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San Antonians (myself included) are a little touchy about being compared to other cities. However, when asked if we want the arts to be influential in local culture, we answer yes. The challenge is not, then, how to grow an art scene like New York’s. Rather, what does San Antonio’s art scene look like as it grows?
Therese McDevitt, Development Director for Blue Star Contemporary Art Center maintains that one thing San Antonians value highly is accessibility, and this will be a key attribute of a thriving art culture rooted here. But as McDevitt admits, accessibility is a loaded term.
Accessibility is the promise of participation
Some of the hesitance in San Antonio to embrace major cultural investment is rooted in fear that big names and competitive exhibitions will displace our native sons and daughters.
This fear is not without cause. Urban lore has a sub-genre for tales like, “how Brooklyn withered away my will to live” or “when Austin became pretentious.”
The reality is we are far from saturated when it comes to the arts. According to the Local Arts Index, produced by Americans for the Arts, Bexar County has 171 solo artists per 100,000 people. Kings County (Brooklyn) has 711. When you consider the population and density of these two counties, we’re definitely not in danger of artists overrunning, well, anything. In fact, we’re trying to keep them here in hopes that they’ll overrun the art scene.
Private collector Guillermo Nicolas would like to see a proliferation of commercial galleries, which would increase the market visibility of local artists. However, in conjunction with this he hopes that San Antonians are getting over our own bias against paying for local art. When he ran Zazu in the 1990’s he noted how people would be ready to pay big money for a piece of art — until they heard it was produced locally. The idea that local and professional are mutually exclusive designations is detrimental to accessibility.
Organizations like Blue Star are committed to incubating local talent, and bringing it recognition. To curate the exhibits San Antonio Painters I and II, Blue Star brought in Barbara MacAdam of ARTnews. McAdam spent time in the studios of local painters, eventually selecting eight to participate in the Blue Star show. The first San Antonio Painters was such a hit, that they are doing it again. McAdam fell in love with San Antonio and its unique cultural flavors, and has connected sixteen local painters to the world stage without demanding that they lose their locality.
Blue Star also creates a uniquely direct link between collectors and artists. In very few other places can collectors use an institutional catalogue to directly contact artists and arrange studio visits and meetings. Blue Star wants to cultivate these relationships to continue to allow artists to live and work here.
Accessibility is about what you know … not who you know
When she hears it said that San Antonio will never have a booming art scene because we’re just not an “art city,” McDevitt scoffs. She suggests that San Antonio has plenty of artistic activity; we simply don’t have the channels of communication open yet to engage the whole community.
This requires that they be savvy to the wild west of social media and conversant in the methods of instant communication. It also requires that they know the difference between a trend and an establishment, and how to interact with both. Food trucks, for example, according to McDevitt, are a trend that make artistic and cultural events more accessible because of their appeal to both the cost conscious and foodies.
The military community, on the other hand, is an establishment. Reaching out to that community entails more than an appealing product, but knowledge of their communication channels and institutional values.
Effective communication contributes to the creation of a hub. When cities have the benefit of well-funded centers for the arts, citizens who aren’t necessarily part of the art scene in-crowd know where to go if they want to enjoy a play, ballet, concert, or exhibition. Blue Star seeks to function as that kind of hub for a contemporary art scene.
These sort of hubs are attractive to artists, and they do not create an exclusionary environment, on the contrary, tend to spawn smaller venues around them.
Rex and Lee Daugherty work in theater in Washington D.C. (Lee is a New Braunfels native). On a recent visit, I was disappointed to arrive in a rare period where they were both between productions. But Rex quickly reassured me that he was using the time before his next show to work on a staged reading in a tiny theater. Tickets were less than $10, and the entire cast was actors who were between gigs or non-professionals.
Artists don’t stop creating just because they’re not on commission. They create because they’re artists, and that’s the energy that feeds the buzzing atmosphere of coffee shop concerts and home galleries.
In the words of McDevitt: “It’s really not about what they are creating, it’s the fact they are creating that benefits the whole community.”
Accessibility is not “free admission”
None of this comes without investment. McDevitt sings the praises of the avid community of local collectors, as well as the generous institutions in San Antonio. She did, however note that the imperative for city government to fund not only the organizations, but also the infrastructure around cultural hubs (i.e. public transit and good sidewalks). In addition to all of this, the willingness of the public to patronize the arts will always be necessary.
Blue Star has recently started charging admission, and McDevitt says that the public has been happy to oblige, realizing the value of what they get in return.
When we have something we’re proud of, San Antonio knows how to get behind it. Look at the Spurs. More tellingly, look at the Zoo. The Local Arts Index shows that the San Antonio Zoo boasts a higher percentage of adult patronage than do the San Diego, Phoenix, or Bronx Zoos, all of which are also considered to be among the best in America. We patronize the things we’re proud of, even if it means paying for access.
Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can find more of her writing on the blog Free Bekah.