Like so many confined at home during the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Museum of Art was unable to mount a gala public celebration to observe its 40th anniversary in March.

Instead, the museum quietly recognized its founding on March 1, 1981, with a media gift package that included a Lone Star Beer pint glass and bottle-opener Fiesta medal to honor the brewery origins of its 1896 building, a catalog of its collection, a chinoiserie-themed face covering, and a box of chocolates. Founding families and donors of the museum were acknowledged with mailed thank-you notes.

Amid a period of suspension for the city and nation, the quiet celebration seems appropriate, especially as the museum finds itself in a transitional moment with its search for a new director on pause.

“We intended to have a huge block party. We had big plans. So it’s definitely more low-key than we had intended it to be,” said Mary Burch, SAMA director of development, of the scaled-down celebration.

Instead of a birthday party and its usual spring gala, SAMA will join other institutions including the Public Theatre, Ballet San Antonio, and the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, for a September “Celebration of the Arts in San Antonio” event, she said.

Though SAMA reopened to the public in May, also on pause is the return of its normal audiences. A message from Emily Sano, co-interim director, along with CEO/CFO Lisa Tapp, included in the gift package reads, “We look forward to the opportunity to welcome you back or for the very first time when you feel safe to do so.”

SAMA is open for visitors to safely enjoy art by wearing face masks and practice social distancing. March 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the gallery.
SAMA is open for visitors to safely enjoy art by wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. March 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the gallery. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Sano described the chaos created by the pandemic as “really frightening. For the museum world in general, it produced absolute chaos. … There was a real challenge about how you can continue – or should you continue.”

The answer from the museum’s trustees and donors was firm and generous, Sano said. “It has been utterly remarkable. We have to thank our trustees for declaring early on that they wanted to see the staff remain in place and be paid.”

Not that it wasn’t a scramble to seek enough funding to continue operations, she said. “When you can’t have your gala [fundraising] dinners, and you can’t do receptions, and people are not in their offices, you really do wonder how you can continue. But the museum did pivot” and was the second museum in the country – just behind the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – to reopen, Sano said.

Trustee Emerita Karen Hixon praised the museum for joining its regional and national counterparts in effectively coping with the pandemic.

“Every museum has had a tough year, along with everybody else,” Hixon said. “But … the curators [and staff] have been extraordinarily creative, and the virtual things that they have put on, and the programming that they have continued to be able to do – I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”

Ardent support

Mary Burch joined SAMA as director of development in 2018. Working in support of a museum she considers “a jewel” of San Antonio for its collections was an easy choice, she said.

“People are shocked that what we have here in San Antonio rivals any museum in the country or the world, it’s that impressive. And so the opportunity to come here and build support for it was just really intriguing,” Burch said.

However, there is a less sexy side to fundraising for SAMA, because it’s housed in an old building.

The San Antonio Museum of Art opened in the Lone Star Brewery in 1981, almost one hundred years after the brewery's founding in 1884. In 1896 a new facade was constructed. This emblem was preserved and restored.
The San Antonio Museum of Art opened in the Lone Star brewery in 1981, almost 100 years after the brewery’s founding in 1884. In 1896 a new facade was constructed. This emblem was preserved and restored. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Built in 1884, the original Lone Star brewery complex had to be refit to house precious antiquities and works of art, and has required significant updates, maintenance, and repairs. A 2016 hail storm damaged the roof and caused a failure of the air conditioning. Replacement cost $200,000. The Latin American Collection galleries required closure and renovation after a 2017 leak caused water damage necessitating replacement of the flooring.

A recent fundraising project focused on necessary repairs to the building, including cleaning exterior bricks and limestone, replacing windows, and a complete renovation of the building’s 1981 elevators.

Such a maintenance-focused campaign is not generally presented to the public, Burch said. “We talked to our longest and most ardent supporters. … We called it a ‘family campaign.’”

The three-year closure of the Latin American collection galleries initiated another major transition in SAMA’s history.

Dr. Marion Oettinger had been its curator since 1985. While the galleries he had devoted his attention to over a long career remained dormant, SAMA mounted a search for his replacement and found Lucia Abramovich Sánchez, who recently re-opened the collection as the rechristened Latin American Popular Art galleries.

Though Oettinger said he enjoyed working curatorially with the building’s eccentricities, when he was director from 2004 to 2011, he better understood the full costs of maintenance.

“My biggest expense when I was director was my monthly heating and air conditioning bill for the museum,” Oettinger said.

