An art piece lays on the ground outside of Hotel Havana at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

If there’s one constant about Luminaria over the span of its existence, it’s change.

Luminaria 2014 saw the most change from all of its predecessors: new location, two nights, big-name music acts, curated artist participation rather than open-call – the list goes on and on. Every year, however, the crowds show up. Both evenings were well-attended in general but Friday got a slow start due to a light rain and crowds were heading home relatively early on Saturday.

What was the most successful aspect of this year’s event?

“The art of discovery,” said Luminaria Curator Ethel Shipton. “Both curatorially and artistically.” The event had several “zones that took on a life of their own.”

Several buildings blocked installations from view between the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the Central Library. Turn a corner and there would be yet another surprise awaiting. The murals, as expected, delighted everyone. What was unexpected – and hidden around the corner from the painted murals – was a mesmerizing video mural by Karen Mahaffy. Shapes and designs randomly ebbed and flowed in such a way that encouraged the mind to try to create order, a potentially futile brain-teaser.

Perhaps the most popular attraction of all was the room full of pinball machines by Kevin Cacy that lined the walls of a large warehouse. Although participants probably enjoyed the arcade atmosphere and playing the machines themselves, each machine represented a stunning work of pop art, spanning the ages.

Josh Segovia and Shannon Makonova enjoy a game of pinball during "Rolling Thunder Pinball" by Kevin Cacy at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Josh Segovia and Shannon Makonova enjoy a game of pinball during “Rolling Thunder Pinball” by Kevin Cacy at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

Other notables include the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum exhibit, which set up shop inside the El Tropicano Hotel‘s ballroom. However, both the Blue Star and Hotel Havana events were actually independent of Luminaria.

Also on hand – and especially popular with the kids – was the glassblowing exhibit set up Jake Zollie Harper and his crew. The BIP (Buró de Intervenciones Públicas) set up an installation of hammocks that was constantly crowded. While Luminaria was going on, the BIP crew was over on the near Westside, setting up hammocks for the homeless.

One mixed blessing was the performance art. These events were deliberately not placed on the schedule, in order to keep them from being overcrowded. Instead, they appeared spontaneously in the streets. People would quickly gather around to see what was going on. According to Luminaria Artistic Director Noah Khoshbin, artist Gary Garay felt “mobbed” – in a good way – when he brought out his paleta cart.

Edward Flores eats a paleta in front of artist Gary Garay's paleta covered wall at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.
Edward Flores eats a paleta in front of artist Gary Garay’s paleta covered wall at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

The downside of this was that not enough people got to see the performance art. I was there for quite a while over both evenings, and never witnessed a single street performance. The stages were used exclusively for musical entertainment, an unfortunate decision. This will likely change next year to include more performance art on stage. Perhaps next year, Luminaria organizers can combine scheduled performances on stage, along with unannounced pop-ups in the streets.

Which leads us to the music, as in, way too much of it. This year’s event felt more like a music festival that happened to have some art on the fringes. Even this year’s festival poster featured the music acts in large type, the artists were listed in smaller type underneath.

Shipton herself readily acknowledges this issue.

“People were more interested in looking than listening,” she said, adding that she watched people turn away from the music acts in search of more art.

Two men take a photograph in front of Buttercups performance at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Two men take a photograph in front of Buttercups performance at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

The crowded stages led to musicians and DJ’s acoustically clashing with each other. Vocals, drum beats, and bass guitars bounced off all those walls in every direction. It amounted to a cacophony of sound in which people found themselves continuing the search for more art.

Part of the problem was non-committal venues, according to Khoshbin. Originally, Hotel Havana management offered up an entertainment stage that they would run. Then withdrew the offer only to reinstate it again. This led the Luminaria board to add too many stages of their own.

Khoshbin was somewhat reticent to say there was too much music. Shipton was fairly certain. The people have also spoken through social media. Numerous participant comments on a Facebook photo album posted by the Current are definitely critical of the excess music and relative paucity of art.

There were other complaints logged as well. As one commenter succinctly wrote: “cops food cops food cops food.”  There was indeed a strong police presence at the event, perhaps overly so in our post-Ferguson era. There was even a large command post truck set up nearby. People have become sensitive to this, especially at a peaceful art festival not known for having problems.

Many commenters were critical of the number of food trucks, as well. This criticism speaks to the perceived commercialization (Fiesta-ization, perhaps?) of something that previously seemed more of a grass-roots happening.

A man walks down the sidewalk while looking at a food truck at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball.
A man walks down the sidewalk while looking at a food truck at Luminaria. Photo by Scott Ball.

It seems the vox populi wants to keep this event all about the art. San Antonio already has enough Fiesta-like events. In the past, Luminaria was something unique, and is veering in the wrong direction if it keeps emphasizing music over art.

Khoshbin himself said it best. He said that we can successfully “bring multiple artists in from high-end events, and the San Antonio public can fully participate and enjoy,” adding that some of the artists invited to Luminaria have previously participated in top-tier events such as the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial.

What he says rings true. Institutions like Blue Star, San Antonio Museum of ArtMcNay Art Musuem, and Artpace have worked hard to create popular events to introduce more and more people into the world of art. Perhaps more important is that San Antonio has developed a very sophisticated local art community.

At the same time, many in this art community are upset about one of the key changes at Luminaria: the transition from an open-call process to a curated one. Although many are reticent to publicly say anything, the feeling they have been left out of the process has been expressed in Facebook comments, not to mention the op-ed pieces in local media.

Shipton sees curation as the key to a well-organized event.

“Curated is a good idea … it seemed to create some consistency,” she said. This also gives curators a chance to express themselves – just as the artists do.

The plan is for Luminaria to select a different curator every year. If they’re wondering whom to select for next year, perhaps they should look no further than former SAMA Contemporary Art Curator David Rubin. With his knowledge and connections, he could help Luminaria become the top-tier event the board wants it to become.

The bottom line is that it’s difficult to put on an event as large and complex as Luminaria. Board members volunteer a lot of time and talent, not to mention money in some cases, in order to put it all together. They deserve some credit because at the end of the day, Luminaria 2014 brought people downtown to discover art. After all, that is the “big picture goal after all. Let’s just hope organizers remember: people came for the art. The music was good – but secondary.

 *Featured/top image: An art piece lays on the ground outside of Hotel Havana at Luminaria.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...