Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Saba (El Matirio de los Franciscanos en la Misión de San Sabá), ca. 1765, by José de Páez. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Museum of Art

Months of political turmoil followed by a cold, rainy night of rock ‘n’ roll, fireworks, and New Year’s Eve celebrations drew all the attention as San Antonio’s Tricentennial year opened.

Since then, the real meaning of the city’s 300th birthday has been brought into rich focus through exhibitions and programming at eight different arts and cultural institutions in the city. All eight are led by strong women, by the way. That’s news, even if it is not making headlines elsewhere.

“From the beginning, I said this Tricentennial celebration would be led by the arts and culture community,” said Katie Luber, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art and a former co-chair of the Tricentennial Commission.

The San Antonio Museum of Art is hosting an original, do-not-miss exhibition titled San Antonio 1718: Art From Viceregal Mexico, curated by Marion Oettinger, the museum’s curator of Latin American art and former director. Oettinger is one of this city’s cultural icons, and the exhibition that he and Luber have assembled is remarkable. More than 100 works on display include pieces never before seen in the United States. One visit is not enough.

San Antonio Museum of Art curator of Latin art.
Marion Oettinger, the San Antonio Museum of Art’s curator of Latin American art. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The exhibition includes the oldest known extant work of art from the early Spanish presence in Texas, Martyrdom of Franciscans at Mission San Saba, circa 1765, by José de Páez. The large painting includes a by-the-numbers index to the bloodshed. One fascinating detail: the Comanche already had firearms to augment primitive bow and arrows and clubs.

Confluence and Culture opened March 3 at the Witte Museum and continues through Jan. 6, 2019. The Witte also will host a well-crafted two-day conference on the Tricentennial on March 23-24. Click here for tickets, speakers, and program details.

“This is the new Witte, the new way,” said Marise McDermott, CEO of the Witte. “We have great people presenting at the conference. Bruce Shackelford and Andres Tijerina are the two amazing curators of Confluence and Culture, and we still have 10 or so spaces for the conference. We want everyone to come.

“The Tricentennial has provided the opportunity for some really talented artists to emerge,” McDermott added. “All the great work that is out there for people to see is giving real meaning to the year.”

A museum visitor is reflected in the display of Plaza de las Islas at the Confluence and Culture: 300 Years of San Antonio History exhibit at the Witte Museum.
A museum visitor is reflected in the display of Plaza de las Islas at Confluence and Culture: 300 Years of San Antonio History at the Witte Museum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

McDermott was speaking about Common Currents: 300 Years & 300 Artists, the extraordinary collaboration of six San Antonio arts entities, each featuring 50 artists and their original works. While you might have missed the opening exhibition at ArtPace San Antonio Jan. 18-March 4,  you can still see companion exhibitions at five of the six participating arts venues through April and May.

“Artists are trailblazers,” said Mary Heathcott, executive director of the Blue Star Contemporary, “so it’s no surprise that in the case of the Tricentennial, as in all ways, the artists prevail.”

The exhibition at the Carver Community Cultural Center opened Thursday, and exhibitions that opened earlier at the Blue Star Contemporary, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and the Southwest School of Art remain open. The Instituto Cultural de México at Hemisfair will open its exhibition on March 29.

Verónica Castillo Hernández’s traditional Pueblo ceramic sculpture Tree of Life History of San Antonio from 2017. Courtesy of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts center, now featuring The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Click here to see all venues and dates for Common Currents programming that continues through May 7 and the conclusion of Commemorative Week. All are free and open to the public.

“The sixth of the six stages of Common Currents unites the work of 50 artists who interpret San Antonio history from 1968-2017, the city’s last 50 years,” said Mónica del Arenal, director of the Instituto Cultural de México. “It’s interesting to see the mosaic of approaches and graphic choices made to portray an era of rapid technological change, globalization, international markets, radical social movements, and in the local context, the presence and impact of the Spurs, heavy floods, and property development, including Hemisfair and the Alamodome.”

Sadly, the opening at the Instituto, timed to its 50th anniversary here dating back to HemisFair ’68, will be the last official act for del Arenal, the Guadalajara native and arts administrator who has become a familiar and highly respected fixture in the local arts community. She has brought the Instituto back to life after years of less-than-stellar programming, community outreach, and public interest. Hemisfair is not the easiest place to reach by vehicle these days, but del Arenal’s programs have drawn standing-room-only crowds and some of the most accomplished artists from other countries to visit and show here.

Last House Standing by Maureen “Momo” Brown. Credit: Courtesy / Instituto Cultural de Mexico

Del Arenal announced her resignation in a brief letter March 15 to Mexican Consul General Reyna Torres Mendívil, who has not responded to calls for comment. Mexican politics, always murky and often intensely personal, no doubt are at play. As news of her resignation spread, other local arts leaders expressed dismay and confusion.

Mónica del Arenal, Director of the Instituto Cultural de México. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Baststone.
Mónica del Arenal, Director of the Instituto Cultural de México. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

San Antonio 1718 could not have happened without Mónica’s connections and passion for the exhibition,” Luber remarked late last week. “She helped us secure works that have never been seen outside Mexico.”

Said another colleague who asked not to be named: “She helped convince local leaders to preserve the Instituto in Hemisfair, and she brought the place back to life after it had become all but forgotten.”

Del Arenal’s sudden resignation follows the recall of Consul General Hector Velasco Monroy in 2017. Velasco was a forceful and outspoken diplomat whose time here was cut short by a shakeup in Mexican politics. Such turnover ultimately has a detrimental effect on the valuable personal connections that undergird Mexico-San Antonio relations.

Arts supporters in the city who have come to anticipate del Arsenal’s innovative exhibitions, drawing on her deep connections to the Mexican art world, can raise a glass in her honor at the Thursday, March 29, opening.

Eight talented women directing the city’s leading arts and culture institutions will now be seven, which is a lamentable turn of events. Working together, these leaders have given meaning to San Antonio’s Tricentennial that until now has been missing.

Editor’s note: Space limitations prevented publication of comments by all eight arts leaders referenced in this column, but those not quoted include Cristina Ballí, executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, featured last week in this Rivard Report article; Veronique Le Melle, executive director of ArtPace San Antonio, last featured in this Rivard Report article; Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art, featured in this Rivard Report article; and Yonnie Blanchette, executive director of the Carver Community Cultural Center, which will be the subject of a coming Rivard Report article.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.