Recent years have not been kind to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures, which was established more than 50 years ago to chronicle the multicultural background of the state and its people.
The institute has operated at a deficit for several years, relying on reserve funds to get by. Its signature event, the Texas Folklife Festival, also lost money. The coronavirus pandemic, which forced the facility to close in mid-March, only worsened the ITC’s already grim financial outlook and uncertain future with belt-tightening the order of the day at UTSA.
University officials doubt the museum will open for in-person events before the end of fiscal year 2021, impacting revenue from ticket sales. As a result, UTSA slashed the ITC’s expenses by $800,000, roughly half the prior year’s core budget, and laid off 20 employees last week, including the institute’s executive director and the person in charge of organizing the signature festival.
The cuts left a staff of six full-time positions dedicated to the ITC. The university plans to add six new roles tasked in part with expanding the museum’s mission online. UTSA will also move its art collection and three positions associated with it under the ITC.
This new team of 15 will have to contend with a number of challenges in the coming years: an aging building with substantial maintenance costs, no anticipated events or in-person exhibitions, and a lack of enthusiasm from the general public.
“Strategic reserves [were] used for operations,” said Dean Hendrix, UTSA’s Dean of Libraries who oversees the ITC. “That’s not sustainable. … There was no plan to get sustainable, there was no plan to strategically invest that money.”
The institute’s distinctive building presents its own challenges; Hendrix estimated the facility, which is more than 50 years old, has between $17 million and $20 million in deferred maintenance costs. A few years ago, UT System regents asked developers to submit bids to redevelop the property where ITC sits, on a busy corner of downtown in Hemisfair. President Taylor Eighmy halted the process to assess the ITC’s future, but has not since publicly stated whether he would keep ITC at its current location.
The uncertainty facing the ITC and its cherished place in San Antonio’s history was evident Sunday during a videoconference Hendrix hosted with supporters of the museum, including its advisory board. During a call that turned contentious at times, Hendrix said a year with no anticipated exhibitions or festivals would allow the institute to sit back and strategize about its future in San Antonio.
But several members of the community who participated in the videoconference said they were dissatisfied with recent decisions made at the ITC. They said they learned of layoffs from staff members who lost their jobs or from news reports.
Hendrix said privacy concerns for the employees meant UTSA had to limit who knew about the layoffs. He also explained that the ITC’s fiduciary responsibility was to the university’s administration and the UT System Board of Regents to balance the budget.
Others said they were frustrated over what they viewed as a dismantling of important parts of the ITC, emphasizing the role the institute has played since it opened as the Texas State Exhibits Pavilion for HemisFair ’68. The UT System took control over the pavilion after the fair. UTSA took control in 1973, and in 1986 the ITC became an official campus of UTSA.
“It ended up at UTSA because the Legislature decided that it could no longer put it as a separate item [on its budget] … and the only place we could save it was to put it under the University of Texas at San Antonio,” said former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who participated in the call as an interested citizen. “It has been a treasure and it is a place of memories. It is a special place … because it told the stories that weren’t allowed to be told by [state] curriculum.”
For example, ITC exhibitions on Black Texans played an educational role at a time when state curriculum didn’t include such topics in regular courses.
Hendrix said he hoped the ITC would continue playing this role in the future, representing Texans of all identities. He denied rumors that UTSA was preparing to shutter the institute, saying he wanted to prepare for the museum’s next five decades by chronicling current social movements like Black Lives Matter or local history not taught elsewhere.
To do that, Hendrix said the ITC would have to implement some significant changes, which would include a pivot to serving audiences digitally.
Moving the museum online
Of the six new positions to be added, four have a strong emphasis on technology. On the Sunday call, Hendrix outlined plans for the museum’s growing digital emphasis, saying he wants to see the institute catalog exhibitions online to extend their shelf life.
The majority of visitors in fiscal year 2018, the most recent year with data available, came to the ITC for field trips or festivals, with just 15 percent of people visiting because an exhibit was updated, Hendrix said.
“The current operational model is exclusively brick-and-mortar,” Hendrix said. “As we know from your Sears and JC Penneys of the world, and the Amazons of the world, that’s incredibly expensive and doesn’t scale.”
Investing more in an online presence would also allow the institute to work with local partners to tell San Antonio’s history. He described work UTSA is already doing on a Mexican American Civil Rights digital portal with partners such as Our Lady of the Lake University.
Hendrix assured the community members that physical exhibits would endure, but wouldn’t remain the only area of focus and would have to have a strong tie to Texas identities.
“My philosophy is always to constantly assess so you’re always staying ahead,” Hendrix said in an interview with the Rivard Report on Monday. “I want to bring that to the ITC so we’re not doing 12 exhibits a year, we’re doing two or three that are very immersive.”
Festivals will also remain part of the ITC’s future, but with no staff remaining specifically devoted to planning the large events, UTSA would potentially hire consultants or outside planners to help carry out the plans, Hendrix said. He emphasized that in the future, festivals cannot run a deficit.
More than a place?
To have festivals or exhibitions to visit in person, the ITC must have a physical location, but many wonder whether downtown will be its permanent home.
On the Sunday call, Rosie Castro, a community activist who is the mother of Julián and Joaquin Castro, said she worried that the budget cuts might be just a step ahead of UTSA relocating the ITC from Hemisfair. Castro is not a member of the advisory board.
“Is this really about taking over the damn building to build a damn baseball stadium? Is that what we’re talking about here?” Castro questioned. “At the state level, maybe they never wanted this institute, but it’s there now and I’ll be damned if it’s going to go anywhere, especially for some unuseful thing. …The place is as important as the mission.”
When the UT System regents asked developers in 2017 to submit proposals to redevelop the ITC’s property, many worried the ITC wouldn’t be appreciated for its role in communicating Texas history. While Eighmy halted the bidding process to reassess the institute’s future, he hasn’t publicly committed to keeping it at its current downtown location.
Hendrix estimated the cost of deferred maintenance on the facility was somewhere between $17 million and $20 million.
This financial consideration is sure to be part of the discussion on the ITC’s future and how it could remain financially viable. Hendrix said he didn’t have the power to make any decision on its location.
Any move would be recommended by the university’s president and approved by UT System regents, university spokesman Joe Izbrand said Monday. The university is not focused on the ITC’s location right now, but on the academic mission of the institute, he added.
Hendrix said he plans to work with the board of community advisors and other supporters to form a strategic plan that will outline the ITC’s future goals and priorities. The university also plans to initiate a community outreach plan to gather input from the wider San Antonio community, Izbrand said.