A member of Aerial Horizon performs during Luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.
A member of Aerial Horizon performs during Luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.

Luminaria‘s seventh year marks the beginning of a new strategic plan for the independent nonprofit festival of light, music and art. An ambitious plan to build the event to a 10-day festival begins with expanding the schedule this year to two days, Nov. 7-8. A five-year strategic plan also outlines a “new” Luminaria – one that aligns itself with downtown development initiatives.

The celebration of art, centered around the use of light, also will debut at a new location – the southern most portion of what planners and neighbors call River North, between the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the Southwest School of Art. A main stage is proposed at Travis Park, but the footprint planning is still in preliminary stage (see map below) and could involve closing some downtown streets for the festivities.

Image courtesy of Luminaria.
Image courtesy of Luminaria.

“Over the past six years, the event was staged in different areas around downtown San Antonio, including Hemisfair, Houston Street and Alamo Street. It never was intended to stay in one place,” said Liz Tullis, Luminaria board president. “It’s always been in the plan that (Luminaria) would be something that would move — paralleling other things happening in the city.”

If you’ve never attended, Luminaria is a street festival featuring local, national, and international art of all media – dramatic light installations and light shows paired with musical performances usually receive the most attention. Initiated by former Mayor Phil Hardberger in 2009, the festival transforms a selected corridor of downtown San Antonio into a surreal wonderland of light and sound. Like most contemporary event descriptions, it’s “for locals and tourists alike.”

As the two-day festival approaches this fall, Tullis said, there is a continuing outreach effort for local artists to participate in the event.

The large Olmec head infront of the Instituto Cultural de México drew one of the largest crowds last night. Photo by Alex Richter.
The large Olmec head in front of the Instituto Cultural de México drew one of the largest crowds during Luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.

“The very first Luminaria basically spilled out from Houston Street,”  she said. “You got people on Houston Street and they saw some of the business and spaces where they wouldn’t normally go.”

The “spill over effect” is something Luminaria hopes to capitalize on, and it’s why they’ve chosen to spotlight sections of the city that offer an “up and coming” element. 

Typically held in March, part of the five-year plan was to reevaluate the timing of Luminaria. After conferring with the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau and other hospitality entities, November was found to be the most “empty” month.

“The city is pretty much full in March,” said Ali Hossaini, a volunteer project consultant and artist currently based in London. Hossaini has worked with Luminaria for two years and assisted in the formulation of the five-year strategic plan.

Ali Hossaini. Courtesy photo.
Ali Hossaini. Courtesy photo.

Coordinating with hotel availabilities and avoiding overlap with other large events in San Antonio is no accident. Hossaini and the Luminaria board hope to turn what has been an event typically “by San Antonio, for San Antonio” into a “by San Antonio, for San Antonio, and for the rest of the world” event, Hossaini said.

“We’re attracting a different kind of tourist – cultural tourists come specifically for art. San Antonio is not on their list,” Hossaini said. “Yet.”

The Luminaria team is working to make San Antonio’s celebration as successful – meaning one that will have a multi-million dollar economic impact – as similar events in  Toronto, Edinburgh and Manchester, England. Pulling off a 10-day festival, Hossaini acknowledges, will be a huge undertaking.

One possible option, outlined in the preliminary strategic plan developed by Hossaini with Dissident Industries, a New York-based firm, would be to alternate the festival annually with a workshop or “a participatory lab for festival development and experimentation.” Luminaria would then become a biannual event on even years. According to that proposal, 2014 would have been the first 10-day festival, but that was scaled back to two days.

“Luminaria should (provide) a return on investment to multiple communities. It is about the art and artists, but it’s also about bringing people downtown, attracting talent, attracting business,” he said. “To do that you need to have vibrant cultural amenities, a walkable downtown, and open up new development corridors.”

Hossaini added that the new Luminaria hopes to leave a piece of itself behind with legacy installations that become permanent on the festival grounds.

Not everyone thinks these developments – or “evolution” as Hossaini calls it, will make for an authentic event for locals.

Luminaria used to be touted as an artist-run event. But where are the artists?” asked Erik Bosse in a recent op-ed piece published in The Current. “I have dear friends in most of the community arts and cultural organizations in town (and most are shockingly candid), but for the last year we have all been left out of the loop and not invited to the table.”

According to Bosse, who was a member of the Luminaria Steering Committee from 2009-13, the chaotic diversity of the organization has been lost.

Tower of Americas during luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.
Tower of Americas during Luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.

“When you think about anything that starts with grassroots event, the benefits are spontaneous creativity and a passionate volunteer base, which brought us to success – but at a certain point you can’t sustain that without a professional (plan),” said Tullis, who has been on the Luminaria board since its third year.

Luminaria’s budget has remained between $600,000 and $700,000, with an almost 50 percent split between private donations and City of San Antonio arts funding.

“We’re still trying to work out a budget for two days,” Tullis said. “We’re not looking at a big increase … we’re hoping we’ll be able to attract additional private funding – maybe even tip the equation for more private funding.

“Living event to event isn’t working,” she continued. “Now we’re talking about Luminaria as a concept, as an organization (instead of a once-a-year event), looking for 2015-2016 commitments.”

*Featured/top image: A member of Aerial Horizon performs during Luminaria 2013. Photo by Alex Richter.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org