michele Morales in a show titled “Cursive Wanderings.” These works on paper – some taking the form of bound books, others more two-dimensional but sculptural in spirit – employ collage and written word. Part diary, part graffiti, this conversant show is a lyrical counterpoint to the bold fists of the Casas collection.
Ruiz embraces his new home and new challenges, but he is no pollyanna. When asked to elaborate on the challenges, he was forthcoming.
“Changing perceptions may take some time and work. I feel that I have a clean slate, but there is a perception of insularity that has existed and I would like to overcome that,” he said. “How can we develop programs that will foster the great artists that are here in our town?”
A relatively new program in place that began during Patty Ortiz’s tenure is Artist Lab. This professional development program underwritten by the Surdna Foundation will continue for at least another year. The primary goal of this educational program is to stretch the artist out of the “comfort zone” that they are accustomed to working in.
The first class includes Fernando Andrade, Kim Bishop, Nicole Geary, Daniela Riojas and Luis Valderas. They will have their graduate exhibition opening at the end of this year, extending into the first few months of 2016.
“The program is continuing and we will be announcing the new resident class,” Ruiz said. “The previous class will also continue to serve as mentors for the incoming class.”
Ruiz also acknowledged the resistance that some may have toward visiting this cultural gem set in the middle of the Westside, and he holds up a mirror while doing it. He has friends and family in San Antonio – he is no stranger to the city.
“I had been coming to San Antonio for more than 20 years, and I had never crossed those railroad tracks myself,” he said.
“Our mission is to serve the immediate neighborhood, but to be here for everybody. The city is so spread out, we are considering broadening our reach with traveling programs to get the word out about what we are doing here at The Guadalupe. I am hoping there are those who don’t have preconceived notions. That they will come and bring life and commerce.”
Finally, what has brought Ruiz to San Antonio is the vitality and the potential that this city and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center itself holds.
“How alive the arts and cultural scene is here at the moment. When interviewing (for this position), I noticed all this momentum,” he said. “It is a really exciting moment discovering the creativity and talent here.”
The GCAC marks their 35th anniversary with a gala celebration on Thursday, Sept. 3, at the Guadalupe Theater, 1301 Guadalupe Street. The event begins with a silent auction at 6 p.m. Dinner and performances, live music and dancing will continue into the evening. The dress is formal and the theme is Mexico’s Cine de Oro – Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema. For tickets to this event, contact Carmen Salinas at (210) 271-3151 (ext. 241) or reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Featured/top image: A mural located outside the Guadalupe Cultural Arts theatre. Photo by Scott Ball.