Bekah S. McNeel

Blink and you’re trailing in the race to keep up with the changes along the cultural corridors and tributaries around the Pearl, Broadway, South Alamo, and the Museum Reach of the River Walk. Long-standing institutions reinvent themselves. New initiatives galvanize around local treasures. Renovations, both architectural and philosophical, breathe new life into the landscape.

Behind many of these bold maneuvers stands a handful of capable and interesting helmsmen – or shall we say helms-women.  A remarkable cadre of women are redefining arts and culture in the urban core. Each brings her distinct style and strength to the cultural renaissance along Broadway and into Downtown. (Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two of this series.)

Marise McDermott – The Humanist

Marise McDermott, President and CEO of the Witte Museum, takes her location at the headwaters of the San Antonio River seriously. “For thousands of years this area has been a potent center of culture,”  says McDermott, who also sits on the board of the River Oversight Committee.

Impressed by her long history in the humanities, former Witte President Mark Lane brought McDermott, then the editor of The Texas Humanist, to the Witte Museum to hone the institution’s sense of relevance to the stories of South Texas.

McDermmott in the South Texas Heritage Museum, the newest addition to the Witte Musuem's ever-expanding and improving grounds. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Marise McDermott in the South Texas Heritage Center, the newest addition to the Witte Musuem’s ever-expanding and improving grounds. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Acequia Madre, the 1718 aqueduct on the northern portion of the museum grounds, not only bears testament to history, but it inspired one of the boldest features of the museum’s forthcoming renovation. An aqueduct water feature running perpendicular to Broadway will serve as a flowing bookend, and establish the museum as the keystone for the northern expansion of the Riverwalk improvement project.

The Witte’s recently completed South Texas Heritage Center continues the storytelling approach the Witte uses to engage visitors, many of whom have shared history with the people in the pictures on the museum walls.

The South Texas Heritage Center

“We resisted creating a meta-narrative, telling one story to visitors as they move through the exhibits,” McDermott said. Instead they are presented with a collection of stories and artifacts that make up the complex history of a land claimed by both Native Americans, heritage ranching dynasties, and oil barons. At the end, guests are invited to add their story to the exhibit via an interactive touch screen, indicative of the intuitive technology throughout the center. The technology and diversity of the displays allow for constant change and reimagining.

“The space really is like a stage set,” McDermott said, “That’s what is important about a modern museum, the ability to be dynamic.”

But McDermott and her staff do not take lightly their charges as stewards of history. They work hard to find ways that history and innovation can benefit each other, and McDermott does not think it necessary to oversimplify history in order for visitors to understand it. She sees a crucial difference between contextualization and dumbing down. Under her leadership, expect to see more of the former and none of the latter.

And be it an examination of evolution or a bold display of the human body, McDermott is not afraid to challenge the community by hosting important and provocative exhibitions.

Vanessa Lacoss Hurd- The Educator

Vanessa Lacoss Hurd has an inviting intensity that snaps everyone to attention, as though she were shouting, “all aboard!” Which is appropriate, because her train, The San Antonio Children’s Museum, is on the move toward something bigger.

SACM Director Vanessa Lacoss Hurd and her pile of rubble on Broadway – the soon-to-be home of the new (and improved) San Antonio Children’s Museum. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The museum is moving, literally, from its downtown Houston Street location to a six-acre expanse on Broadway, across from Brackenridge Park.

The physical move will allow for an expanded realization of the current vision. Hurd brings with her a background in education. She worked with Teach for America and training organizations, experience that has provided insight into para-school organizations. For the past four years as executive director of SACM, Hurd has operated under the premise that she is providing a resource, not a diversion. As a result, the museum has a seen a 50% increase in attendance.

“If you provide rich, quality content they will come…Children need many varied learning environments,” Hurd said. “…And we need to think beyond the school day.”

The Museum’s current downtown location limits activity to indoor play. Their new spot, currently under construction on Broadway, will allow for plenty of outdoor activities. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The Museum’s current downtown location limits activity to indoor play. Their new spot, currently under construction on Broadway, will allow for plenty of outdoor activities. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The museum promotes joyful learning. It sparks imaginations, encourages creativity, and inspires critical thinking. Hurd’s own children have served as in-house consultants on ideas for the new facility, which will focus heavily on math and science, two areas  of special concern to the Obama administration.

One hallmark feature at the new location will be a “Spy Academy” that aims at remedying what Hurd calls “learning in silos.” Math and science will be incorporated in a cross-disciplinary format, helping kids connect-the-dots and master their subjects, a priority for kids who grow up with fragmented, subject-specific tests dictating their curriculum.

But this new move is just the springboard for broader outreach.  Hurd’s goal: that 10% of  museum activity take place out in the community.

“To be an institution, and not just a destination, we have to think beyond the four walls of the museum,” Hurd said.

As the train leaves the station and gathers its momentum, the San Antonio Children’s Museum is poised to see that happen. Ground will be broken on the The Lake|Flato-designed campus this summer. The new venue opens in 2015.

Amada Cruz- The Curator

Amada Cruz is new to town, but in some ways she’s been training for her job as Director of ArtPace for years. From curating on the East Coast to grantmaking on the West Coast, Cruz has the kind of resume that makes her a bellwether for cultural evolution in the city. Her appreciation for Linda Pace’s vision promises to strengthen the offerings of the regionally renown institution in line with Pace’s original intent.

Amada Cruz
ArtPace Director Amada Cruz; + 500 points for SA. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Pace operated on an ambitious scale. Her vision was to see San Antonio’s art community in dialogue with the wider art world. Cruz’s new role is the natural culmination of her voice in that dialogue. After serving as a guest curator at ArtPace, she joined the Board of Visitors  and eventually the board of directors.  She continues to be inspired by Pace’s vision and San Antonio’s prolific art community. Like many culture industry professionals, she was surprised by what she found here.

“The strength of the [cultural] institutions here is still a secret,” she said.

She realizes that this is more true at home than anywhere. While outside the city ArtPace is synonymous with the contemporary art scene in San Antonio and South Texas, surprisingly few locals know what it is or how it works.

ArtPace's colorful, inviting entrance in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
ArtPace’s colorful, inviting entrance in September. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Cruz intends to change that.  The brightly colored campus on South Main Street downtown should be teeming with students and visitors, especially when admission is free.

Currently ArtPace works on a schedule of four-month trimesters. Three times per year a curator is chosen to select a Texas, U.S., and international artist to live together for two months on the campus and produce work. The resulting exhibitions run for two months in the resident galleries before the cycle begins anew.

Between resident exhibitions, ArtPace is never quiet. The Hudson Show Room hosts a variety of shows and cultural events.

Cruz, only months into her new position, is excited to promote ArtPace locally, nationally and around the world, continuing the dialogue that brought her here in the first place.

Bekah 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 and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Read more of Bekah’s work on the Rivard Report here.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.