Close up of keynote speaker Candy Chang. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.
Close up of keynote speaker Candy Chang during the the Annual Creative Industry Luncheon. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.

If you’ve noticed San Antonio getting more national attention for its creative arts scene, it’s not your imagination. Hosted by San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SAHCC) and the City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture and Creative Development (DCCD), the Annual Creative Industry Luncheon shares the economic impact of creative industries in San Antonio for the previous year .

Artist Candy Chang of the Before I Die wall installations  was the luncheon’s featured keynote speaker at the Tobin Center on Tuesday.  Dr. Steve Nivin, the director of the SABÉR Research Institute at St. Mary’s University, also shared his report on the economic impact of creative industries with the audience.

“San Antonio is a unique city because of its culture and personality,” Hispanic Chamber CEO Ramiro Cavazos said in opening remarks.

The annual luncheon “brings together members of our creative community as we highlight the economic impact of our creative successes in San Antonio,” said Felix Padrón, DCCD director.

The creative arts industry adds $4.3 billion annually to San Antonio’s economy, Nivin said. As the chief economist for the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the director of the St. Mary’s Neighborhood Revitalization Project, Nivin stressed the importance of San Antonio’s “artistic dividend.” Local businesses benefit from this artistic dividend. Creative art industries contribute beyond the directly measurable economic impacts by helping firms recruit employees to an artistically desirable city.

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“To attract major STEM and tech talent here, we need more creative development to increase the quality of life in San Antonio,” said Nivin. “The Tobin Center is an example of an economic development component of what makes San Antonio an attractive city for investment.”

Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) echoed Dr. Nivin’s results. “Last week at the Distinction for the Arts ceremony, we honored an artist, a dancer, a musician, a poet, a painter, and a corporate patron of the arts,” he said. “We as a community must continue to invest in the arts.”

Reinforcing San Antonio’s rise in creative arts, Treviño introduced Candy Chang, the creator of the Before I Die wall installations found in many countries around the world. Treviño opened the San Antonio Before I Die wall on a 20-foot wide chalkboard wall outside of the Houston Street Garage at the intersection of Navarro and Houston streets, and was the first to fill in the blank in one of the many entries on the wall—“Before I die I want to ____.”

For the past 12 years Chang has explored how public spaces can be designed, not with graphics from businesses advertising products, but by community residents interacting with the space, providing meaningful content. Her participatory public art project “Before I Die” has been recreated in over 1,000 cities and over 70 countries, including Iraq, China, Haiti, Kazakhstan and South Africa.

Chang is a recipient of the TED Senior Fellowship, Tulane University Urban Innovation Fellowship, and Art Production Fund Artist Residency, among many other awards and fellowships. She was named one of the Top 100 Leaders in Public Interest Design by Impact Design Hub, and currently lives in New Orleans.

With a background in urban planning, architecture and graphic design, Chang described how she started to her exploration of interaction between public space and people with her first project in New Orleans, “I Wish This Was.” Chang displayed blank “I wish this was ___” stickers on the walls of run down or abandoned public spaces and provided markers for responses. They ranged from the practical “butcher shop” and “grocery store” to the more poetic “community garden” or “heaven.” She noted how some entries reflected a desire for ownership, as in “my bakery,” and how others sometimes annotated entries like “my bakery” by adding in one instance, “if you get the financing, I’ll bake for you.” The stickers rarely stayed empty for long, providing residents in the community opportunities to comment on a variety of topics.

Councilmember Roberto Treviño wants to fly around the world before he dies. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Roberto Treviño wants to fly around the world before he dies. Photo by Scott Ball.

An introvert by nature, Chang understood that soliciting meaningful public input on community matters could be challenging. Chang started to help individuals share thoughts on topics of interest locally, merging online tools with community civic engagement to provide “lots of opportunities to reimagine civic engagement,” Chang said. For example, San Antonio’s Neighborland reflects local interest in fiber optic broadband, light rail, a more compelling tagline for the city and a grocery store downtown. Chang started the website to help in “realizing people’s hopes in incremental ways,” she added.

Chang has continued to experiment with abandoned buildings and public spaces, which she said help her cope with the sudden loss of a close friend. Because it is so easy to get caught up with the routine of everyday life, “grief restored my perspective,” Chang explained as the genesis for “Before I Die.” The artist created a stencil and spray painted repeatedly on large walls “Before I die I want to ___” and provided markers for writing in the blank spaces on the chalkboard wall. By the end of the first day, the wall’s 80 entries were filled, with more scrawled on the margins of the wall.

Some memorable entries included “I want to stop being afraid,” “I want to hold her one more time,” and the vivid mental image created by “I want to be a stripper and a nun at the same time.” Chang provides helpful hints on how to create your own wall, and has written a book about the project and its many entries. “Many of the entries were enlightening, made me laugh or made me cry,” Chang told the luncheon audience.

Chang closed by showing work from her latest participatory installation, “Confessions.” After seeing handwritten prayers left on the walls of Japanese Shinto shrines, Chang was inspired to explore the design of safe spaces for catharsis and consolation during an artist residency in Las Vegas. She created an art installation that allowed a person to step inside a curtained booth to write an anonymous confession, in keeping with the adage, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” The confessions are then collected and displayed for public reading, with selected ones painted on enlarged panels throughout the exhibit.

Chang regaled the audience with confessions that ranged from the poignant to purely silly.

I’m scared I’ll die alone

Came here married to one girl and left married to two girls

I still love her two girlfriends and five years later

I wish he knew I existed

I don’t know what I am doing and I’m running out of time

I like porn more than my husband does

Your name is tattooed on my ass

I eat too much cheese

Confessions can be read here on the project’s website.

“What you consider your weaknesses can become your strengths,” Chang added. It was her introverted nature to engage publicly that led her to use her urban planning training to explore public spaces as interactive art installations. In seeking opportunities to solicit meaningful input to change a current system, Chang reminded the audience to “embrace serendipity.”

*Top Image: Close up of keynote speaker Candy Chang during the Annual Creative Industry Luncheon. Photo by Iris Gonzalez.

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Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.