The San Antonio Museum of Art Opens Its Doors

San Antonio Museum of Art (San Antonio Museum of Art)
A palace of art in an old brewery welcomes a Vermont Yankee.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE H aving growled for weeks about America’s museums needing to reopen, I felt obliged to my readers and to myself to visit one of the first to do so. Having made no museum visits since March 15, a bread-and-butter issue for me, I was happy to jump into the travel fray and, of course, knew I was hungry to see art. I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art on Thursday. It’s a fine museum filled with wonderful surprises.

Like many civic museums in America, it reflects the distinct character of its collectors and people. American museums spring from local philanthropy. Rarely are they owned and operated by government, as is the case, more or less, in Europe. The local mood guides collection building, the art is often idiosyncratic, and the public’s sense of ownership sacred. Even if the locals don’t go often, they see their museums as defining their hometown as a cultured, privileged place.

The museum isn’t old. San Antonio, like many cities in the Plains and Southwest, had an arts association dating from the 1920s that promoted culture generally but did some collecting, held art fairs, and encouraged artists. The museum itself opened in 1981 in a grand, repurposed brewery.

That’s the first surprise. Beer has always been a beverage of choice for millions, with most cities having breweries designed by architects to extol the magic of barley. It’s an impressive Gothic Revival palace well suited to a museum and, as far as I know, the first old industrial building refitted for art, so San Antonio’s culture czars then we’re doing something radical. It’s by the river walk. The museum has had some nice additions since then and has ample land to grow, but the old brewery invokes the majesty you want from a museum.

It wasn’t a surprise to see how lightly touched the museum’s spaces were, providing as they do a range of new health measures, given the COVID-19 crisis. I’ve said for three months that museums aren’t hospitals but, rather, public, communal spaces easily made safe for everyone consistent with the reality that we take a risk when we get up in the morning.

Directors and staff who still insist they need time to prepare seem a more disturbed lot with each day that passes. Many museums can’t reopen because the government says they can’t. There’s nothing they can do, and I can’t complain about them. Many, however, can and won’t. It’s becoming clear that the leadership in these museums likes the stay-at-home Zoom culture, collecting paychecks jammie-beclad, the public be damned. The directors don’t have to look face-to-face at the whining curators they despise — I see the blessing in that one — and want to keep the state of suspended animation going. Their blood pressure is lower, and that’s fine, I guess, but it’s not why they get the big bucks.

Lockdown is the ultimate safety strategy, and it’s pathetic. It’s a symptom of the ennui and entitlement I see infesting museum culture. As we approach June 30, the end of most museum fiscal years, museum fundraising is at its most frenzied. The PR and development people, I’ll add, are indeed still working, more so than many of the directors and curators, home reading Narnia or writing screeds about how racist Gone with the Wind is.

My advice to those with checkbooks: Don’t give these places money. If a museum can reopen but won’t, send your check someplace else.

Back to San Antonio. A big surprise for me is its antiquities collection. It’s great, taking the bulk of the big, open industrial spaces. Its foundation is the collection built by Gilbert Denman, a San Antonio businessman whose philanthropy stayed local. He supported many causes in town, but his own aesthetic interests were Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. There aren’t masterpieces we’d recognize, mostly because the art isn’t at the Met, but I could teach a course on ancient art using the collection.

Garland sarcophagus with hunting scenes, Roman, circa 130-150. Marble. (Purchased with funds provided by Gilbert Denman.)

I loved an Etruscan tomb lid from the third century b.c. Etruscan art is earthy and lively. A 3-D woman, the tomb’s occupant, props herself up on her elbow, with a tilt of her head perkily telling us, “I’m ready for my close-up.” She would have been painted to seem lifelike. A splendid Roman sarcophagus from around a.d. 150 has garlands, hunting scenes, and cherubs who look like Zero Mostel with a bad case of cellulite. The museum has a good collection of Greek vases, Mesoamerican gold jewelry, and Roman glass, too. Having the Denman collection inspired the museum to build on it through many smart purchases.

