Friday, April 29, 2005

I Rest My Case for the Arts

It is easy to provoke a debate about the unlikely prospect of San Antonio becoming an NFL powerhouse. But mention the word “Art” and the silence is deafening. Football fans disingenuously tout the economic benefits of major league sports to the community, when their real concern is getting a taxpayer subsidy for their hobby. Name one community that has successfully built its entire economic base around Football. Now consider the economic impact of the Arts on cities like Paris, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, Athens, Cairo, St. Petersburg, Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and, perhaps most relevant to San Antonio, Santa Fe. Come on, where would you rather spend your next vacation, Tampa Bay or Venice?

The City of New York has over sixty Art museums in a geographic area smaller than the zone inside Loop 410. Their premier Art museum venue is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which single-handedly attracts over 2,000,000 well-healed tourists a year to the Big Apple. Would anyone seriously suggest that 2,000,000 people a year travel to NYC to see a Jets game? The combined draw of the dozens of its excellent museums has made it the cultural capital of the world. Their combined economic impact dwarfs the revenue brought into the City’s coffers through sports by orders of magnitude.

Santa Fe’s commitment to the Arts is unequivocal and is solely responsible for putting an out of the way little mission town on the map. There are more Art dealers in Santa Fe than auto mechanics. More revenue is generated to their economy through the sale of oil paintings alone than through the combined efforts of all the automobile dealers within a hundred miles of town. The boom to the local economy has been so great over the last twenty years that you now practically have to be a millionaire to afford a house in Santa Fe. The community has literally been overrun with wealthy Californians fleeing the crass materialism of LA to move to Santa Fe’s culturally rich environment.

For over two hundred years San Antonio was the cultural capital of the Southwest. It has been historically to Dallas and Houston what Santa Fe is to Los Angeles. What happened? How did we become a cultural backwater to these mammon centers? Twenty years ago our museums put theirs to shame. The Dallas Museum of Art is still a poser’s joke. The Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth has a multi-billion dollar endowment, so like the Met it would be hard to catch. But since it only collects masterpieces, its collection is limited and not really designed for educational purposes. The de Menil in Houston is comparable to our McNay, but not significantly better. Until very recently, the San Antonio Museum of Art could easily hold its own against the Houston Museum of Fine Art.

When the Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. collections came to SAMA in the mid-eighties they were the most important collections of Classical antiquity and Egyptian artifacts to come to any museum in the world in over fifty years. The Metropolitan was so impressed with the acquisition that they hired away SAMA’s antiquities curator in the hopes that he could make rain for them like this. SAMA already had the Nelson Rockefeller Collection of Latin American Folk Art at the time, which they later used to draw Rockefeller funds for building the Nelson Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art. So why are we not now the undisputed Cultural Capital of Texas? Simple. We sat on our hands, rested on our Folk Art laurels and confused pouring concrete with building infrastructure. The San Antonio Museum of Art is about to open its third new wing in fifteen years, but has not added a single staff member, new collection or penny of endowment over the same period.

After the construction of the Latin American Art Center nothing was done to actually make it a center of anything. There are no scholars using it as a resource center. The office space that was supposed to be dedicated to the expansion, study, publication and promotion of its collections was turned into storage space and nothing was done to build its collections. Meanwhile the prices of Spanish Colonial paintings went from $30,000 a piece to $3,000,000 and a critical window of opportunity closed. SAMA hired an inexperienced Developmenet Officer to raise funds, and then paid that person less than $30,000 per year. Would you hire an emaciated chef? Local Art patrons did not want to be upstaged by Houstonian money and have their local influence compromised, so nobody on the staff at SAMA felt free to search outside of town for monetary and Art resources, lest they offend their birds in the hand. These birds demanded the museum spend large amounts of its scarce resources constantly throwing them parties in which precious few funds were raised, but an exclusive good time was had by all the aristocrats in attendance. In the mean time, these dilatants proceeded to hound the professionals mercilessly and tell them how to do their jobs while squeezing their nickels so tight the buffalos bellowed. The San Antonio Museum of Art has just announced its decision to promote its Latin American Art Curator, Marion Oettinger, to the Director's post. This is the same individual who spent the last twenty years fiddling as SAMA burned. But as a sycophant his talents are unsurpassed, so his tenure is likely to be eternal.

