Could the forlorn Institute of Texan Cultures one day become the Smithsonian Institution of Texas?
That was one suggestion among 255 submitted to the Community Conversations website set up by the University of Texas at San Antonio, which has overseen the institute and its museum since the early 1970s.
The survey is just one component of the effort led by UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, dubbed the ITC Centennial 2068: Community Stakeholder Visioning Plan, to envision its next 50 years— and rescue it from dwindling attendance and lack of connection to the university and community.
Opened during Hemisfair ’68 as the Texas State Exhibits Pavilion, the institute shared the origins of various groups of people who moved to Texas and their contributions to the state. Today, the institute and museum represent “the only resources in Texas devoted entirely to the state’s rich, diverse history,” according to UTSA.
In recent years, however, the ITC has struggled with low attendance, budget difficulties and maintenance issues for its aging facilities.
The university has pledged $250,000 to the visioning initiative, and earlier this year, state Sen. Jose Menendez and other legislators secured $2 million to fund the institute over the next two years.
Other ideas submitted to the survey include ramping up community events, expanding the institute’s online presence, engaging partnerships with other organizations, such as Tech Bloc, Hemisfair, arts organizations and educational institutions on the east and south sides of town. On the more extreme side, suggestions included “demo the current structure to allow for more density and connectivity to the neighborhoods and Hemisfair” and building a “new modern facility.”
After seeing the compiled submissions, UTSA Provost and Vice President Kimberly Espy, who is overseeing the visioning effort, said she was “really grateful for the community for being so responsive and submitting such great ideas.”
Respondents also ranked several “values” the institute should commit to, with “telling an inclusive story of the state’s past, present, and future, leading to greater cultural understanding” receiving the strongest support.
Espy said the survey was sent out to 800 key institute stakeholders including community and government leaders, and to 150,000 UTSA alumni, 1,400 faculty, and 30,000 students. One thousand people subsequently visited the website, and 153 respondents completed the survey, some submitting multiple ideas for the future of the institute.
Espy said the response aligned with expectations set forth by Lopez-Negrete Communications, the Houston marketing firm hired to compile the survey results. Rather than the numbers, Espy focused on the range of respondents, which included institute visitors, K-12 educators and college students.
Lopez-Negrete organized the ideas into categories for the three visioning plan task forces to consider. Those task forces, focused on facilities, community engagement and the “museum of the future,” will forward recommendations to the 19-member steering committee, which is composed of public and private community leaders including Hemsifair CEO Andres Andujar, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston, Chef Johnny Hernandez, and UTSA scholar John Philip Santos.
Once those recommendations are delivered in the spring of 2022 and the steering committee drafts “feasible scenarios” for the future of the institute, “the community will have an opportunity to provide feedback, which will help shape the development of the final scenario plans,” according to the visioning website.
“It’s a long process, very detailed,” Espy said, “but we are so excited with the information and input and range of engagement by our community in this process.”
The ITC is already a Smithsonian Affiliate — a designation that “grants the Institute access to the Smithsonian’s artifacts, education, and performing arts programs, expert speakers, teacher workshops, and resources to complement and broaden exhibitions,” according to its website.
But whether feasible scenarios include building a Smithsonian-level institution remains to be seen, Espy said, though she supports that level of thinking.
“It’s an excellent in-person experience; there’s ways to engage whether you’re there or remotely … it includes both community engagement and academic connections. … That may be a very good role model for us to be thinking about.”