Potero Hill, 1976, by Wayne Thiebaud. Oil on canvas. (Purchased with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Brown Foundation, and Sarah Campbell Blafler Foundation.)

The collection isn’t encyclopedic but, rather, animated by collectors like Denman who had focused interests but also savvy directors or trustees who bought brilliantly. A big, brilliant Diebenkorn Ocean Park painting, from 1972, is next to an equally great Thiebaud city scene from 1976, Philip Guston’s Ocean, from 1976, and Helen Frankenthaler’s Eden Revisited, from the late ’70s. The money to buy these things came from a local foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, which supported acquisitions of the work of living artists, back in the day when the NEA was always doing useful, innovative, transformative work. These four paintings alone make the place a destination.

Santa Teresa de Avila, Guatemala, late 17th century. Painted wood, glass, silver. (Museum purchase.)

It makes sense for the museum to have a superb Latin American collection. These galleries are beautifully installed with colonial art and good things from today. A painted wood sculpture of Saint Teresa of Ávila from late-17th-century Guatemala is everything you want in colonial religious art: deep piety, debt to Spanish prototypes, and a fascinating, meticulous obsession with pattern. Alberto Mijangos (1925–2007) lived in San Antonio — his Surrounded by Sound, from 1988, is a fantastic, powerful, totemic red thing. It’s a cross and religious, but it’s tough, direct, and visceral.

Surrounded by Sound, 1988, by Alberto Mijangos. Oil, acrylic, and mixed media. (Gift of Geary and Priscilla Atherton.)

There’s some European and American painting, too. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s The Woodcutters, from the early 1870s, is a big, highly developed preparatory oil study for a mural Puvis never finished. Still, it’s a wonderful example of the kind of French painting the young Picasso adored. It’s wistful, idyllic, monochromatic, and vaguely abstract.

The Woodcutters, 1871-73, by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Oil on canvas. (Bequest of Gilbert Denman)

I look at this and the museum’s great Bouguereau, Asher Durand, Marsden Hartley, Bierstadt, and Patrick Henry Bruce paintings as a mark of eclectic taste. Eclecticism is a mark of many American museums between the coasts. The place also has nice early Republic American portraits, for example, and that’s fine. Someone, sometime, thought that the museum, as the city’s cultural hub, should have a Copley, a Sully, and a Peale because they reflect a Northeast aesthetic or emulate the collections of big museums in New England, New York, and Philadelphia.

This impulse in itself is a historical and cultural moment. A museum in San Antonio really can’t and shouldn’t emulate the MFA in Boston because it’s not in Boston and of Boston. It’s in San Antonio and best when it expresses the strengths of its region. The San Antonio Museum does that, and beautifully. It has built specialties, among them Latin American art, which makes it a national go-to place and stimulates philanthropy from donors outside San Antonio and Texas.

Nelson Rockefeller, for example, made important gifts of Latin American art to the museum, expressing his deep interest in South America dating from the 1930s into the 1950s. He wanted his things to go to a good home where they’d have context and an enthusiastic, appreciative audience. His gifts are treasured and used in San Antonio. In New York, they might well live in a dark vault.

Octofoil Salver with the Arms of Sneyd Impaling Bagot, 1734-1735, by Thomas Walker. Sterling silver. (San Antonio Museum of Art, bequest of John V. Rowan, Jr. 2004.13.152. Photography by Peggy Tenison)

My only quibble about the museum is what it’s done to the John Rowan collection of Irish silver. It’s in storage. Rowan lived in New York but was from a rich San Antonio family, moving as a young man and working as a prominent interior designer. He died in 2002. Rowan assembled the best collection of 18th- and 19th-century Irish silver outside Ireland. I knew it well since I was the silver curator at the Clark Art Institute, one of my many hats there.

