Executive Director Kathy Armstrong has announced her departure from Luminaria. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The tenure of Kathy Armstrong, who announced Wednesday that she is stepping down as Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival executive director, began with a cancellation. Now it ends with another.

In 2015, her first year as director, heavy rains caused last-minute changes the first night of the outdoor festival, then forced cancellation of the second night. Cancellation of the 2020 festival in November was attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.

Armstrong said Wednesday that the nonprofit arts organization’s board leadership will begin the search for a new director in August. Her last day will be June 27.

Despite the most recent Luminaria cancellation, Armstrong believes the organization is in a good position to return next year to its home at Hemisfair.

“Earlier today I said to Andres [Andujar, Hemisfair CEO], ‘You need to put it on the books for November 2021.’ Because I think that’s what the city is going to want. The audience will want to be enjoying it again,” she said.

Armstrong offered assurance that Luminaria is in a solid financial position despite funding challenges brought on by the pandemic, particularly the annual budget of the City of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture being slashed by one-third. Luminaria had already revamped its funding structure with more active grant-writing due to reductions in its annual allocations from the City based on equity budgeting.

In 2018, Luminaria received $350,000 from the City. Then, as overall City funding for arts organizations increased, a 25 percent reduction in 2019 put the festival’s allocation at $262,500, which was further reduced to $196,875 for 2020.  

To compensate, Armstrong sought out new philanthropic and foundation support. Under her leadership, Luminaria won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, San Antonio Area Foundation, and the Texas Commission on the Arts, and expanded the number of board members from two in 2015 to eleven currently.

Armstrong said among her proudest accomplishments were broadening the scope and reach of Luminaria by collaborating with other locations around the city, including sponsoring neighborhood murals, and instituting performances at Mission San José, while finding a permanent home at Hemisfair.

“I think that Luminaria has been very adept at figuring out new strategies to bring art to different neighborhoods and to reach different people,” she said.

In 2019, Luminaria merged with the remnants of the Artist Foundation to form the new Luminaria Artist Foundation, which recently distributed grants to six San Antonio artists. With the Department of Arts and Culture, the organization also formed the Corona Arts Relief fund for individial artists, distributing an initial round of $600 grants, then partnered with Texas Public Radio for the VIVA! virtual telethon to raise additional funds for the program.

Luminaria was started in 2009 by Mayor Phil Hardberger, inspired by the Nuit Blanche night festival in Paris and Madrid’s La Noche en Blanco festival, as a showcase of local contemporary art. Light-based artworks predominate during the festival’s late-evening hours, and music and local food accompany the contemporary art on view.

“I hate to lose her,” Hardberger said of Armstrong, the festival’s first full-time director. “I thought she did a very good job with very little resources.”

Asked if he believes Luminaria will recover from the loss of funds and Armstrong, Hardberger said, “There are problems for Luminaria, but I don’t think they’re insoluble problems. But I think her leaving and the world situation makes it an uphill battle. I hope that Luminaria flourishes. … I think Luminaria is very important to the spiritual and intellectual growth of San Antonio.”

Luminaria initially was intended to be held annually in different locations throughout the city, such as Dignowity and Lockwood Parks, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Alamo Plaza. Armstrong said the logistics required to occupy different locations each year proved challenging to the small staff, which only recently expanded with a second full-time employee, Administrative Manager Holly Holbrook.

The festival began as a one-day event and expanded to two days in 2014. An ambitious plan to expand to 10 days was never realized, instead contracting down to one night in 2017. Armstrong brought back the second festival day in 2018 and 2019, with Sunday brunches with artists and afternoon events held at Mission San José. The 2020 version was to return to the one-day format Nov. 14, with a reduced footprint at Hemisfair.

The rescheduling of Fiesta for Nov. 8-15 played only a minor role in the decision to cancel, Armstrong said, with the safety of artists, volunteers, and the San Antonio community her primary reason.

Armstrong said her decision to resign was due to a shift in career plans, though she does not have a specific job in mind. “I’m actually going to take a little bit of time to figure that out,” she said. She will continue as immediate past chair on the board of Planned Parenthood South Texas and would like to return to her practice as an artist.  

Hardberger said the new Luminaria director will need to be a good fundraiser, foremost, and be “somebody that knows art and is willing to work closely with the artists community. We have an enormous amount of talent in this town.”

Armstrong said the ongoing coronavirus situation may require rethinking on how to hold a festival that annually attracts up to 20,000 spectators and that the organization has entered “a time of transition and a time of exploration.”

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...