The annual fundraising gala would garner about $200,000 to help cover operating expenses, he said, but even so that amount was only half of what was needed to pay those bills.

And just like many San Antonians did during the recent freeze, the museum sustained damage to a water pipe which caused a leak in the same Latin American collections area as the previous damage. However, this time a keen-eyed security guard spotted the leak, and the problem was quickly addressed, Burch said.

No part of the collection was damaged, she said. “It’s just a matter of replacing the floors and some walls. The extent of the damage is not nearly what it was last time, thankfully.”

Staffing the museum is another major expense. After Katie Luber was hired as director to replace Oettinger, who preferred to return to curation and research, 11 staff members were let go, in part to offset maintenance and repair costs.

That left the museum free to concentrate on its exhibitions and programming. Oettinger said part of the museum’s success is due to its benefactors, primarily those who have donated collections and included endowments for the curators who would oversee them. His own position had been endowed, in part thanks to the foresight and diligence of trustees such as Patsy Steves, who helped secure the Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Winn collections of Mexican folk art that would become a primary focus of the museum, and Hixon.

Hixon joined the board before there was a SAMA, in 1976 at the invitation of Gilbert Denman, who would later establish the collection of ancient Mediterranean antiquities. At the time, the San Antonio Museum Association helped manage the collections of the Witte Museum. But as the collections became too large for the Witte alone to handle, the decision was made to split off the fine arts collection as the basis for a new art-focused institution.

Hixon said SAMA has been integral to the city’s culture over the past 40 years, though the neighborhood was slow to “catch up” with the museum as a destination.

In part because of SAMA, along with other institutions in town, “San Antonio could and can tout itself as an arts center,” though it could still do a better job of it, she said.

Looking toward the future, Hixon eyes what she called the last undeveloped green space in the downtown area – land just south of the museum parking lot that is referred to as Arden Grove – for a potential extension of the SAMA sculpture garden or some other constructive use.

Those plans will have to wait for a new director, Burch said.

The next 40 years

The coronavirus pandemic descended during year three of SAMA’s current five-year strategic plan, put in place during Luber’s tenure as director. Until the process of hiring the next SAMA director is completed, strategic planning is on hold, Burch said.

The new director will face several tasks, including the hiring of a new chief curator and curator of contemporary art. On Monday, SAMA announced the impending April 16 retirement of Suzanne Weaver, who joined SAMA in 2016 as its contemporary art curator, then became interim chief curator in 2020 following the departure of William Keyse Rudolph.

Another major task will be leading the formation of a new strategic plan. “We’ll need to do a master plan of our campus to figure out exactly what we want to do in the future and how we envision the next phase of the museum,” she said.

The 2015 acquisition of the 83,000-square-foot former CPS Energy operations center just west of the museum on West Jones Avenue is slated to become active office, exhibit, and educational space. Further development will create additional room for the museum’s extensive collections, so there will be ample raw material for a new director to work with.

“We’re excited about the next 40 years and really excited to get a new director with a new vision and the excitement that comes with that. So everything’s looking up,” Burch said.

"No Ocean Between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America & the Caribbean" features 65 works of modern and contemporary art by artists from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
No Ocean Between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America & the Caribbean features 65 works of modern and contemporary art by artists from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Developing new audiences and growing the membership base is an ongoing challenge, Burch said, but for the moment SAMA must focus on attracting visitors weary of the pandemic and seeking safe options for enrichment.

From a high-water mark of 270,000 attendees to Oettinger’s landmark Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries exhibition in 1991, the museum now averages 10,000 to 35,000 visitors for each show, according to Emilie Dujour, public relations and digital communications manager.

Even the recent Tricentennial special exhibitions San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico and Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid attracted 17,000 and 33,000 visitors, respectively. But the Mexico show was a coup for the museum, with Oettinger successfully making the case to its organizer the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that SAMA, and not comparable institutions in Houston or Dallas, was the proper home for the show. That level of prestige helped draw up to 8,000 visitors daily toward its closing date, Oettinger said, compared to a daily average of just over 200 for the Tricentennial show, but such an instance is rare indeed, he said.

Despite significant competition in the museum world for funding and audiences, SAMA is well-positioned for the future, Burch said, thanks in part to generous support from local foundations and philanthropists.

“We’ve been really fortunate that there are people in San Antonio that love the arts and want to make sure that we all get through this,” she said.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...