Irish silver is inspired by London style since many of the Irish aristocratic silver buyers wanted high London aesthetics, and most had English and Irish titles. Irish silver, though, often has a twist. Chased animals, fruit, and sea critters add a whimsical folk touch, as expert as the craftsmanship might have been. There are some forms, like pierced potato-dish platforms, some grand, that are uniquely Irish. Of course, as a silver curator I wanted Rowan’s things for the Clark, which already owned one of the finest English silver collections in the country. His Irish things would both complement the Clark collection and have a happy home there. Rowan had no children. He was old and sick. He had a target on his forehead.

Rowan’s apartment in New York was packed with silver, with only narrow pathways to move from room to room. I wanted the collection for the Clark. Rowan, though, had no ties to Williams College or the Clark. I deployed every bit of charm in my quiver, a supply limited by my naturally dour Yankee persona, but I have plenty of non-WASP chutzpah and no one ever said I wasn’t direct.

Rowan told me his inherited wealth came from San Antonio and he felt his art should go to San Antonio. I think it’s always best to be direct, especially with people about to die. I told him I thought the silver would live in storage there. There was no audience for rococo Irish silver in San Antonio, an undeniable truth, and the museum had no context for it. Given its staff then, his silver would have no champion. They wouldn’t know what to do with it. He hoped for the best but, alas, the silver did go to San Antonio, and, yes, it’s in storage.

The director of the Clark didn’t help the cause by asking for $1 million in cash in addition to the silver. Directors do this all the time. It drives me crazy. The target is the art, not the money. Rowan was a prospect who’d give art to a place with which, as in the case of the Clark, he had no prior relationship. Money? That went to his family, who didn’t want silver, and to his favorite charities. In this tale of multiple woes, the director’s priority was money for his damned addition.

My suggestion to the museum is to get out the silver and dedicate a big space to it. The San Antonio museum is a destination place already. Make it a destination for Irish silver. People who enjoy craftsmanship and fine living will fall in love with an unexpired trove of Irish silver. For God’s sake, you’re in a brewery. Ask Guinness to pay for the gallery.

The temporary exhibition on view at the museum is lovely. It’s called “Texas Women” and displays 95 works in many media by 19 women working in abstract styles from the 1950s to today. Normally, as you might have surmised, I don’t like shows based on artist gender, race, sexual orientation, astrological sign, or dietary restrictions. Exhibitions of this kind confine the art as well as the artists and inflict on both a victimology framework.

This show presents a group of Texas women who, working in a milieu not known for adventurous styles, assiduously absorbed an avant-garde New York and Paris aesthetic and gave it Texas flair. In most places in America until, say, the 1970s, men did business, but women were often the serious, accomplished local artists. Once we get that cultural paradigm out of the way, we can look at the work with open eyes.

Flying in Outer Space, 1974, by Dorothy Hood. Oil on canvas. (San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by The Brown Foundation, Mrs. George Brown, and Mr. and Mrs. Meredith Long. 76.172. Photography by Peggy Tenison.)

An artist such as Toni LaSelle (1901–2002) taught art at Texas Woman’s University for 44 years and developed a style drawn from Hans Hofmann. She’s as good as the Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint, ruthlessly worshiped by the New York art elite today, but LaSelle wasn’t hearing voices in her head. I loved the big, powerful landscapes of rough Texas terrain by Dorothy Hood (1918–2000). Flying in Outer Space, from 1974, is a bird’s-eye view of open, craggy Texas space, fields and rocky hills, set at night. Catherine Lee (b. 1950) grew up in the Texas panhandle. Her “sense of nothingness” — flat plains with muted color — led to beautiful grid paintings. The collages by Constance Lowe (b. 1951) are based on NASA aerial photographs, where wide, open spaces become geometric shapes. The big abstract paintings of Lorraine Tady (b. 1967) have a surprising desert palette of orange, yellow, and blue.

Octagon Vibration Series, Frequency Piccadilly Circus, 2019, by Lorraine Tady. UV ink on canvas. (Courtesy of the artist and Barry Whistler Gallery. Photography by Stephanie DeLay and Site 131)

The artists in the show were looking closely at Helen Frankenthaler, Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, and other women. Their work, though, isn’t derivative. Most are abstract landscapes, which is fine since the Texas landscape is unique. The wall texts are mostly artist statements, which makes me happy. There’s little curatorial interference. The art is beautifully arranged. I adored the show for many reasons, but first among them was the sense of place it gave me. It’s the first gallery I explored, and I felt I was seeing an authentic Texas aesthetic.

