UTSA announced last week an initiative signaling the school's desire to strengthen the Institute of Texan Cultures' connection to the university. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Institute of Texan Cultures has been heralded as an asset to the University of Texas at San Antonio since it came under the university’s oversight in the early 1970s, but in recent years, public visitation has dropped off, drawing fewer than 36,000 paying visitors in fiscal year 2018.

With ITC facing dwindling attendance, an aging infrastructure, out-of-date exhibits, and potential loss in state funding, UTSA announced last week an initiative signaling the school’s desire to strengthen the museum’s connection to the university.

One of the major questions the initiative does not address is whether the ITC will remain in its current location at Hemisfair. At one point, the UT System asked developers to submit proposals for the site. When Taylor Eighmy took over as UTSA’s president, the process was halted to give him time to assess ITC’s future. After more than a year-and-a-half on the job, Eighmy still hasn’t indicated publicly whether he intends to keep ITC in Hemisfair or move it elsewhere.

An assessment report commissioned to evaluate ITC also doesn’t touch on this issue. It does, however, suggest changing ITC’s name to the Museum of Texan Cultures.

The initiative launched last week doesn’t incorporate the report’s renaming suggestion or address a location change. It does, however, indicate plans to create a position for director of academic research to focus on building the relationship between the university and ITC to create “new learning opportunities” for UTSA students.

Under the initiative, the university also will work to align ITC operations with UTSA Libraries so library staff can guide ITC in managing its academic collections. Finally, UTSA plans to develop a new strategic plan with an emphasis on “creating more engaging educational and cultural experiences.”

“I’ve been touched by the ITC by kids going there with their teachers to visit what is in the collection, and there is this important history to the institution,” Eighmy said in an interview Monday. “There is this important experiential learning piece that is there, there is the value of the 40,000 or so items in the collection right now.

“… The consulting report and the group that came together to look at all this … basically said a couple of things, and I agree with them: We’ve lost the ideal connection between what ITC can do about its value to discovery and new knowledge creation.”

The ITC assessment outlines elements that could be included in the strategic plan, including using current political conversations to drive presentations within the museum. The report suggests using the debate about the U.S.-Mexican border to talk about cross-border movements. The assessment also suggests reestablishing the academic research function in the museum, looking into whether ITC truly represents a statewide or local mission, and considering renaming ITC as the Museum of Texan Cultures.

ITC has a storied history in San Antonio. It opened as the Texas State Exhibits Pavilion for HemisFair ’68. The University of Texas System took control over the pavilion after the fair, and UTSA assumed control in 1973. The museum was designated as ITC and as a campus of UTSA in 1986.

In the years since, ITC has curated exhibits focused on the many cultures of Texans. Exhibits focus on the state’s cultural offerings through food, dance, music, stories, religion, artisan skills, and traditions.

Recent history has brought uncertainty to the institute’s place within UTSA. In June 2017, the UT System asked developers to submit proposals to lease the property so ITC could move elsewhere and make room for a commercial and residential project amid Hemisfair’s redevelopment.

Last December, Provost Kimberly Andrews Espy brought in Mac West, the president of Informal Learning Experiences, and Charlie Walter, the director of the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University, to collaborate with Daniel Gelo, the dean of UTSA’s College of Liberal and Fine Arts, on an ITC review. The three spent three days touring the facility and spoke with staff, advisors, and community stakeholders to gather input.

“Museums must change to remain viable and drive visitation, and ITC has changed little in the past decades from the standpoint of visitor experience,” the three wrote in their report.

In terms of attendance, ITC’s was far lower in 2018 than the Mayborn Museum, which is situated in a county with less than 10 percent of the population of San Antonio, but saw close to 100,000 visitors last year.

The report points out that ITC’s festivals – such as the Texas Folklife Festival and Asian Festival – are a major strength of the institute, drawing greater attendance than regular exhibits do throughout the year. But it found that the community is wary of providing more support because of “rumors of funding cuts and closure.”

At the time, Espy told the Rivard Report that the location of ITC provided challenges and opportunities. While ITC is located in Hemisfair, a place that couldn’t “be closer to the Texan identity,” Espy said, it is also far removed from the majority of the student population that takes classes on the university’s main campus in Northwest San Antonio.

“We haven’t really tied [ITC] intimately to the institution,” Eighmy said. “We haven’t worked on that sufficiently. And we haven’t worked on the business model of how to operate it as an entity. Until we have these things worked out further, the idea of what to do with the space doesn’t make sense. But we’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.