Bekah S. McNeel

A cultural renaissance is sweeping through the urban core of San Antonio, and women are at the front of that change. (Check out Part One here.) With history in one hand and innovation in the other, the talent and leadership of these women is manifested in both preservation and progress.

Leilah Powell- The Steward

“You mind if we walk?” Leilah Powell asked at the outset of our interview. I only wish I had been wearing a pedometer to track just how much ground we covered by the end of the interview and field trip.

Powell, the passionate executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, should probably have been wearing waders. Instead, she charged into the muddy brush wearing a stylish suit jacket and two-inch heels to investigate the cause of a retaining wall collapse on the south bank of the San Antonio River. It was, as she suspected, improper drainage.

Brackenridge Park Conservancy Executive Director Leilah Powell and her daughter on another busy day at Brackenridge Park.
Brackenridge Park Conservancy Executive Director Leilah Powell and her daughter, Catherine, on another busy day at Brackenridge Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“It’s a maintenance issue,” Powell said, “Not glamorous, but necessary.”

The $1.2 million granted to the Conservancy by voters approving the 2012 bond could easily be winnowed away by such projects, of which there are many in the 343.7 acre park. The challenge before Powell is to balance upkeep with the park’s future possibilities given the right investment and vision. She dreams of food trucks near the picnic grounds, a coffee shop in the vacant 1878 pumphouse, and an interpretive center at the 1776 Upper Labor Dam where students and adults could learn about the confluence of natural and civic history.

“This is the story!” Powell says, “Everything about the story of San Antonio is here.”

The recent discovery of the desagüe, or colonial-era drainage pipe, near the zoo proves her point.

Already the Conservancy is moving to become an educational resource, with pilot programs at Hawthorne Academy and Lamar Elementary. Fourth and fifth graders spend a year learning about civilizations and how they are built, culminating in an archaeological dig. When students reach sixth and seventh grade they use the park as a microcosm of civic infrastructure, focusing on the professional disciplines–architecture, engineering, etc.– that work together to shape modern city life.

Preserving Brackenridge Park’s already treasured places and extending its services and appeal requires no shortage of energy and strategy. Park management, according to Powell, is a series of competing uses and priorities, most with merit and importance.

“People need to sit down at the table to be creative about solutions,” Powell said.

It would be encouraging to see Powell at the head of that table.

Jackie Gorman – The Catalyst

Look in the yard of any new small business going up east of Broadway, and it’s likely there is a sign for San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE). Under the leadership of Jackie Gorman, small businesses ranging from Theo’s Tire and Brake on E. Houston to Bakery Lorraine on E. Grayson have received “Store-front Grants” to jump-start innovation and economic development on San Antonio’s Eastside.

SAGE Executive Director Jackie Gorman looks out over the Eastside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
SAGE Executive Director Jackie Gorman looks out over the Eastside. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Gorman is broad-minded. Her track record reaches across educational, non-profit, government and business giving her a breadth of understanding when it comes to development. She describes revitalization as a three-legged stool: economic development, housing, and education. SAGE aims to fortify the economic development leg, with the Eastside Promise Neighborhood investing in education and the Choice Neighborhood grant going toward housing.

Revitalization on the Eastside is necessary for the cultural corridor and downtown to continue to blossom. Broadway needs to be an axis, not a borderline. Gorman says that the biggest challenge to this renaissance is the notoriety of some inner city neighborhoods. A negative stereotype broadly paints the diverse district which includes Government Hill, Dignowity Hill, the Carver Center, the Alamodome, Freeman Colesium, the AT&T Center and countless artists and entrepreneurs.

As the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, Gorman places a large emphasis on values of citizenship and service, as well as the important role women play in development. In revitalizing areas she is not surprised to see women at the helm of cultural and non-profit organizations, thanks to collaborative leadership styles.

While women in the revitalizing neighborhoods often come from cultures that discourage them from being ambitious, Gorman and women like her stand as vanguards of a different culture, one that flourishes under women in leadership. Not only in supporting roles and as administrative help, but as visionaries at the helm of great things.

