An exhibition initially planned by the McNay Art Museum has found a new home after a fallout over sexually explicit artwork.
Sarah Fox, the artist at the heart of the controversy, has organized an independent exhibition at the Blue Star Arts Complex featuring the eight artists who were originally part of the McNay’s 8 Create [SATX] exhibition. When Fox declined to alter or replace her artwork, deemed too risqué by the museum’s curatorial staff, her invitation to exhibit was withdrawn, and five of the remaining artists pulled out of the show in protest.
The show Fox has organized, titled after each artist’s last name: Chavez & Danna & Datchuk & Gilmore & Fox & Morros & Perez & Rowe, will open for the First Friday art crawl on April 1 in the C136 space at the Blue Star Arts Complex.
Fox, Lisette Chavez, Alyssa Danna, and Libby Rowe will show the artworks intended for the 8 Create exhibition, while Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Xavier Gilmore, Drew Morros, and Joshua Perez will show modified or alternate artworks.
Meanwhile, the museum has gone ahead with an amended version of its show, with a new title and a shift in focus. The McNay exhibition is now called Marion Koogler McNay’s Legacy, with two of the original eight artists, Morros and Perez, participating. It opens March 17.
Echoes of the past
After learning of the situation, arts leader Ethel Shipton approached Blue Star Arts Complex owner James Lifshutz, who offered Fox the free use of a vacant space formerly occupied by Terminal 136, an art gallery extension of the University of Texas at San Antonio arts program.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Lifshutz said.
Lifshutz recounted the “synchronicity” of the current situation involving local artists having trouble with a local museum, and a past situation that led to the formation of the Blue Star Contemporary art space.
In 1986, the San Antonio Museum of Art summarily canceled a planned exhibition of 27 local artists and fired its curator, Steve Bradley, in part for his focus on local artists, according to sculptor Danville Chadbourne, who was to be part of the show. In response, Lifshutz’s father and original Blue Star owner Bernard Lifshutz, along with development partner Hap Veltman, offered space in their newly-acquired empty warehouse at the intersection of Alamo and Probandt streets.
The artists and several community supporters, including attorney and contemporary arts advocate Lewis Tarver, formed a loose coalition called Contemporary Art for San Antonio and mounted a show titled The Blue Star Exhibition.
Chadbourne participated in the revived show, recalling that he and fellow artists helped clean out the raw warehouse space, build walls and hang the art.
Like Fox and her compatriots, Chadbourne said he and the other artists took it upon themselves to make the show happen despite the museum’s lack of support. “All of us got together, and all the artists decided, ‘Yes, let’s just do this thing.’”
What was intended to be a one-off show of local art galvanized the contemporary arts community in San Antonio, and led to the founding of Blue Star Contemporary, which continues its mission of showing San Antonio artists alongside contemporary artists from elsewhere.
Differing philosophies, missions
National art critic Darren Jones recently visited San Antonio and, in a Mar. 7 essay published by Chicago-based New Art Examiner magazine, praised the McNay as “the trail-blazing first museum of modern art in Texas,” but characterized its action against Fox’s work as “a misstep.”
The McNay has recently held exhibitions of women artists and transgender-themed artwork, the latter of which prompted a community information session to help foster understanding among museumgoers. At the time of the 2019 Transamerica/n exhibition, McNay Director Rich Aste said, “Absolutely everyone has the right to see themselves reflected on our walls and in our galleries.”
Regarding the current situation, having lost six of eight artists it commissioned to participate in the 8 Create exhibition and seeing them mount their own show in another space, Aste said in an email, “This reflects beautifully on San Antonio as a place of great diversity. We are fortunate to have a diversity of art venues — including the McNay — that support the broad and beautiful spectrum of artistic visions, all based on their respective missions.”
Lifshutz said his offer of space for Fox’s exhibition isn’t meant as a criticism of the McNay. “They have their format, they have their curatorial vision, they have their supporters … and they do a great job. And this … didn’t fit with what they wanted. And my philosophy is that I don’t have to live by all of those constraints.”
An avid fan of contemporary art in San Antonio, Lifshutz said he’s not easily offended by controversial or risqué subject matter.
“The nature of contemporary art is that it’s all over the place. It’s supposed to make you think, and it’s supposed to make you question and expand your mind. That doesn’t mean you have to like it all the time,” he said.
“But if it’s making you think, and if it’s giving you different perspectives … that’s what a nimble mind ought to be doing anyway,” Lifshutz said, and the Blue Star Arts Complex is “physical space, and it’s headspace, to allow creative people to do interesting things.”
Chavez & Danna & Datchuk & Gilmore & Fox & Morros & Perez & Rowe will open the evening of April 1 and will remain available for viewing by appointment for one month.
Disclosure: Jennifer Ling Datchuk is a member of the San Antonio Report Board of Community Advisors. Nicholas Frank participated in a 2020 Contemporary Art Month exhibition at the McNay Art Museum.