After 21 years of service to the City of San Antonio, Department for Culture & Creative Development (DCCD) Director Felix Padrón will step down from his position on Thursday, March 31.
Padrón graduated with a Fine Arts degree in painting from the School of Visual Arts NYC. After his first 28 years in New York, he knew that he didn’t want to go to graduate school there. He made the cross-country leap to California and admits that he virtually tripped into what would become a significant career path.
Padrón ended up doing his graduate work in a relatively new field, the University of Southern California – Los Angeles Master of Public Arts Studies program. At the time, public arts policy was still an emerging discipline, not the socio-economic juggernaut that it has become today.
“I thought they were going to teach me how to be a public artist, and that wasn’t it at all. It was about being an administrator,” he said.
As one listens to Padrón’s story unfold, it is clear that he has been in the right place at the right time, again and again.
When Padrón graduated USC-LA, his good friend, architect Jorge Pardo, told him about a job that he thought was perfect for Padrón. “I asked, ‘Where is this job?’ He said, ‘San Antonio.’ I said, ‘Where’s that?’”
Pardo was right.
“I submitted my credentials and 14 days later, I was here,” Padrón said. “The moment I got off the plane for the interview, I was in love with the city. It was very magical.”
Padrón emigrated from Cuba as a child, which left a deep impression on the young man.
“As an immigrant – and I think this is very common among immigrants – you have a sense of displacement. You don’t have a sense of belonging anywhere,” he said. “The minute I got here, something triggered. It felt like I had been here before.”
Padrón began working with the City of San Antonio in March 1995, while Nelson Wolff was still mayor. He was brought on board by Eduardo Diaz, now executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington, D.C.
“I was brought in specifically to start the City’s first ever public arts program, the Department of Art and Cultural Affairs (DACA),” Padrón said. “Eduardo is the one who picked me up directly out of USC.”
Padrón was responsible for developing and implementing citywide public art projects. In this role, he worked with nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, artists, City departments, neighborhoods and the business community to help anchor the arts as an economic asset here in San Antonio, nationally and abroad. He did such a good job that he was named one of the top 20 most influential people in San Antonio in 1999 by the San Antonio Express-News.
“I am most proud of having been able to adopt San Antonio’s first ever cultural plan,” Padrón said. Terry Brechtel was city manager at the time, and Padrón insisted that he must have the City’s support to spearhead the cultural initiative.
He was shocked that a city the size of San Antonio at that time had never taken an organized look at these cultural challenges, he said. It took a few years, but the culmination of the work was a powerful focus outlining a number of strategies.
“I don’t mind saying that when I first got here art was a dirty word. No one wanted to touch it,” he said. “Art was controversial. This was the level of the conversation I came into. Art was a foreign language to the community. We created a paradigm shift.
“For the first time we had commissioned a study on the impact of the creative economy. This shifted the conversation and framed it in the context of economic development.”
DACA brought in rock star economist Richard Florida, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class, to address a luncheon for stakeholders in the community. The project and the steering committee was introduced. This was a turning point for the future of the arts in San Antonio. Padrón was promoted to director of the DCCD in 2001.
Under his leadership, by 2005, The Cultural Collaborative had adopted and implemented strategies including: increasing city arts funding; implementing citywide arts marketing strategies; adopting the city’s first Public Art San Antonio (PASA) Plan; establishing partnerships with chambers of commerce; initiating the referendum to build a new Bexar County Performing Arts Center; establishing the San Antonio Artist Foundation; and providing professional development workshops for working artists.
With pride, Padrón noted that it was also on his watch that San Antonio became the first city in Texas to inaugurate a poet laureate, Dr. Carmen Tafolla in 2012, followed by Laurie Ann Guerrero in 2014. Both went on to become State Poet Laureates. Jenny Browne is the most recent poet to be awarded the honor.
(Read more: Jenny Browne: San Antonio’s New Poet Laureate)
Padrón espouses an especially strong connection for the projects that have a personal impact.
“For me, the greatest joy is helping individual artists,” he said, noting projects like planting the seed of development for the Artist Foundation under the leadership of Patricia Pratchett and Bettie Ward, and opportunities like the Creative Capital Professional Development Retreat for Artists (2007-2010).