Paula Owen – The Diplomat

Paula Owen gleaned a lot on life’s “meandering path” that brought her to San Antonio. Lo become president of the Southwest Craft Center and preside over its evolution into a four-year degree-granting institution, the Southwest School of Art.

She made stops along the way as a studio artist and high school art teacher. She ran a graphic design and public relations non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. Of her landing at the Southwest Craft Center 17 years ago, Owen says, “I knew I had found my calling.”

Paula Owens Southwest School of Art
Southwest School of Art President Paula Owens. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

SSA has long enjoyed a high-quality faculty and students attracted to the serene beauty of its historic facilities at the former Ursuline Academy and annex on the an Antonio River. Now Owen is focused  on building he information systems and donor base to support the newest addition to San Antonio’s higher education community. The Southwest School of Art will now offer formal training to degree seekers,while continuing to serve a community of adults and children exploring their artistic inclinations. The school strives to become something new without surrendering what made it special to generations of avocational artists in San Antonio.

In Owen’s view, one of the chief contributions of the Southwest School has been, “a population that is more aesthetically astute.”

Multiple audiences, however, make for a formidable marketing challenge, especially for an institution whose following runs deeper than it does wide. Many people do not know about the Southwest School of Art, just as many are unaware that the newly arrived Culinary Institute of the Americas also is an institution of higher learning.

Owens wears many hats in her elevated role: university president, major fundraiser, ambassador to the arts community, and diplomat to longtime supporters of the “old school.”

“I’m the kind of person that takes the long view,” Owen said. “I want to minimize disruption and leave as few bodies in the wake as possible, pardon the expression.”

That kind of blunt candor is a welcome counterweight to the excitement of a new beginning. Owen seems to know exactly when to push, when to pull.  “Those who know me know that I have a relentless focus on the future,” she says with a smile, “But they don’t realize how much I am holding back.”

One can only be excited to see what she has up her sleeve.

Katie Luber – The Breath of Fresh Air

Katie Luber seems to have a relationship with every piece of art we pass. It’s as though she’s greeting friends in the halls of her high school as she breezes through the galleries. She knows how lucky she is. When she arrived 18 months ago to serve as the Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), the institution had a balanced budget, established docents, and prime location along the soon-to-boom Museum Reach of the San Antonio River.

Now, under Luber’s savvy leadership, SAMA is growing in intentional directions, including an architectural facelift and multifaceted community engagement.

Katie Luber. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
SAMA Director Katie Luber. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

“Our education department is doing some really exciting stuff,” Luber said, shortly before mentioning the pARTy, a second Friday cocktail, music and – of course – art appreciation event happening that evening.

She values the legacy of vision passed down from the museum’s founders, whose driving goal was to bring great art to an underserved city. Her way of honoring that vision is to continually pursue best practices, as well as apply the enlightened lens of hindsight to the decisions of the last three decades. Mauve walls and carpet–out. Flexible, illuminated gallery space–in.

Right now her considerable energy is focused on the East Tower, which until now had been patched together with somewhat doubtful results. The Wedgewood Collection felt, well, “wedged.” Rooms passed one to another at random.

“I want to connect the Latin American rooms with the North American painting in a way that makes sense,” she says.

She applies this to the vertical relationship of spaces as well. The museum’s showpiece glass elevators allow for a core sampling of the museum’s galleries. In order to create a congruent experience, she has called for renovation of the third and fourth floors, once dim and claustrophobic. The contrast between the finished third floor and the untouched fourth floor is a noteworthy tribute to the power of updating.

Luber’s also set her mind to maximizing the museum’s use of its historical campus. An old storage room is being cleaned out and transformed into a riverfront auditorium. As the museum most obviously associated with the Museum Reach of the River Walk, all eyes are on SAMA as Luber leads the way to a new season of relevance.

Close observers will see there is more than administrative leadership at play. Luber’s own playful story exploring he controversy surrounding the Aphrodite exhibition at the museum, which ends this month, has drawn so much readership since its Oct. 23, 2012 posting that it now is the fourth most widely-read story in the one-year existence of the Rivard Report. You can and should read it here.

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.