The gallery interpretation in the permanent collection is clear and unobtrusive. It’s free of jargon and pushy polemics — a gigantic blessing. The museum is not small, but the galleries, including the wings, flow as an organic whole. I didn’t study the museum’s website before I visited. I wanted to be surprised. Every gallery provided an exquisite treat, often more than one, and the art evoked a warm, distinctly San Antonio welcome.

I’ve read and heard so much piffle about all the time and deliberation involved in planning to reopen, as if it were of moon-launch magnitude. It was clear to me in March, when we knew we weren’t dealing with the Black Death, that new museum sanitation protocols were both obvious and simple. My visit to San Antonio confirmed this.

There were new hand-sanitizer dispensers throughout the museum and sneeze guards installed at the visitor-service desks. Vinyl floor markers reminded us to keep six feet away from the closest animal, mineral, or vegetable, with little koala-bear paws as if we were in kindergarten. Left unsaid is the origin of the six-feet rule in public-health bureaucratic whimsy. It has no basis in science, and the government is desperate for a face-saving way to scuttle it since it kills the restaurant and theater business.

There’s a cap on visitorship, but summer in San Antonio is a slow season for museums. The new rules suggest frequent hand-washing — and, for goodness’ sake, don’t cough on anyone. This is common sense. Rules of this kind bear repetition and enforcement in our schools, but, alas, our leaders are too incompetent to divine a way to bring kids back to class.

Staff is masked, and it’s suggested visitors wear masks, too, which I did, sporting my new “Don’t Tread on Me” version. I haven’t found a “Remember the Alamo” design yet, but I’m keen to get one.

The San Antonio Museum took the reasonable steps it should. Its staff is clearly well trained, for starters. They responded to the health crisis in the best way: Get the job done, get on with it, and get people back in.

That’s what it takes to reopen galleries to the public. The San Antonio Museum is neither boutique-size nor mammoth. Planning, acquiring, and installing what it needed to reopen is a tiny job. Whatever back-of-house work needs doing, such as reconfiguring offices, is not the concern of the public. What concerns the public is the availability of art and culture as paths to hope, refreshment, thought, pleasure, and conciliation. That availability justifies the tax-exempt status of museums and the philanthropy that runs them.

Texans are can-do people and proud of their cultural treasures. They see culture as part of their civic identity. I’m not surprised, then, that Texas’s museums opened first. That said, leadership is important, too. Gary Tinterow is the director at the Houston Museum of Fine Art. He was the longtime curator of French painting at the Met, which I suppose is a high peak in the American museum mountain range.

A curator at the Met, in a job so important, has to respect the element of public service in the Met’s profile. A “pillar of culture” doesn’t mean a private club. These curators take their duty to educate seriously, and you can’t educate if your doors are shut. I think Tinterow brought that package of beliefs to Houston.

Emily Sano is the acting director at the San Antonio Museum. She is an old-line, veteran museum director best known for transforming the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. When she took it over, I believe in the early 1990s, the place was a snake pit, nearly broke, and nearly homeless. Through no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools leadership, she made it a splendid, thriving museum. Of course, now it’s going Jonestown as its dead founder, Avery Brundage, was just judged guilty as a prop in systemic racism. He’s been sentenced to former personhood, his statue in front of the building graffitied, decapitated, and sent to a smelter fired, no doubt, by sustainable grasses and goose droppings and definitely not fossil fuels.

Among Sano’s many virtues is an understanding, indeed, an inalienable assumption, that museums are public, communal spaces. If San Antonio were hit by a tsunami, she’d try to keep her museum open.

The museum is great. I know San Antonio has a vibrant arts scene, but I’m saving that for my next visit.

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