A museum is not simply a warehouse for a dragon’s horde. It is an educational institution that is supposed to serve the entire community, not just the vanity of its patrons. By way of comparison, the Denver Museum of Art has some 20,000 works in its collections, while SAMA has over 50,000 of finer quality. Denver has over 30 curators on staff and 33 educators. SAMA has 2 curators and 1 ½ people working in the education department. Conversely, SAMA has over 70 members on its Board of Trustees, most of who are in arrears on their dues. Talk about too many chiefs and not enough Indians. This has the effect of neutralizing the professional staff and empowering the aristocrats to maintain the institution as their personal caprice rather than a civic asset. While they danced, Houston rocked.

Houston’s Fine Art Museum hired a rock star director, rather than a “second rate” one, for over $2,000,000 per year, but he has proceeded to earn his keep. He has launched a $60,000,000 fund raising campaign and is ahead of schedule. He is determined to make Houston and not San Antonio, the Latin American Art center of the universe. It appears he is going to succeed. In the meantime San Antonio is getting left in the dust due to our own pettiness, lethargy, incompetence and miserliness. Opportunities like this come along once in a century and if you miss them it’s impossible to catch up later.

When even a city’s Art patrons view the Arts as an expense rather than an asset, why should the citizens feel any differently? Despite years of gross mismanagement, San Antonio’s museums still contain collections that rival or surpass any within a thousand miles of here. San Antonio very well could and should be the Cultural Capital of Texas. If, like Santa Fe, we were willing to make the commitment, money and tourism would come rolling into the local economy. Newsflash folks…Art tourists spend a lot more money than Sea World tourists. They are also less fickle than sports fans. They will build second homes in your community and spend money for months at a time rather than a weekend. Not to mention the fact that the Denver Museum employs more people and does more for the intellectual health of the community than the combined forces of the Nuggets and the Broncos put together.

Supporting the Arts does not simply mean paying too much money for the mediocre works of your friends, who would have had difficulty selling them on an open market without a taxpayer subsidy. Civic support for the Arts means committing to a city’s long term Arts infrastructure. Infrastructure should not be interpreted as simply concrete. It means hiring competent professional staff and retaining them. It means building healthy programs and endowments that serve an entire community, not just the egos of its wealthiest members. It means seeing that every student in town is at some point taken downtown to the museums on busses or mule back, if that’s what it takes, to experience the edification that exposure to real fine Art provides. It means firing Philistine principals that think Art is not important. It means incorporating Art into the Mathematics, History, Social Studies, Science and Literature curriculums in grades K-12. It means promoting your institutions world-wide. It means putting your money where you mouth is. It means realizing that Art is the protein of a city’s intellectual diet, not just desert. It means acknowledging that a city’s intellectual health is critical to creating economic growth.

With Houston’s museum director raising over $50,000,000 under his own horsepower, it is highly likely that when he goes to City Hall to get the final $2,000,000, they will see the self-evident value of the Arts, and Houston’s taxpayers will be more than willing to oblige. In fact their meager investment will look like a real bargain when they compare it to the cost of a new Astrodome for the Texans.


At 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new Smithsonian "annex"? in Market Square doesn't get too much ink anymore but I think it's stalled and should get more attention.

At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Euclid said...

Having been to Santa Fe on Sunday before the November elections, and having walked throught the town square and attended mass at St. Francis Cathedral, I can only second the accolades about Santa Fe's arts community. The items at Market Square, while good, pale in comparison to Santa Fe's availability and quality.

If only San Antonio could approach this type of endeavor in the short term, (i.e., read "next mayor's term"), San Antonio would then be thinking about becoming a "world class city".

Which of our mayoral candidates is thinking about art in terms of Santa Fe-like?

my 2 cents


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