Members of the public views Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra at dusk.
Among the public art in San Antonio is the Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra at the Mission Espada Portal on the South Side. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio City Council is poised to send a $1.2 billion municipal bond proposition to voters in May, but how much of that will be used for public art projects remains to be seen.

Two of the five citizen bond committees tasked with divvying up the bond propositions among hundreds of projects told council to reduce or cut entirely the 1.5% set aside for public art. That $3.8 million was reallocated to other parks and drainage projects.

Several council members found themselves stuck between the inclination to honor the citizen committees’ recommendations and the desire to support public art and the broader arts community.

“I’m hesitant to undo a lot of things that have been in the recommendations [from] citizen committees,” Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said, “because it’s not my government; it’s the people’s government. It’s not my money; it’s the people’s money.”

But investing in arts is how “we can put San Antonio on the map,” he said, suggesting that the city start increasing funding from its annual budget for the arts.

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) suggested cutting projects to maintain at least 1% of each proposition for public art.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) suggested restoring the 1.5% public art funding to each proposition and using federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to complete the other projects.

Several of his council colleagues seemed amenable to that solution and City Manager Erik Walsh said he will present several different options to the council when it meets in early February to review the ARPA spending plan.

“The timing is really lined up well because we’re going to be talking about ARPA one more time,” Walsh told reporters after the meeting. “And they’re going to adopt that plan the week before they adopt bond.”

Council will finalize the ballot language and project lists with a vote on Feb. 10. Walsh said he does not plan to host another separate meeting with council on the bond before then.

San Antonio voters will see five different bond packages on their ballots for parks, streets ($477 million), drainage ($165 million), facilities ($134 million) and housing ($150 million). Housing automatically does not include art funding because there is not a traditional project list. A draft list of projects and materials from previous meetings are available online here.

‘We thought ordinances were laws’

Even if the reduction in public art funding is upheld, the 2022 bond would include $3.6 million more than the $8.2 million that was included in the 2017 bond, Walsh noted.

That didn’t comfort several artists and advocates who attended the council meeting and stayed to voice their concerns.

“If we had known public art was on the [chopping] block, we would have said something,” local artist Kim Bishop said during the public comment session after council’s meeting. “But we didn’t. We thought ordinances were law.”

An ordinance approved by the council in 2011 requires a 1% minimum funding level for bond packages.

But as a whole, the proposition percentages still average 1.1%, Walsh said, adding that “the council changes ordinances all the time.”

Public art projects that are funded by the bond aren’t tied to specific bond projects, he said. “We don’t do a little bit of art on every project, it’s consolidated into regional approaches. If the council makes no changes, and there’s a zero allocation with the drainage proposition, that doesn’t mean there’s not necessarily going to be any art near any drainage.”

Local artist and marketing consultant Lionel Sosa said that investment in public art is what makes cities great.

“Public art is a natural way of expressing our happiness, joys, our needs, our fears, our tragedies, our pride. Public art is a public good,” Sosa said. “For more than 25 years, publicly funded art has helped the city emerge as a national leader in cultural understanding and awareness.”

Christopher Garcia, who co-chaired the drainage committee, defended the committee’s recommendation to cut funding earlier during his presentation to council.

“This was done not because we do not support the arts,” he said. “We understand a great city needs and deserves great arts. But … our drainage need is so great. We need [billions] worth of drainage projects. And we’re given $165 million to work with.”

Adjustments total nearly $45 million

After eight weeks of meetings and bus tours, all five committees made changes worth nearly $45 million.

The Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces Committee increased the number of park projects by 15 bringing the total to 82. It also reduced linear greenway trail funding from the staff-recommended $110 million to $106.5 million.

However, they only cut projects that were in the design phase or enhancements, said Jim Bailey, who co-chaired that committee. “No new trail lines [were] cut.”

After the Texas Biomedical Research Institute withdrew its request for $10 million, Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) pushed to get that transferred to build a new fire station in her district. That required cutting an additional $2.5 million from a street project on South Brazos Street.

There was little discussion on Wednesday to remove two of the more controversial projects; the $5 million earmarked for the renovation of Sunken Garden Theater and the University of Texas in San Antonio’s $5 million request to help build a new basketball and volleyball training facility.

Councilman Bravo, whose district includes the Sunken Garden Theater, said he will host a town hall meeting on Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. Details will be announced via social media.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the city is very close to “approving a bond that’s going to change the course of our city in a very positive direction.”

“We could do this a different way and just put a bunch of projects forward and fund them, but we do this with the public, and the bond process in San Antonio is more than just a list of projects that we need. It’s a process that includes our entire community.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org