By the end of summer 2017, the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) is slated to complete a $10 million facilities overhaul as well as the construction of a new central utility plant that will house the museum’s new, state-of-the-art heating and cooling system.

The new buildings and renovation projects which include upgrading the European galleries, auditorium, first-floor bathrooms, and roofs, will be completed in several phases. A new, full-service restaurant will open in the former Lone Star Brewery’s hops house in the spring. No museum closures are expected during the anticipated 11-month process.

The central facilities plant will be across from the museum on West Jones Avenue.

“Our visitors won’t see that, but you will know when you’re in the galleries that it will be cool. We’ll know that we are maintaining our galleries at a constant measure and (as a) place where you can be comfortable,” said the museum’s Kelso Director Katie Luber at a ceremonial groundbreaking on Tuesday morning. She remembered the air conditioning malfunction during the Matisse exhibition in 2014 and expanded on the need for proper air conditioning as more and more visitors are expected to come through the museum in the future.

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Funding for the projects came from the City of San Antonio, which committed $1 million from its 2012 Municipal Bond, and dozens of foundations, corporations, and individual donors.

“We’re in the middle of our 2017 bond discussion and we want to make sure that projects like these are top of the line. They increase the quality of life of the city,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), crediting Luber for “setting a great example for how to take stewardship of an incredible facility” and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) for leading the charge to get SAMA on the 2012 bond.

Bernal served as the District 1 City Councilman before heading to the State Legislature in 2015.

“The arts have an incredible role in not just the identity of the center of the city but also the future of the city,” Bernal said. He recalled his first day on City Council and the meeting he had with Luber, who was also starting her first day as director, to discuss the museum’s badly-needed improvements. “We were rookies together, so to see so many years later what you all have accomplished here, the number of dollars that have been invested on top of the $1 million from the City demonstrates to me that you’ve done something right.”

The museum’s auditorium will be renovated and renamed the Santikos Memorial Auditorium, as a result of the Santikos Charitable Foundation‘s $492,747 gift.

“We’re going to address some of the stratification issues so that the air won’t be so hot at the top and cold at the bottom,” Luber said of the auditorium. Some of the chairs and finishes will be replaced to make them more comfortable.

Visitors will also soon enjoy upgraded restrooms.

“During Matisse, we were having record numbers of visitors here,” Luber said. “I got a letter from a lady who said, ‘The building is beautiful, the art is wonderful, the exhibition is so beautifully installed, but I went to the bathroom and I felt like I was in a remote West Texas gas station.’ And that really spurred us to do something about it.”

The new restaurant in the former hops house will overlook the Museum Reach portion of the San Antonio River.

“We were left a request by one of our loyal members, Mr. Bob Harper,” Luber said. “When he passed away he left a provision in his estate that we had to use this money to make sure we had a great restaurant here, and we are so lucky to have that.”

When the fourth floor galleries in the east tower were renovated in 1981, it was meant to be a café. This glass is too old to offer enough insulation for fine art and provides no space to hang art. The glass will be replaced with solid walls and will house the museum’s collection of European art, Luber explained.

In an interview with the Rivard Report after the ceremonials, Bernal expanded on the importance of supporting the arts and preserving historic buildings and institutions in downtown San Antonio.

“Investing in the arts is one of the calling cards of this city,” he said. “At the same time, it’s investing in the center of the city. What people may not realize is that the decade of downtown that former Mayor Castro initiated was also an anti-sprawl campaign. So, this was part of that. This was part of folding the growth of the city from the outer edges back to the center. And (the renovation project) was part of that effort.

“If you look at the city six years ago, there wasn’t a lot of this development. The previous census showed that the center of the city was the only part that lost population. People were leaving. That’s when you end up with a situation like Detroit or Arizona, where the center of a city starts to atrophy and the whole city collapses. We saw that starting to happen and we tried to figure out a lot of different ways to keep folks and bring folks back in.”

San Antonio Museum of Art staff take part in the groundbreaking anticipating 10 million dollars in improvements to the museum. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio Museum of Art board members and staff celebrate the start of $10 million in renovation and improvement projects. Photo by Scott Ball.

Top image:  Docent Susanne O’Brien teaches a school group about math in art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo courtesy San Antonio Museum of Art.

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James McCandless

Former intern James McCandless is a recent St. Mary's University graduate. He has worked with the San Antonio Current and Texas Public Radio.