Over a period of four years, 96 artists matriculated through the Creative Capital retreat. This nonprofit organization enters a community and spends a long weekend coaching a group of artists and giving them the tools to be successful at running an arts business. Padrón pointed out that “many of the artists we see today having success went through that program. It was rigorous. It was about working really hard. Artists were crying at the end of the workshop because at the end of just three days they walked away with so much real information that they could use.”
So, why aren’t we still doing it?
“Now that you raise the question, I am thinking we need to do it again,” Padrón said.
Indeed, this transition period is an excellent time for the DCCD and the greater arts community of San Antonio to have these discussions. At a time when local arts organizations are wrestling with questions of diversity and inclusion, what better opportunity for the city to review what has worked in the past, and reflect upon what could be better for the future?
Although the DCCD takes pains to get the word out about professional opportunities in the arts in San Antonio, many still feel that there is a crisis of transparency. Many feel that they are on the outside looking in, and this impression doesn’t just break down along racial lines. This is a moment ripe for new conversations.
Debbie Racca-Sittre has been named interim director of the DCCD. Sittre has been with the City of San Antonio since 2001, most recently as assistant director of the Transportation and Capital Improvement Department.
This may not initially strike one as the best fit, but Padrón thinks that Sittre will be fine in the position. “The department is a machine in motion. It is a matter of having someone to come in to oversee and keep things rolling. We have a great staff here.”
The City will conduct a national search for his replacement. This search does not preclude hiring from within the city, but is put in place to ensure a thoroughly vetted nomination process that considers the best available candidates.
“I am excited about what’s coming down the pike. Excited about what the new leadership will do. I am sure the city manager and her team will do their due diligence picking the right person to build upon this platform. There is still a lot of work to do.”
Padrón reflects on challenges with an observation to be heeded by his successor. “Most frustrating, as a New Yorker, is that things take a little bit more time to change here,” he says with a rueful laugh. “Change requires time. It requires nurturing, maintaining vision, not being distracted by outside forces – good or bad. As long as you stay the course and maintain that vision, you will succeed.”
Padrón also finds himself encouraged by new leadership among local organizations. “I was excited when the Southwest School of Art brought Paula Owen. That’s been a long time ago. Now, I’m excited about the leadership at Artpace.”
Veronique Le Melle assumed the position of Executive Director with Artpace back in January.
“She definitely brings a different perspective not only to the community but to Artpace,” he said. “She is an excellent administrator in addition to having a strong curatorial background. I’m very pleased she is here. Katie Luber (at San Antonio Museum of Art) is an incredible force.”
Padrón points out that what these leaders have in common is that they all have done a really good job with enhancing the partnerships outside their walls. They have been able to expand the conversations with other organizations like Centro, San Antonio River Authority and even City Hall.
“They have built bridges,” he said. “I think that helps to expand the conversation on the importance of arts and culture in everything we do.
Padrón insists that he is taking one step at a time.
“San Antonio is my home now, and I plan to stay here with an open mind. … I am optimistic about the things ahead of me. I am certain that I will find something to excite me and challenge me. That’s what I’m looking for.”
More immediately, he is excited about devoting time to his painting and writing. As one might imagine, the day-to-day responsibility of his position with the City hasn’t left Padrón much spare time to pursue his personal artistic vision. His artworks have been exhibited widely and published in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Noticias del Mundo.
Padrón will also continue his advocacy for the arts. In addition to continuing work with Luminaria, he will also continue as a board member for the organizations Texans for the Arts and Americans for the Arts.
“My deep engagement with state and national arts boards reflects the position of San Antonio as a desired component to be much more part of a broader conversation,” Padrón said. “I am confident that the arts are on solid ground, and with the national recognition of DCCD as embracing best practices and stimulating innovative strategies, will continue to move forward.”
In the light of so many successes over the years, it is in a final reflection that Padrón speaks to the impact that he has seen on the lives of artists.
“You have the big things that are transformational, but for me the little things are what makes this job a delight. When you are able to work one on one and see the small transformative things that happen…it changes people’s lives.”
*Top Image: Felix N. Padrón, March 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.